One of my children has just finished his first set of “proper” exams at school last week. I should explain that these exams are UK “SATS”, taken at the end of the last year of primary school. They will be of limited immediate value to him, which is not to say there is no value – his results will be passed on to the Secondary School he will be attending which will be of some benefit for him – but the main point of them seems to me to be to measure the school’s teaching quality rather than for the students’ benefit.
It was stressful for him preparing for them, and we had tears and drama at home with his homework as we got closer to exam time.
Two discussions with my son about his recent exams have stuck with me. The first is when I was trying to both comfort him as well as explain why his exams are valuable for him. Yes they might help the Secondary School he will be attending get an idea of his academic abilities to enable them to better support him as he starts the next stage of his education, but there is also value in his getting experience of exam conditions, of experiencing how they work and how to prepare for them. All of these, I explained, would help him when he was preparing for much more important exams as he gets older.
My son, understanding that what I was saying made sense, replied with tears in his eyes, “I don’t want to grow up”. The challenge for him was that this exam preparation was hard for him – really hard. It was a burden he didn’t feel he could face, and so he wished he could just remain a child so that he could avoid such challenges.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased that my son is enjoying his childhood, but unfortunately (from his current perspective) I can’t stop the march of time, and he will inevitably grow up whether he likes it or not. The challenge is how well prepared he will be for his grown-up life. He could choose to ignore his exams as he gets older and consequently have his opportunities limited as an adult; or he can diligently study, learn and prepare; face the burden of his exams, and have as a result the widest range of opportunities that his abilities will allow.
This experience has reminded me that my life in this mortal sphere is one of preparation – a “preparatory state” is how the ancient prophet Alma described it (Alma 42:10). We are all children, on earth in part to undergo spiritual and character education. As we journey through life – our equivalent of “growing up” – will we move towards developing the attributes of Christ, our images increasingly reflecting His? Or will we decide that it is just too hard and think we can somehow opt out of the process; eternally remaining children who can spend all of our time playing?
Developing these Christlike attributes – such as faith, hope, charity, obedience, diligence, longsuffering, humility and brotherly love – aren’t achieved from our armchairs. They require effort. Not a sporadic and brief dalliance out the front door of our comfort, but rather a consistent labour on things we find difficult. Maybe that is why the apostle Peter started his list of our required spiritual development with the attribute of diligence (2 Peter 1:5).
In a recent talk Elder David A Bednar spoke of our need to have a load sufficient to grow and develop,
“Two guiding questions can be helpful as we periodically and prayerfully assess our load: “Is the load I am carrying producing the spiritual traction that will enable me to press forward with faith in Christ on the strait and narrow path and avoid getting stuck? Is the load I am carrying creating sufficient spiritual traction so I ultimately can return home to Heavenly Father?”
Sometimes we mistakenly may believe that happiness is the absence of a load. But bearing a load is a necessary and essential part of the plan of happiness.” (Bear Up Their Burdens with Ease, April 2014 General Conference)
How often have we heard people say in Church something like, “I prayed and asked God to give me patience, and he gave me a trial that would teach me patience.”? Similarly if I ask the Lord to bless me with more humility, I will likely receive experiences in my life that will enable me to learn what this attribute means, understand within my soul what it really is, recognise it more fully in others, and know the things that I must both do in my life to develop humility and stop doing that prevent me from being humble. Ironically, I will probably also increasingly come to an awareness of just how little humility I really have. And the experiences that will teach me these things will likely be very challenging for me. In the words of my son, it will be hard.
Developing Christlike attributes isn’t like applying a software upgrade. I can’t click a file to download, and another to install, then go to bed and wake up the next morning rebooted and updated.
But though the challenge is significant, we are not alone as we undertake the task. Elder Bednar has taught,
“…the Savior is beckoning us to rely upon and pull together with Him, even though our best efforts are not equal to and cannot be compared with His. As we trust in and pull our load with Him during the journey of mortality, truly His yoke is easy and His burden is light.
