I could really use a sign right about now
There's a gloom in my house right now. A family friend in our ward passed away this past week after a short but vigorous battle with cancer. He leaves behind an amazing family with kids ages Primary through missionary. Our heart breaks for his wonderful family and will miss the cheery smile and spirit he always brought into the room. He was the kind of guy that always made you feel like you were important when you talked to him. As another ward member said when they heard of his death, "Heaven just leveled up."
This blow is only the most recent of a series of heavy problems that have hit some of our friends and relatives (I wrote about that long train of bad news in a post last year). And when these trials come, when we have to face the "reality of mortality," it can be hard to look forward to the future with faith. It's scary. Sinister doubts begin to flood our minds: what if there really is no life after this? What if death is really the end? What if the atheists are right and those whisperings of the Spirit are just mental inventions we use to avoid the reality of death?
Every believer struggles with these questions from time to time. I like to think I have a pretty strong testimony. But still, those doubts haunt me. When I feel the tug of doubt about God's existence, I try to respond cheerfully, "I may not have a perfect knowledge or tons of evidence right now, but I believe it with all my heart, and I will stake anything and everything on that." Still, part of me wants to ask God, "Why do we have to wander around in the dark? Why can't you just tell us all beyond a shadow of a doubt that you're there? One little, indisputable sign that death is not the end, and we will all be OK. We will have enough perspective to be permanently at peace. If we are your children, don't we at least deserve that much?"
And then you read the scriptures and you hear of all these prophets who do see such things. Angels, visions, voices from heaven, miraculous instant healings, etc. And you start to think "why doesn't that happen to me? Why are such things reserved only for prophets?" We believe, we study, we pray, and trust in faith that one day we will know. And we try to be content with the quiet assurance that comes from subtle spiritual moments. But there's always part of us that wants something more. Something more tangible. Something more convincing. Something that would give us the bold, unwavering knowledge the prophets and apostles must have. Something more than just Scriptures, prayer, and faith. Maybe something maybe a bit louder and easier to hear than quiet whispers from the still, small voice for a change.
Whenever I find myself wishing for "more," I have to remind myself of Alma the Younger. He did receive "more." He was visited by an angel of God who spoke to him, shook the ground, and shocked him into a coma. He saw a vision of "God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels." He received more angelic visitations during the course of ministry. He was delivered from prison by an earthquake, healed a dying man with one breath, was strengthened in battle by the Lord against the leader of the Lamanites, received revelation about his enemies' military actions, struck a man dumb, and more. Seems like he had a lot of signs, right? True, what he says forms the basis of his testimony:
Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety?
Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me.
How does he know? Not because of his angelic visitation. Not because of his vision of God. Not because he had a dramatic, amazing spiritual experience. Alma had fasted and prayed for a long time and received a witness from the still, small voice of the Holy Ghost. All those angels and visions and miracles? Nice, but not part of his testimony. Joseph Fielding Smith taught:
When a man has the manifestation from the Holy Ghost, it leaves an indelible impression on his soul, one that is not easily erased. It is Spirit speaking to spirit, and it comes with convincing force. A manifestation of an angel, or even of the Son of God himself, would impress the eye and mind, and eventually become dimmed, but the impressions of the Holy Ghost sink deeper into the soul and are more difficult to erase.
Wow. So Jesus Christ could appear to you today in a glorious vision and let you touch the nail prints in His hands, but ultimately it is the still, small voice of the Spirit that comes from study and prayer that will form the basis of our testimony. Such experiences confirm existing faith, but they do not build new faith. In fact, if we're not careful, we can let such signs become distractions from what's important. Elder Bednar counseled:
We as members of the Church tend to emphasize marvelous and dramatic spiritual manifestations so much that we may fail to appreciate and may even overlook the customary pattern by which the Holy Ghost accomplishes His work. The very "simpleness of the way" (1 Nephi 17:41) of receiving small and incremental spiritual impressions that over time and in totality constitute a desired answer or the direction we need may cause us to look "beyond the mark"(Jacob 4:14).
I have talked with many individuals who question the strength of their personal testimony and underestimate their spiritual capacity because they do not receive frequent, miraculous, or strong impressions. Perhaps as we consider the experiences of Joseph in the Sacred Grove, of Saul on the road to Damascus, and of Alma the Younger, we come to believe something is wrong with or lacking in us if we fall short in our lives of these well-known and spiritually striking examples. If you have had similar thoughts or doubts, please know that you are quite normal."
My heart aches for the newly widowed sister and her newly fatherless children. Their grief is profound. We grieve with them. I'm sure that great sister wouldn't mind a short angelic visitation right about now. But I know her testimony is strong and vibrant enough to carry her through. She has dedicated her life to the Gospel of the Savior who she is relying on to bring her husband back to her at the resurrection day. And that is what is making all the difference in her life right now.
I said in my post at the beginning of the year that "it hurts to see so many around us are passing through extremely difficult situations. And in life, everyone gets a turn to pass through their own difficult trials, tailor-made to suit each individual, so I know it will be my turn to endure some soon enough."
And if I'm to be strong enough when that day comes for me, I need to prepare now. I'm studying, I'm praying, and I'm building my testimony "line upon line." It's not dramatic. It's not a process that is going to make a book deal. But it was enough for Alma. It is enough for that brokenhearted sister. So I guess it can be enough for me when my turn comes, too.