Taking advantage of trials
I have a confession to make. On my mission, I didn't agree with a certain part of the missionary manual. But before you stone me for heresy, hear me out, and I'll tell you how that changed.
Chapter 9 of Preach My Gospel is dedicated to helping missionaries find people to teach. There are a bunch of great ideas in there– some more effective than others– but one of the ideas that kind of made me feel a bit queasy was the counsel to "encourage [members] to visit acquaintances who have recently experienced a life-changing event (birth, death in the family, marriage, or recent move)" and to "work with the bishop and the ward council to identify and contact people who have recently had a baby, moved to the area, or experienced a death in the family."
I guess it just didn't sit right with me that we would pounce on people like that. I dunno, I guess it seemed a little like taking advantage of people in their most vulnerable moments. Plus, putting myself in their shoes, I imagined I would be less receptive when I feel like my life is turned upside down. If I were planning funerals, moving into a new place, or suffering through those first "zombie months" as a new parent, I would feel somewhat betrayed being tossed to the missionaries like that. Almost as if my friend was just waiting for the right moment to kick me when I'm down.
I mean, it's just wrong to get hopeful and excited when someone passes through a stressful time in their lives because maybe you can invite them to hear the missionaries, right?
Try telling that to these three Book of Mormon servants of God:
Alma the Younger
When preaching to the Zoramites, Alm the Younger came across one group who were:
cast out of the synagogues because of the coarseness of their apparel– Therefore they were not permitted to enter into their synagogues to worship God, being esteemed as filthiness; therefore they were poor; yea, they were esteemed by their brethren as dross; therefore they were poor as to things of the world
Do we read of Alma's broken, sympathetic heart? Nope. He rejoiced when he saw them in their poverty. And then he told them that they should be happy about their problems, too:
And now when Alma heard this, he turned him about, his face immediately towards him, and he beheld with great joy… and said unto them: I behold that ye are lowly in heart; and if so, blessed are ye… it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues."
– Alma 32
While watering the king's flocks at the waters of Sebus, the sheep were stolen by bandits. Ammon's Lamanite co-workers started crying because they assumed the king was going to kill them (which, given his track record, was pretty likely). You would think that Ammon, being the charitable, wonderful servant of God that he was, would experience a swollen ache in his heart over the distress of those he was called to minister to.
You would think that. But pity wasn't what made his heart swell:
Now when Ammon saw this his heart was swollen within him with joy.
Captain Mormon didn't beat around the bush when describing how awful the Nephites' last few years were:
There was blood and carnage spread throughout all the face of the land… it was one complete revolution throughout all the face of the land… no man could keep that which was his own, for the thieves, and the robbers, and the murderers, and the magic art, and the witchcraft which was in the land.
Pretty awful stuff. The Nephites cried and mourned their state. Again, as a charitable Christian leader, shouldn't Mormon have been down there in their sorrows with them? But again, his response is almost gleeful:
And it came to pass that when I, Mormon, saw their lamentation and their mourning and their sorrow before the Lord, my heart did begin to rejoice within me.
Yes, we should rejoice in and take advantage of trials
Were these great servants of God sadists? Were they just exploiting peoples' trials to further their own religious agenda? Of course not. They had the faith to take advantage of the trials God put in place for the growth of those they served.
Alma didn't revel in the destitution of the Zoramites. He taught them:
Because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved.
Ammon surely felt sympathy for his fellow-servants who feared their imminent death. After all, just a few years before, Ammon had been without God in the world and knew what it felt like to think that there was nothing after this life. But his heart was swollen with joy because of his excitement to bless the lives of those he loved:
Said he, I will show forth my power unto these my fellow-servants, or the power which is in me, in restoring these flocks unto the king, that I may win the hearts of these my fellow-servants, that I may lead them to believe in my words.
Captain Mormon's joy in his people's afflictions came because he loved them and hoped that they would lift themselves out of those afflictions:
My heart did begin to rejoice within me, knowing the mercies and the long-suffering of the Lord, therefore supposing that he would be merciful unto them that they would again become a righteous people.
These great men of God took heart when they saw the afflictions of those they were called to minister to because they knew that these were opportunities from God– invitations to enter into His rest and find eternal joy they could not have imagined. As heartbreaking as their trials were, it simply paled in comparison with the glorious opportunities that awaited them. No wonder these prophets of God were rejoicing.
