Life's Afflictions and Self-Inflictions

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Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii

July 10, 2003
Paul Buckingham
Director of Counseling Services

The prophet Joseph Smith in Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants asks "Oh God where are thou?" Joseph knew something of despondency, he knew something of intense sadness, and he knew something of long suffering. When we are afflicted it is so much in the moment is it not? We can take the pain no longer; our needs have gone so long without being met. And when we can't take any more, what happens? We get more suffering and affliction. And what does the Lord answer?

In verse 7, "My son, peace unto thy soul: then adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment." But we often want to stop hurting now and what may be small moment for the Lord is a long time for me. But in the 122nd section he sums up the horrendous possibilities for Joseph with the phrase "know thou my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good." Why is it that obeying, going to church, paying tithing, being nice is not enough? Why is it that we must experience such things that it should be for our good? What good comes out of pain and suffering?

My grandfather Francisco Lara told our family the fable of the Oak tree and the Almond tree.

There was once two young trees planted by a poor farmer to whom the trees

had been given. One tree was an oak the other was an almond. These trees grew on the edge of the Sonora desert and as the trees grew it became apparent that water was scarce on this farmland.

Twice a week the farmer would come down with his two buckets of water and water his trees. The Almond tree would beg and plead with the Oak tree to let him have his portion of water also because he was so thirsty. The Oak tree agreed because he loved the little Almond tree very much.

So while the roots of the Almond tree stretched out to soak up all the water the roots of the Oak went deeper into the earth searching for every drop of water it could find.

Both trees grew up very nicely; the Almond tree with his wonderful blossoms and sweet nuts and the Oak tree became very majestic.

One day a great wind began to blow in from the south and blew harder all during the day. It started to strip the leaves from the trees and snap off the small branches of the trees. The Almond tree panicked and cried out to the Oak tree as the wind blew stronger into the night. The Almond tree cried out during the night to the great Oak tree for help and the Oak tree encouraged the little Almond tree to persevere and lean into the wind.

When the daybreak came the Oak tree could see off in the horizon that the farmer's house was missing a roof and the chicken coop was blown away. He watched the old farmer make his way down to the trees. The Almond tree was blown over dead, its shallow roots thrust up into the air. The farmer and the Oak tree wept. The farmer came up to the Oak tree and patted its bark and called him "fuerte, grande y fuerte." Large and strong. And while the great Oak tree was saddened, he was thankful because of the lack of water that his roots had run deep into the earth, anchoring him against the storm of tribulation.

Our afflictions as the Lord says "if thou endure well" will make us strong. Each instance causes us to drive our roots deeper in the Gospel and anchor ourselves in Christ so that in the end we will stand strong against the winds of the mighty tribulations, so that when the hearts of men fail them you are resolved in Christ. It has been easy for me to love the Lord and obey when everything is going right in my life. I praise the Lord and eat of the bounty he has laid before me. But when things are not going well, when I am hurting, when I have reached the end of my long suffering and say it is enough, my test has been to remain kneeling and praise the Lord.

I knew a man who admittedly lived the perfect life, full of things that went his way and had no afflictions. He was raised by loving parents and had the gospel in his home. His brothers and sisters were nice and sweet and nobody had any major problems. School was easy because he was smart and he grew up active in the church, intelligent, strong and handsome. He was a football star in high school and because he was also smart he went to a large university played football, became a star, married the cheerleader and went on to obtain a graduate degree. Then he was called to be a Bishop and it became the hardest thing he ever has done in his life.

Members of his ward spoke to him of loneliness, sadness, mourning the loss of a love one, desperation, poverty, chronic sickness, abuse, violence in the home, etc. and he was overwhelmed and speechless. He was at a total loss as to what to say and he had no idea that there was so much sadness in the world.

In graduate school we had struggled along with loans and working part time but with just a couple of months before graduation there came a day when there was the embarrassing and humbling episode of having no money and nothing to eat. Our own parents were struggling to make ends meet and so I went and talked to our Branch President. We received the food we needed and I graduated shortly afterwards. I was embarrassed by my circumstances and upset with the Lord that he had not spared me that affliction and that humiliation.

