A painful church experience to which I think many people can relate is that of listening to people share stories of divine intervention that didn’t happen in your life. People might talk, for example, about God giving them healthy children. If you don’t have children, or if your children aren’t healthy, this can really sting. Or perhaps God is reported to have intervened to cure a disease—one from which you or someone you love still suffers. Maybe God spared people from accidents, or blessed them financially. Those who weren’t blessed in those ways are inevitably going to wonder why. As a single person,my favorites are the “how God led me to my spouse” stories. (You might think that this would be a different sort of concern for me, given that I’m gay, but actually there are plenty of gay people who will testify that God brought their partners into their lives.) And hardest of all, I suspect, are stories about God saving people’s lives, when he didn’t save the life of the person you loved.
If you have good fortune in your life, it is all too easy to see it as a sort of divine reward for righteousness. The scriptures reinforce this—the Doctrine and Covenants tells us that “when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (D&C 130:21). This can lead to a certain smugness, and the comforting idea that if you keep the commandments well enough, bad things won’t happen to you. An alternative is that God is blessing you with things you don’t deserve—and I think many people would in fact say this is true. But for those left out in the cold, it is still hard not to see this as evidence of divine favoritism. Sometimes this really runs amok, as in urban legends like the one that all the Mormons who worked in the World Trade Center miraculously stayed home on 9/11—the underlying theme being that God cares more about protecting his LDS children than his other children. That’s simply obnoxious (and the story is of course false). But in everyday situations, in testimony meetings every month, we encounter this issue: why does God appear to be blessing some people while ignoring others?
I have heard way too many times that everything happens for a reason, and it’s all part of a divine master plan. If God didn’t heal you, it’s because your illness fits into his plan for your life. If God didn’t help you find a job, it’s because you’re supposed to be learning lessons from being unemployed. But this gets ugly really fast, because God is then the mastermind of horrific events. Is it part of God’s plan for children to starve, or be abused, because they’re learning important lessons? I also hate it when people say things like, “God let you have that trial because he knew you could handle it; I never could have managed to deal with it.” It’s a convenient and perhaps comforting way to distance yourself from those in difficult situations, but it isn’t fair. People get trials all the time that they can’t handle, that break them.
I realize that I’m getting into the problem of evil here, and I’m obviously not going to solve that in a blog post. But I want to bring this back to a more practical question. How do we talk about our lives in ways that are sensitive to others? We might say that some things are just dumb luck. But then we have that scripture saying that “in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things in all things” (D&C 59:21). And we’ve also got the reality that many people have a deep testimony that God has intervened in their lives in important ways. I’m of two minds about this precisely because I’ve felt that—but I’ve also felt the sting of the ways that God hasn’t intervened, when people share stories about getting blessings that have passed me by. I don’t want to say, don’t ever express appreciation for your blessings. I think having gratitude is important. But I also know just how much it can hurt to hear about how much God has blessed other people. Perhaps it would help if we didn’t frame our blessings as evidence of divine love, even if we see them as divine in origin. If you say that God gave you x because he loved you so much, you’re raising hard questions about those who didn’t get x. We can also genuinely mourn with those that mourn, rather than distancing ourselves from their pain by saying that it must be for a reason, or that God thinks they’re particularly strong. Still, this is a hard issue, and I’d love to hear how other people have negotiated it.
And in the end, maybe this is one of many reasons that we would do well to focus our testimonies on God’s love (based not on the good things in your life, but on your experiences with him), on Christ, on the atonement—because those are the things that matter the most, and they’re relevant to everyone.