Saturday, February 19, 2011

Not As the World Giveth

One of my callings is teaching the youth (12-13-year-old) Sunday School class. During ward conference, the Stake Presidency teaches all the youth during second hour and I have the pleasure of sitting in and listening. Usually a week or two prior to conference, the Stake leaders have the youth submit questions that they would like to have answered, and the Stake Presidency prioritizes the questions and addresses as many as time will permit.

One of the questions at the last conference a few weeks ago was, "Does living the Gospel guarantee a happy life?" At first the leaders bounced the question back and forth amongst themselves, trying to decide who would answer. One of them laughed lightly and said, "Define 'happy'." That seemed an honest and appropriate beginning of a response.

My instinctual response is to say, "Yes, absolutely, so long as you don't depend on 'easy' to be 'happy'." Several people started appearing in my mind: I thought of my Grandma, and the weariness she's experiencing; I thought of a dear friend who has a profoundly autistic daughter, as well as four other children who need her time, attention and energy, and has recently struggled with health challenges of her own on top of everything else; I thought of the friend who went from an abusive and broken childhood to make a happy marriage and motherhood, only to be plagued by an aggressive cancer and its after-effects; and of course there was the loved one who has faced a great deal many trials while also shouldering the burden of being judged and somewhat ostracized by her own family for making the right decisions and being true to her testimony.

All these individuals have been obedient to the commandments, diligent in their callings, amazing, devoted wives and mothers and sincere, charitable friends. They are all very, very good people who have nevertheless had to walk some stony paths. They have all had to carry heavy burdens over which they had little to no control, and their lives have had much difficulty and a lot of tears here and there. But every one of them is a happy person. Every one of them makes me happy. They are, more often than not, at peace with themselves, their families, their lives, and the world around them.

Just before the Savior laid down his life, he spoke to his apostles about comfort. They surely did not fully understand yet the magnitude of what was about to happen--the Atonement, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension--or the trials that were to follow. The Lord knew that they would be persecuted, left nearly alone at times, be asked to travel far from home and family, and live through many difficult and temperance-testing circumstances. And He knew that they would have to do it all without Him at their side in the same way that He had been during his mortal ministry. "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you," He told them, but with a very important clarification: "not as the world giveth, give I unto you." The world understands personal peace to mean a lack of conflict or difficulty--there is an ease of circumstances implied in peace as it is traditionally understood in the world. This is not the peace of which the Savior spoke. He spoke of the peace of that comes through his Atonement, the peace brought by the presence of the Holy Ghost; a peace that looks forward to a celestial rest, where conflicts do indeed cease, but that seizes a bit of that peace here and now, in the midst of conflicts we cannot necessarily resolve, hardships that can't necessarily be lifted, outward circumstances that we can do little to change.

The Savior lovingly admonished his apostles to "Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." This is where the happiness lies. Our hearts can be light, knowing that He has "overcome the world". Too often we forget the temporary nature of the challenges we face, and indeed the temporary nature of life itself, and so we make unwise or momentarily satisfying decisions that appear easier or more desirable than striving to live the commandments that the Lord has set forth. Or sometimes in our short-sightedness, we feel that we are being unduly tried after laboring so hard to do the right thing. Without fail, the times we feel alone are the times when we forgot to ask for Him to give us that peace, or we have asked half-heartedly because we know that's what we're supposed to ask for, when in fact what we actually mean is, "Make the hard stuff go away." Too many of us equate "having fun" with being happy or having true joy. The fact is we can have a lot of temporary "fun" while lacking real joy in our lives, and we can have real joy even when life is anything but "fun".

The Lord has paid too steep a price for the agency of man to interfere with it, and that means that no matter how hard we try to be obedient, we will sometimes suffer adverse consequences of others using their agency as they so choose, or simply the happenstance of life. Certainly the Lord can help us to change our circumstances to escape burdens at times, but often there are things we simply must endure. The Lord promised, "I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever. . .I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you." The peace that the companionship of the Spirit brings is not readily describable; I sometimes think of how a loving embrace from a family member or friend in a difficult time can make us feel better, even though that hug itself has done nothing to change the circumstances which have upset us, but even that is a very weak analogy. It is peace and joy in our hearts in knowing that someone loving and wise is ultimately in control and is ever mindful of us, that this too shall pass, and in acknowledging that truth to be able to look beyond the difficulty to what beauty and blessings we may have been overlooking. Its developing a trust in the Lord by cultivating a relationship with the Spirit so that we can obey when we hear the Divine whisper, "Be still, and know that I am God."

Living the Gospel does indeed guarantee a happy life, because one of the commandments is "Be of good cheer". The Savior gave us all the tools to be cheerful in the midst of life's heaviest trials. He offers the Atonement freely, and the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, but we have to grab hold and make use of them ourselves. Your own happiness, your own peace, your own joy, are always within your grasp.

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