We are not and never need be alone. We can press forward in our daily lives with heavenly help. Through the Savior’s Atonement we can receive capacity and “strength beyond [our] own’”
Elder Bednar goes on to say,
“Not only does the Atonement of Jesus Christ overcome the effects of the Fall of Adam and make possible the remission of our individual sins and transgressions, but His Atonement also enables us to do good and become better in ways that stretch far beyond our mortal capacities. Most of us know that when we do things wrong and need help to overcome the effects of sin in our lives, the Savior has made it possible for us to become clean through His redeeming power. But do we also understand that the Atonement is for faithful men and women who are obedient, worthy, and conscientious and who are striving to become better and serve more faithfully? I wonder if we fail to fully acknowledge this strengthening aspect of the Atonement in our lives and mistakenly believe we must carry our load all alone—through sheer grit, willpower, and discipline and with our obviously limited capacities.
It is one thing to know that Jesus Christ came to the earth to die for us. But we also need to appreciate that the Lord desires, through His Atonement and by the power of the Holy Ghost, to enliven us—not only to guide but also to strengthen and heal us.” (Bear Up Their Burdens with Ease, April 2014 General Conference)
So, the question I need to ask myself is, do I want a life of ease and comfort, or do I want to fill the measure of my creation and develop Christ-like attributes? I can choose one or the other, but not both. If I am wise I will choose the latter, and act accordingly. It will be hard, but it is the path to joy. If I decide it’s too hard, however….
Well that leads me to the second recent discussion with my son in relation to his exams. On one evening there was some particularly difficult homework he was doing. To make matters worse it was in a subject he doesn’t like, and it’s safe to say he really didn’t want to do it. After much drama and a host of reasons why he shouldn’t have to complete his homework that evening, my wife and I finally said to him, “It’s your choice, son. If you don’t complete your homework you will have to face your teacher tomorrow and explain to him why you didn’t do it. If you think that you have a valid reason that he will accept then that is fine. But if you don’t think he will accept your explanation you will have to face the consequences. What do you want to do?”
He didn’t like those choices. He realised that all the reasons he had given my wife and I for not completing his homework would not be accepted by his teacher, and he didn’t want the consequences he would face in not doing the work that had been given to him; but he still didn’t want to do it. He wanted a third option of “It’s ok – don’t do your homework, and don’t worry because there won’t be any consequences.” But that third option didn’t exist. So he had further tears while he struggled with the decision.
The day will come when I stand before my Father in Heaven and my Saviour. I don’t think the Lord expects my life to be intense hardship from the moment I awake to the moment I go to bed at night every day of the year, but if I have primarily sought a life of ease over a life of discipleship I think that will be an uncomfortable experience for me.
Our Father in Heaven and His Son Jesus Christ sometimes give us “hard” things, because they know that is the only way we will grow. Elder Neal A Maxwell said, “The Lord loves each of us too much to merely let us go on being what we now are, for he knows what we have the possibility to become!” (quoted in Donald L Staheli, Be Strong and of Good Courage, BYU Devotional June 13, 2006) Do I really think I will be able to stand in front of Him in a coming day and in response to the experiences He gave me for my growth, be able to justify attempts to avoid them? “Hey, I know You thought those experiences were good for me, God, but I know better.” Hmmm. I just don’t think I’ll be able to utter those words somehow.
We learn in the Doctrine and Covenants that, “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated. And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” (D&C 130:20-21) So, when I seek for the blessing of the Christlike attribute of greater Brotherly Love, I will have to satisfy a law to obtain it. Because satisfying that law will need me to overcome any elements of my genetic predispositions, social upbringing, and my unique spiritual personality that prevent me from developing that Brotherly Love, the experiences the Lord provides me to help me in that process will be quite unique, ideally tailored for me. That’s how much He loves me.
And whatever those unique experiences will be, they will be hard.
But because I want to develop those attributes, hard is ok. Especially when I have His assurance that He will not leave me alone, but will help me with it. Yes, hard really is ok.