The apostle Peter told the saints in his day, "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trials which is to try you as though some strange thing [has] happened unto you. But [instead] rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy" (1 Peter 4:12,13).
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we often quote the words of Malachi which says, "prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it" (Malachi 3:10) and we set about proving that the Lord does keep His promises when we do as He asks. We are also fond of quoting D&C 82:10 which says, "I, the Lord am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise" and firmly believe that as long as we do what the Lord commands then He will greatly bless us.
As a result of such thinking, there are those who feel that as long as they stay obedient to God commandments then nothing bad will ever happen to them. However, everyone faces problems, no matter how righteous or how wicked they may be. But, when bad things happen to those who are striving to live a Christ-centered life, some question whether God's word really means what it says.
There are those who have faithfully paid their tithing and still fall upon financial hard times. There are those who have faithfully served God and still have a loved one die due to a senseless accident or illness. There are those who have faithfully lived the word of wisdom who have contracted an illness that drastically decreases their quality of life. And when things like this happen it can cause some to lose faith in the promises of God.
The reason why Peter wrote his first letter to the Saints was because at that time they were experiencing great persecution. In the beginning of his letter Peter acknowledges that they "are in heaviness through manifold temptations" and that they are going through a "trial of your faith." (1:6,7). He later counseled them not to think it strange when they had to endure fiery trials "as though some strange thing [has] happened unto you." He then went on to remind them that even Christ, who was without sin, suffered at the hands of wicked men "leaving us an example that ye should follow in his steps" (2:21, 22).
Suffering and hard times are not strange events in the life of a Christian but rather are normal occurrences that everyone faces. Many times when we see people at church they are smiling as though everything in their life is going great but anyone who has ever been a bishop knows how deceiving such smiles can be. Very often as a bishop looks out over the congregation during Sacrament meeting he sees a sea of people who have visited his office seeking some kind of counseling or help, sometimes much more than once. And anyone who has ever been a bishop knows that some of those problems are serious and may seem almost beyond fixing.
It is certain that many of these problems are the result of decisions people themselves have made. They have figuratively dug their own hole and then fell into it. But it is just as certain that there are other problems people face that are due to circumstances beyond their control, such as natural disasters, unemployment, poor health, crippling accidents and other devastating tragedies.
It's at times like this that our faith is put through a fiery trial. While we may not disown God and turn away from Him (although some do), it is a natural reaction for people to wonder why such things happen to them, especially if they are living the principles of the gospel. It is also natural for people to assume that when bad things happens to others it's because they haven't been living the gospel and that this is God's punishment for their sins. However, if that was true then we'd have to assume that all the prophets in the Bible encountered suffering because they had offended God. The truth is that everyone has their own share of problems to face. Some are different than others and some are worse than others, but no one is exempt, not even Jesus.
The question isn't why do bad things happen to us but how do we cope with them when they do?
The Church is organized in such a way so it can provide temporary help for those in need. One of the duties of a bishop, under the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit, is to provide counsel and church assistance to those who come to him. The church has a system of Bishop Storehouses that stocks food and other essential items that are given to needy members as the bishop directs. The Church also has large farms where they grow their own food that is then canned and sent to the Bishop's Storehouse.
However, these sources of help are not inexhaustible and bishops can only spend a finite amount of time helping others. It is therefore possible that bishops can become overwhelmed to the point where they cannot help everyone as much as they would like. As the Church grows worldwide, so does the need to provide help to more and more people. Bishop Storehouses can only stock a limited amount of products and Church farms can only produce so much food. Multiple natural disasters throughout the world can further strain the Church's resources as they seek to provide aid to those who are not members of our faith.
For decades we have been counseled to be self-sufficient so we can take care of our own needs without the necessity of relying on the support of others. Part of that counsel has been to have a year's supply of food on hand. Recently Church leaders have said that if that is too hard then we should at least have a three month supply. While such preparations are helpful in easing the strain of financial problems, they do little to relieve emotional distress. However, even here we have been given counsel that, if followed, will fill our inner, spiritual reservoirs from which we can draw on in times of need.
Yet, because that counsel seems so simple it is often dismissed or ignored. More than that, we hear this counsel given so much that we tend to become deaf to it. It's like something in our house we see every day but walk past without giving it any thought. As such, we either don't follow the counsel of the Brethren, or don't follow it properly.
From the beginning of the Church we have been taught to strengthen our families through personal and family prayer, personal and family scripture study, and holding weekly Family Home Evenings. Although we have heard this advice many times for decades, there are those who fail to follow it, not because they don't agree with it but because they feel there are more important things they could be doing to build up their spirituality. For this reason it might be helpful to take a closer look at this counsel with different eyes.
We have often heard that the family is the basic unit of the Church. When we talk about the "church" what we are referring to is a structured system of organizing people for the purpose of helping them become more Christ-like. The LDS Church is organized in groupings, or clusters of people known as stakes, which are presided over by a stake president who is responsible for coordinating and overseeing various programs that are meant to help strengthen the members within his area of authority. But stakes are composed of smaller groups of people called wards, each of which is presided over by a bishop who coordinates and oversees various programs that are meant to help strengthen those within of his area of authority.
However, each ward is composed of families (including those who live by themselves). In the ideal setting this grouping of people consists of a father who presides over his children with the aid of his wife. The purpose of this organization is to provide various "programs" or activities that are meant to teach and help each member of the family to grow both temporally and spiritually. In this sense, we can say that each family is a "church" unto itself. But beyond this family organization there is no smaller grouping of people. That is why the family is referred to as the basic unit of the Church.
But there is a more important reason why the family is the "basic" unit. The main purpose of the LDS Church is not merely to save souls but to save them as families for eternity. Without this sealing together of husbands, wives and children to one another full salvation is not possible. Thus everything the Church does is aimed at building and strengthening the family.
Unlike many other Christian faiths, the purpose of the Church is to serve as an aid, a tool, or a resource that families can use to help strengthen themselves. Because of this concept the role of families isn't so much to give support to the Church as much as the Church is there to give help and support to each family unit. As such, families are the building blocks of the Church. If they are strong then the Church is strong but if they are weak then so is the Church.
However, a family is only as strong as each individual member. Therefore, the duty of the father, as the presiding head of his home, is to make sure that each member of his family is growing spiritually strong by teaching them to live the principles of the gospel. To help him in fulfilling this duty, the Church has recommended he institute three programs. The first is prayer.
Prayer is nothing more than talking with our Father in heaven. As earthly parents, we understand how important it is to have our children talk with us in an attitude of respect and gratitude. We also know the joy that comes from helping our children, giving them guidance and counsel. But parents also know the feeling of disappointment and sadness when their children show little respect or fail to express gratitude yet want their parents to give them more and more things.
Our Father in heaven has these same feelings when dealing with His children. By having regular, meaningful prayer both in the morning and at night we show our Father in heaven that we appreciate Him and are interested in having a close, personal relationship with Him. When we do that on a regular basis then God talks back to us, giving us His wisdom, counsel, and help, just as earthly fathers do with their children. We refer to this kind of knowledge as inspiration or revelation.
Every father, both in and out of the LDS Church, is entitled to this kind of inspiration and every father can receive as much revelation for his family as does the President of the Church or the bishop of a ward. In times of stress, this channel of communication allows each of us to receive the guidance and counsel we need directly from God. But, when we fail to pray, or our prayers are insincere or focused mostly on our own needs, then we estranged ourselves from our Father in heaven. And when that happens we run the risk of God saying to us as He did to ancient Israel, "When ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers I will not hear you." (Isaiah 1:15).
For this reason it is important that fathers teach their children how to pray so they too can learn how to have a close, personal relationship with their Father in heaven. This is the purpose of having family prayer. The scriptures tell us to "train up a child in the way he should go [so that] when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6). If this training isn't taking place in the home then children will not know the way they should go. Even though they may learn how to pray in church, if the parents aren't teaching them at home, the lessons often fall on deaf ears because of the powerful example that parents have on their children. In that case, the sins of the children will be upon the heads of their parents (see D&C 68:25).
The second program the Church encourages all fathers to have their families participate in is scripture study.
There is a major difference between simply reading the scriptures and studying them. The scriptures are our handbook of instructions for how to live a happy and successful life. As such, it needs to be studied in the same way a student studies their textbooks. Within its pages we find the answers to every problem we could ever encounter and that's because the scriptures are a history of the mistakes of past civilizations. Since human nature doesn't change, there is not one problem we face today that has not been faced by former generations.
One of the duties of the Holy Ghost is to be a teacher (John 14:26). If we look at the scriptures as our textbook for living, then we can think of the Holy Ghost as being our instructor. As we carefully study and ponder the scriptures, the Holy Ghost shows us things that often are not clearly apparent. In that way He is able to teach us what we need to know. This is especially true when we face problems in life. As we read the scriptures, the Holy Ghost shows us from the divine textbook how others have handled a similar situation, thereby teaching us how to solve or cope with whatever difficulty we are currently having. Often times when we turn to the scriptures in our time of need, we find that the words we read seem to apply to the very problem we're facing, and it's as though God is literally speaking directly to us.
But there are times when we have problems that the only solution is to learn how to cope with it. Such is the case with the death of a loved one or dealing with a crippling illness or some other tragedy in our life. At times like these, the only thing we can do is learn how to endure the pain. As we turn to the scriptures, the Holy Ghost can touch our hearts as we read God's word and He acts as a comforter to give us the strength to hold up under what we must go through.
But if we are not familiar with the scriptures then much of what we read there in our times of need often fails to give us the help we seek. That's because we don't understand what we're reading. It's like reading a book in a foreign language. But, the more we read, study, and ponder its words, the more we understand God's message and the clearer we see how it applies in our life.
It's obvious though that we can't teach others what we don't know ourselves, so it's important that parents learn how to rely on the scriptures before they can teach their children how to do that. But if parents don't take the time to instill a love for the scriptures in their children then they won't know how to use it for themselves when they need God's help. That's why family scripture study is so important. As children grow up constantly reading the scriptures every day under the tutelage of their parents, they learn, by example, the importance of God's word and, in the process, they come to understand and love it.
The third program the Church encourages all families to participate in is Family Home Evening.
One evening a week - usually on Monday - the entire family is encouraged to gather together for teaching gospel lessons and to have fun. With young children this can sometimes be a challenge because they don't want to sit still and their attention span is very short. For older children, they would rather be with their friends than with their family and they tend to view Family Home Evening as not only boring but an interruption to what they want to do. For many LDS families, Family Home Evening (a.k.a. FHE) is sometimes not always the most enjoyable time of the week because of the attitude of the children. At times it can become more stressful than pleasurable.
Some families use this time to hold family counsels where everyone has a voice in making decisions that affect the entire family. But, just like FHE, these discussions may not always go as well as the parents would like. And it is for these reasons that there are those who feel that holding FHE is too much trouble and accomplishes very little good.
However, this is a short-sighted view because it loses sight of the fact that children's attitudes change as they go from one stage of life to another and that they are still learning valuable lessons, even though it may not be readily apparent at the moment. It will be later on in their adult life that children will fondly remember these times of togetherness and will be closer to each other than they would have been otherwise. And that's the value of using the FHE program when we face difficult times.
If FHE's are held in a spirit of love, it helps develop a feeling of closeness among family members. Although children may seem unresponsive and somewhat rebellious during FHE when things are going well, when hard times come, the family will rally around one another and draw support, comfort, and solace from each other. FHE is all about teaching a love of God and a love for each member of the family. Love is like glue. It helps bind people together and the more parents instill in their children a feeling of love and concern for one another during the good times, the closer they will be to one another during the difficult times. If family members have been taught how to work together to have fun they will instinctively know how to work together during times of sadness.
The Church has often been described as being one big family where, as brothers and sisters in the gospel, we watch over and care for one another. When someone in the ward is in need, the other ward members reach out in love to give what help and assistance they can. Facing problems alone is dispiriting and depressing but having someone to lean on for support makes it a little easier for us to endure the trials of life. One of the reasons why people go see their bishop when they have problems is because they want someone with a sympathetic listening ear who will give them some comforting advice.
As the basic unit of the Church, biological brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers who have grown close to one another through holding FHE regularly can more easily provide that same kind of caring support to each other. When families are knit together in love they don't have to face the challenges of life alone. They always have each other to depend on for help, even if that help is only a word of comfort and a sympathetic heart.
Often times we think that to solve complex problems we need to have complex solutions and it's for this reason that people tend to dismiss simple things as being unimportant. But the counsel to pray, study the scriptures, and hold Family Home Evenings, as individuals and as families, is not only simple but profound.