This is adapted from a talk I recently prepared for my uncle’s church congregation. The topic for the month was “submitting to the will of the Lord”.
Coincidental to the theme the bishop picked for this month, “submitting to the will of the Lord”, I just happened to be reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, which includes a brief overview of the development of religious thought throughout history. It turns out that this would provide a nice setup for my talk. I’ll explain.
If you take the Golden Rule, for example, the reason it’s called the Golden Rule is because it’s nearly universal—it’s found in so many diverse cultures, religions, and philosophies. I think that underscores just how important the Golden Rule really is and how effective it is at making people’s lives and relationships better.
In The Case for God, I found that the concept of submitting to the will of God and accepting things that are beyond our control is also quite universal, even among cultures or philosophies that don’t explicitly address a belief in a personal God or a Supreme Being.
To summarize the various occurrences that I have found of this principle, they generally state something to the effect of the following:
- A key requirement to achieving higher spiritual awareness is being prepared to rid ourselves of selfishness, self-preoccupation, and greed
- When we empty ourselves of our own will, there’s more space in us for God’s will
- When we accept that many things in this life are out of our hands, and simply trust in God instead of fighting against perceived injustice, we can find a measure of peace to help minimize our suffering
So what do these various occurrences of this principle teach? I’ll get a little more specific. (Note that my analysis won’t exactly meet strident academic standards; it’s pretty superficial and liberal.) With that credibility-inspiring intro, let’s get rolling:
- Early Indian Aryans – their Upanishads (philosophical texts) taught that some things were beyond their control and others were beyond their intellectual grasp, and when people learned to embrace this unknowing, they could experience a great sense of release
- Early Greek philosophy – taught the principle of kenosis, or “emptying” of oneself and of eliminating egotism, which was essential to experience greater peace and achieve enlightenment
- Daoism – “self-forgetting” enables you to step outside of your own ego to experience the sacred
- Islam – the word literally means “surrender to God”, and it’s the defining characteristic of the Muslim faith. “Islam” allows you to experience the well-being of God’s peace
- Buddhism – practicing the concept of anatta (“not-self”), helps you live beyond the reach of greed and anxiety. The 2nd Noble Truth states that attachment and anger cause suffering. By practicing anatta, you can reach Nirvana, a state of being free from suffering, or union with the Divine
It was interesting to me to find that the principle of letting go of oneself and submitting to the will of God in order to improve spirituality and find peace was such a common and core element in cultures and societies throughout history.
Making It Personal
To focus a little on how refusing to yield control can cause extra suffering, I’ll give a personal example. With any given struggle in life, perhaps we won’t know whether it’s God’s doing or simply part of life. Expending effort trying to figure out which of those two it is may actually be counterproductive and ultimately unhelpful anyway. I learned this clearly a few years back.
I’d always imagined that I’d meet my wife in college. After all, it’s several years of socializing, group projects, meetings, and such. Well, I got through school and I was still very single, and living at home with my parents.
Now, just to be clear, I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a desperate guy. I enjoyed life and wasn’t dying to find someone (although that would’ve certainly been welcome). However, I think that my realization that “Plan A” had failed did cause me to make a couple of decisions in dating that I would later regret very much. In once instance I went through a couple of really rough months wondering if God hated me. (Ok, maybe not literally, but you get the point). My circumstances caused me to spend a lot of time agonizing and second-guessing myself and shouting at the-powers-that-be as I tried to figure out what had gone wrong and why. Many well-intentioned friends told me things like, “Well, everything happens for a reason”. I was really skeptical of this, in part because my suffering seemed at least partially self inflicted, but also because the pain (and the experiences that led up to the pain) seemed pretty pointless.
Sometimes [God] clearly directs; other times it seems He merely permits some things to happen. Therefore, we will not always understand the role of God’s hand, but we know enough of His heart and mind to be submissive. Thus when we are perplexed and stressed, explanatory help is not always immediately forthcoming, but compensatory help will be. Thus our process of cognition gives way to our personal submission, as we experience those moments when we learn to “be still, and know that I am God”
As I’ve looked back on that time of my life, I still don’t really see much good that came from it. One thing I realized, though, is that it’s all part of the deal. Before we were born, Mormonism teaches that we “shouted for joy” at the possibility of coming down here and experiencing mortality (see Job 38:7 and Ch. 5 of the Gospel Principles manual). The plan that was presented to us to become more like God was so exciting that we were willing to submit to anything that might happen in this life. While I don’t think much is known about our mental development at the time or how much we knew about the future, I’m pretty confident we were at least somewhat capable of understanding that it’d be difficult, and that God didn’t just shout to us quickly on the way out the door, “Oh, btw, it’s gonna be really hard!” LDS doctrine teaches us that trials are in fact a key part of the Game of Life™; that’s how we grow.
So in a certain way, every trial that we face is God’s doing (and ours), because He’s the one that sent us here (and we’re the ones that accepted), and that’s why we’re here. Everything does indeed happen for a reason, even if every experience in life is not specifically engineered for a specific purpose.
I won’t pretend that this approach answers all the questions in my mind about why we suffer (the Problem of Suffering, a.k.a. the Problem of Evil, is a a very common theme in the philosophy of ethics and religion, and while many theological points can be made to explain some of it, I’ve yet to see anything that really tackles it all), but it has helped me accept that bruises and bumps are an inevitable part of the experience, and so I’ve been able to find easier peace in thus submitting to the Lord. Speaking as a guy who’s kind of a control freak when it comes to things of… “life” …, I can testify that submitting to the will of the Lord does make the bumpy road seem smoother and more enjoyable.
I’d now like to run through a handful of statements or scripture verses that more fully flesh out this concept.
Here’s another gem from Elder Maxwell:
“If we have grown soft, hard times may be necessary. If we are too contented, a dose of divine discontent may come. A relevant insight may be contained in reproof. A new calling beckons us away from comfortable routines wherein the needed competencies have already been developed. One may be stripped of accustomed luxury so that the malignant mole of materialism may be removed. One may be scorched by humiliation so pride can be melted away. Whatever we lack will get attention, one way or another.”
Joseph Smith, when locked away in Liberty Jail, wrote a one of the most powerful scripture verses on suffering as he heard God tell him:
“And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”
Nephi states simply:
“I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”
The Book of Job
The book of Job, one of the most profound pieces of literature in the Bible, is a Hebrew poem whose central theme is the problem of suffering and submitting to the will of the Lord. It tells us about a character named Job who is very pious and very prosperous. One day Satan comes before God, and they jockey back and forth about Job:
|Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.|
|Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.|
|Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!|
So piece by piece, Job’s life falls apart. First his flocks are stolen and his servant shepherds are murdered. Then his camels are stolen and his remaining servants murdered. Then his children are all tragically killed when the building collapses on them.
How does Job respond to these inexplicable and tragic events?
Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.
Satan then goes back to God:
|He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.|
|Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.|
|Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.|
So God lets Satan curse Job with painful boils from his head to his toes.
How does Job respond? Once again, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”
His wife tells him to curse God and die, but Job remains steadfast, until three faraway friends appear, and insist that Job has done something wrong to God’s wrath in such a terrible way. Job, confident he’s done nothing to deserve such problems, begins to question his plight and challenge God’s justice.
God then appears to Job and challenges him “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God lays out the majesty of his power, the expansiveness of his creations, and the insignificance of Job. He’s basically saying, “I’m God. Who are you?” No explanation whatsoever for the trials is given; God does not need the approval of his creation.
Job ultimately repents for challenging God and all that was lost is restored back to him.
And One More…
One final example, one of the best in all scripture, comes from the Book of Kung Fu Panda. Shifu is the greatest Kung Fu teacher in all of China, and his responsibility is to train Po, who is a fat, out-of-shape, clumbsy panda bear, to save the village from the powerful villain Tai Lung. Training Po seems impossible to Shifu and he becomes exasperated and complains to his Master, Oogway. The conversation follows:
|My friend, the panda will never fulfill his destiny, nor you yours until you let go of the illusion of control.|
|Yes. [Oogway points at a peach tree.] Look at this tree, Shifu. I cannot make it blossom when it suits me nor make it bear fruit before its time.|
|But there are things we can control: I can control when the fruit will fall, I can control where to plant the seed. That is no illusion, Master!|
|Ah, yes. But no matter what you do, that seed will grow to be a peach tree. You may wish for an apple or an orange, but you will get a peach.|
|But a peach cannot defeat Tai Lung!|
|Maybe it can, if you are willing to guide, to nurture it, to believe in it.|
|But how? How? I need your help, master.|
|No, you just need to believe. Promise me, Shifu, promise me you will believe.|
Oogway tells Shifu to simply trust in his master and stop trying to force the pace of the development of Po’s Kung Fu skills. Once Shifu learns to relinquish concern for things out of his control and work with them instead of fighting against them, of course, he succeeds in training Po, who is able to realize his potential and become the great Dragon Warrior. (That one was for the kids. And for me.)
Recognizing that tragedy is an inevitable part of life and that many things are simply beyond our control is one important way to submit to God. Fighting against this can often worsen the anguish, while accepting it humbly and working around it can often lessen the pain and increase the chances of learning from the trial and coming out stronger and wiser.