A lesson from my a friend
This principle hit us hard several years ago. A four-year-old boy in our branch suffered a severe complication during a heart surgery. The family panicked. It appeared likely the little boy would die from the complications. The boy's family were all less-active except his grandfather, who was not a member. When it appeared the boy was not going to survive, the grandfather walked to the chapel of the hospital and poured out his heart to God, asking Him to spare the life of his little grandson and promising that he would finally listen to the missionaries. While the grandfather was praying in the chapel, the branch president arrived and gave the boy a priesthood blessing. Everything went swimmingly from that moment on, and the boy was running up and down the pews at Church a few weeks later. The grandfather had told no one about his private promise to God, but he kept good on his word. He accepted the Gospel with all his heart. His faith was converted. Maybe at firstr, he was just keeping a promise. But soon, it matured into a strong, self-sufficient testimony. His family continued to drift in and out of activity, but he remained firm, serving in many callings and blessing many lives.
Are we happy that little boy and his family had to suffer like that? Of course not. But looking back on the testimony and the energy that wonderful man brought to our branch, we are grateful that Heavenly Father gave him just the nudge he needed to awaken him to the blessings of the Gospel.
So, I guess I get to call my younger, missionary self to repentance. When those around us experience a major life event, we should jump to extend an invitation to hear the Gospel. No trial is an accident– they all come from God. Trials are the difficult-to-open wrapping paper on some of God's choicest gifts– even the gift of salvation itself. Our non-member friends, our less-active brothers and sisters, and those we are called to minister to may not be able to see that right away. But if our eyes are open and we are trying to minister as Christ did, we can see that. And we can rejoice in the opportunity to help them grow and learn, and to recognize their trials as an opportunity to experience the comfort of the Gospel (or to experience it more fully). We can and should invite them to make whatever changes they need to make in their lives to enjoy that peace.
Be bold. But don't be a jerk.
But don't forget: those invitations need to be extended with perfect love, and at the right time. I'm advocating that it can certainly be appropriate to talk to your neighbor about the Gospel when their mom dies. But not while they're loading her into the ambulance or in the middle of the funeral. Also, your invitation is even more unlikely to be received if you've been avoiding your neighbor for the past 5 years and haven't even said hi before that. What's the key to making your invitation not seem like you're just taking advantage of the situation? It's called "don't just be taking advantage of the situation."
If converting the Lamanites were Ammon's only goal, it would have been a lot easier if he had taken up that offer to be the son-in-law to the king. Or take up the offer from that king's father to control half the entire Lamanite land. But Ammon wasn't just fishing for converts. His desire was "to dwell among this people for a time; yea, and perhaps until the day I die." No hidden agenda. No strings attached. In fact, in the story above, even though he got excited at the opportunity to teach the Gospel, he first addressed the immediate problem, first speaking words of comfort to his terrified coworkers, cheering them up, and then doing his best to disarm the crisis (see what I did there).
If we are inviting people in the midst of major life challenges to hear the Gospel, but aren't also offering to help in any way we can, we are inviting them to accept and practice a faith that we have not really accepted or practiced ourselves. We are no longer home or visiting "teachers." We are "ministers." Our responsibilities to our fellow men go so much further than a monthly lesson from the Ensign or an invitation to talk to the missionaries. We are to learn from the Spirit how to reach out and change lives and hearts. And that's not going to happen if our heart is not in the right place.
Practice what you preach
Finally, this principle of seeing trials as opportunities doesn't just apply to the other children of Heavenly Father that we're called to serve. It applies to us, too. When trials and changes come our way, we also need to keep them in perspective. As Elder Klebingat counseled:
Accept trials, setbacks, and "surprises" as part of your mortal experience. Remember that you are here to be proved and tested, "to see if [you] will do all things whatsoever the Lord [your] God shall command [you]" (Abraham 3:25)– and may I just add, "under all circumstances." Millions of your brothers and sisters have been or are being thus tested, so why would you be exempt? Some trials come through your own disobedience or negligence. Other trials come because of the negligence of others or simply because this is a fallen world. When these trials come, the adversary’s minions begin broadcasting that you did something wrong, that this is a punishment, a sign that Heavenly Father does not love you. Ignore that! Instead, try to force a smile, gaze heavenward, and say, "I understand, Lord. I know what this is. A time to prove myself, isn’t it?" Then partner with Him to endure well to the end. Spiritual confidence increases when you accept that "often trials and tribulations are allowed to come into [your life] because of what [you] are doing right."