Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Plan B

A few years ago, a national TV talk show performed an experiment to test a few American kids on their 'stranger smarts.' These kids were left at home alone, and with the parents' permission, they were approached at their front doors by an actor playing the part of a stranger.

To the surprise of many parents, the 'stranger' not only got into their homes but was offered a child-guided tour of each room. When the children were interviewed thereafter, the breakdown was detected: kids knew not to let a stranger into the house, but they had no contingency plan for when a stranger, despite their best efforts, did get into the house. Once someone had breached the known barrier, they didn't know what to do. There was no Plan B.

Each of us will face a crisis at some time in our respective lives. Some of us have experienced one or more already, but we're as likely to face another as anyone else. It may be as serious as the death of a loved one, a debilitating health issue, a family trauma, or a serious financial issue. It may be a less dramatic, spiritual crisis, seemingly small, but the last straw in a string of disappointments. It can be assumed that we each have a Plan A for such an event: be sustained by faith, testimony, and well-established and maintained spiritual resources. But what if your spiritual resources aren't enough to keep the stranger-- despair, failure, defeatism-- our of your heart? What is your Plan B?

Prophets past offer their experiences in surviving a crisis. In the book of Moses we learn that Moses was granted a vision from God. He saw "the world upon which he was created... the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly marveled and wondered. And the presence of God withdrew from Moses... and Moses was left to himself.

"And it came to pass that... Satan came tempting him, saying: Moses, son of man, worship me." Moses then glorifies God and decries Satan, repeatedly refusing to worship any but the one true God. "And now, when Moses had said these words, Satan cried with a loud voice, and ranted upon the earth, and commanded, saying: I am the Only Begotten, worship me." At this point "Moses began to fear exceedingly, and as he began to fear, he saw the bitterness of hell. Nevertheless, calling upon God, he received strength, and he commanded, saying: Depart from me, Satan, for this one God only will I worship, which is the God of glory." After pitching one last tantrum, the devil departed and the Lord returned, granting Moses a vision even greater than the one he had initially received. (Moses, Chapter 1)

Lehi briefly describes another crisis of faith-- a crisis to which many of us can relate. In his great vision of the tree of life, there is a little recognized 'preface' moment that is very valuable to the story. Lehi relates that "I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me... he spake unto me and bade me follow him.

"...as I followed him, I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste. And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in the darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me... After I had prayed unto the Lord, I beheld a large and spacious field..." (1 Nephi, 8)

Before Lehi's vision opened, he was made to feel great loneliness and despair for what seemed like hours, despair so great that he called out to the Lord for mercy. Only after he felt forsaken and called upon the Lord was he blessed to have his eyes opened.

Likewise, Joseph Smith, in the moment before he received his First Vision of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, was "immediately seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me... thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction... but exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me... at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction... I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head..." and the Father and the Son appeared. (JSH, chapter 1)
In all three of these instances, individuals came seeking God's counsel. They were momentarily left with a sense of panic, terror, despair and helplessness in the face of the enemy. They were each rescued by the Lord once they had opportuned to call upon his name, and each was rewarded for this faithful ovation with far more light and knowledge than they had likely come seeking.

All human beings, prophets or otherwise, react when acted upon. It's natural to become despondent, emotional, even irrational when met with an awful crisis. Feeling so is not to have failed. Feeling so is itself the challenge. After all, fear comes before courage.

These men succeeded with Plan A. This should be the universal goal. If we faithfully perform our daily duties in keeping the Father's commandments, loving and serving our neighbors, feasting upon the words of Christ, and praying with gratitude over all aspects of our lives, we may find ourselves mighty enough in spirit to withstand the fiery darts of the adversary and come off conqueror. That's what the gospel is for-- to help sustain us so we can return to God having passed the test. Plan A is to have rebuffed the stranger at the door, which we all want to do.

But what if Plan A fails? What is Plan B?

Mother Teresa provided the answer, maybe without realizing she was doing it. After her passing, her journals revealed a disturbing level of self-doubt and deep depression throughout her life. "Lord, my God," she said in the mid-1950s, "who am I that You should forsake me? The child of your love -- and now become as the most hated one -- the one You have thrown away as unwanted -- unloved. I call, I cling, I want -- and there is no One to answer -- no One on Whom I can cling -- no, No One. Alone . . . I am told God loves me -- and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul." One can reasonably suppose that Plan A failed for Mother Teresa. But her Plan B succeeded and can be summed up in a quote by C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (edited for clarity):

"[Satan's] cause is never in more danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do [God's] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."

Here is Plan B: When all feeling for Godly obedience has left you, when all desire to do the Lord's will has fled, when you look around you and find that all traces of him has vanished from before your sight, when you feel to ask why you have been forsaken, still obey. This is Mother Teresa's finest miracle-- to have overcome the world, even when she felt that no one was watching and there was no reason to expect reward.

The blessings that come from obedience are concrete and inseparably connected to the commandments upon which they have been predicated. Whatever the state of your testimony, however scant the emotion you have in your heart for performing your spiritual duties in this world, doing so will reward you as readily as it does the most passionate disciple of Christ, for in the moment you obey without desiring to, you have bowed your will to the will of God. There is no greater show of faith, and the reward will unfold like a miracle before your eyes, however blind, and play like music in your ears, however deaf they may have seemed when you were called on to decide.

Heavenly Father must remove his hand from ours at some point. As Lewis stated, "He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away his hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles." A good father has no desire to carry his child forever. He wants to help his child grow into a responsible, capable individual who can walk independently and then choose to walk back into his father's embrace, back into his father's presence, knowing there is more wisdom to glean and more joy to experience in the bosom of the family. This is God's desire for us-- not to forsake us, but allow us to walk, even allow us to stumble, with his own hand waiting to pull us up from every fall. Plan A is to desire to reach for the Lord's hand when we fall. Plan B is to reach for it however much we'd rather not. Still obey.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not purely about feeling. Quite the opposite-- feeling comes from obedience to the fundamental principles set forth in the scriptures and from the mouths of prophets. We should all strive daily to build a sturdy home on the rock of our Redeemer, so we can endure the storms that will inevitably blast us when we least expect it. But should we falter in feeling, we never need falter in faithful adherence to the commandments. Thereafter come the blessings. "I can't do it anymore" is a fallacy. "I don't want to do it anymore" is more accurate, and "but I will" is the ultimate show of trust in God-- an action that will be richly rewarded.

“No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God … and it is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education that we came here to acquire and which will make us more like our Father and Mother in heaven.” (As quoted by Spencer W. Kimball, in Faith Precedes the Miracle, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972, p. 98.)

"Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself." — C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity)