An oft-quoted scripture in the Book of Mormon is 2 Nephi 2:25: “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” When I typed “joy” into the lds.org search and looked at General Conference talks, I found talk after talk that expressed the joy that comes into our lives from living the gospel, being righteous, repenting, etc.
Now, let me start off by saying that I don’t disagree with this teaching, per se. I think that living the commandments, being righteous, etc. can lead to greater joy and happiness in life. I believe that the moral principles taught by the church–service, kindness, sacrifice, good health, etc.–will lead to more peace and less suffering.
Additionally, I also feel like there’s a lot of room in the church for discussing the difficult nature of mortality. We are quick to acknowledge that living the gospel does not eliminate death, illness, and all the other sorrows and trials that are part of this mortal existence. However, I find that the church usually teaches the following paradigm: life is hard and it sucks, but if you listen to God and obey the commandments, life will generally be easier and happier–you may suffer from trials, but you will have peace and joy from living the commandments.
Dalin H. Oaks takes this to another level in his conference talk “Joy and Mercy” (published in the November 1991 Ensign):
One of the greatest of all God’s revelations is Father Lehi’s teaching that “men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Ne. 2:25.) Joy is more than happiness. Joy is the ultimate sensation of well-being. It comes from being complete and in harmony with our Creator and his eternal laws. …The opposite of joy is misery. Misery is more than unhappiness, sorrow, or suffering. Misery is the ultimate state of disharmony with God and his laws.
For most of my life, this model has definitely resonated with me. I can think of hard, painful experiences from my past where I was able to find strength and comfort because I believed I was making the right decisions and doing God’s will. In those experiences, peace and well-being did come from doing what I believed God wanted me to do.
But what happens when God asks us to do things that lead to increased suffering? What happens when obeying God or his commandments erases your sense of harmony and well-being? What happens when you make decisions you believe are God’s will, but you are left completely without the peace that you did the right thing?
I think people are often tempted to say that the blessings, answers, miracles, peace, etc. will eventually come, whether in this life or the next. But when we do this, we ignore the pain and difficulty before the ending. Obeying God is hard and confusing, and often painful. In Matthew 10:34-39, we read,
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.
This scripture does contain a promise of “finding” one’s life, but it also contains a lot of hard doctrine about how following God isn’t easy and requires painful sacrifices. It also informs us that God is complex: he is not solely a loving father–He is a God of anger and conflict and suffering.
As I ponder my experiences of the past year, I recognize that someday I may find a miraculous ending, some higher purpose that will help everything make sense, or even a greater sense of peace and well-being. However, I have to accept that this kind of outcome is just as likely not to occur. And either way, I am having to spend some time rethinking the nature of God. As much as I believe God loves me, this is only part of the picture. I’d like to believe that He does want me to be happy, but I also know that He is willing to do things in my life that cause me immense amounts of pain and that completely destroy my understanding of myself and the world around me. I don’t know why, and this has caused to to stop and reevaluate the whole “obeying God = joy” narrative.