Three years later I was called to be a Branch President of that very same branch. A lady and her teenage daughter came to see me a few months afterwards and started to tell me about the embarrassment and humiliation of opening cupboards and finding there is nothing there to eat. She looked up to me with her teary eyes and she knew that my reaction was more than just sympathy; she sensed that I knew exactly what she was going through. I have come to appreciate what Elder Hugh B. Brown has said, "I am thankful for the experiences I rather not have had."

I was so upset at the Lord for not sparing those experiences that I missed the point of what he was trying to teach me. That experience has remained with me for the rest of my life and has enlarged my capacity to share the burdens of others.

I knew a lady, whose husband was very sick for a very long time, they were very poor and the family was large and in the end they had to move away to find more support. Standing in the doorway of her empty home she said, "I hope we are learning the lessons and principles that the Lord would have us learn." There in is the key to ponder amidst our afflictions, what lessons should I be learning for there are no afflictions in life without purpose. I have learned that part of "enduring well" besides submitting myself to the Lord is to actively seek the lessons that I am supposed to be learning from this tribulation. I have not always done that well. And so there are enough afflictions and tribulations in life; and if we let them they will make us stronger, deepen our character, help us to acquire humility and charity and instruct us in the valuable lessons of life that the Lord would have us learn.

Yet one of the great tragedies I have witnessed are when good people pass through such pain and sorrow and emerge nothing better for it. They did not learn the lesson, they did not grow but remain ignorant or even worse bitter about the experience and blame the Lord for their pain and remain as victims of life and the injustice of it all. This is truly a great tragedy.

There are some of us who suffer afflictions of our own making. We self inflict wounds upon our souls that can never be beneficial. In contrast the afflictions the Lord places upon us for our progress, these self inflicted afflictions serve no purpose, they are senseless and rather than improve us, to the contrary, they keep us stuck in one spot. It is as if we have one foot glued to the floor while we run in the proverbial circles and loops of the same pain in the same way.

There are a variety of ways that we afflict ourselves. We afflict ourselves when we compare ourselves to others. As we do so we inevitably compare our weaknesses to the strengths of others.

Once when my grandfather and I were sitting in the backyard of this little ranch out in the country at sunset we heard this awful screaming sound. I asked him what was making that horrible sound. Grandfather said it was the Peacocks settling in for the night. And he said there was a reason for that screeching and he told me another fable.

On the eighth day after the creation of the world all the animals that the Lord had created on the land were gathered together at daybreak in a meadow. They spoke among themselves on the names that Adam had given them and which was the strongest, the swiftest, the tallest etc. The subject came up of which one of God's creatures was the most beautiful. As if on cue, just as the sun was rising over the hill, the peacock comes over the crest and fans his tail feathers. Every color of the prism shines brilliantly about him and the animals gasp in awe. As he walks down to the crown they part and make a pathway for him. Coming up to them they see how iridescent and vivid each color his, it is as if he had caught the rainbow in his feathers.

He walks to the edge of the crown and stands next to a little brown sparrow and the contrast is painful. He says to the sparrow, "Do you not think that I am the most beautiful creature the Lord has created?"

"Oh yes brother Peacock surely you are the most beautiful of all God's creatures." And the sparrow bowed his little head to the ground in reverence and humility. But while he had his head bowed low to the ground he happened to notice the legs and feet of the Peacock. His legs were stick like and a ugly color of bluish-grey. And the claws were grotesque looked horrible. "Oh brother Peacock have you ever notice your legs and claws?"

"What ever are you talking about?

"Your legs and claws are not very pretty." So the Peacock gazed down upon his ugly legs and his grotesque claws and screamed in agony for surely they were the ugliest of all God's creatures. And while the Peacock screamed in horror the little sparrow flew up and away to enjoy his life.

Many of us when we come to BYUH feel like a tiny sparrow in a flock of peacocks; everyone seems to radiate confidence, talent, intelligence and beauty and we are so self conscious of our limitations that they begin to be the core of our beliefs about ourselves. Peacocks have their limitations, besides their ugly legs and claws you don't see may Peacocks flying with the sparrows.

If you concentrate on your limitation and compare them to the strengths of others you will never find your own abilities, powers, capacities and talents. There are wonderful things about you that you bring here, look to those and enjoy. You find what you are looking for. If you look to you own abilities you will be like the sparrow that may not be as radiant as the peacock but yet soars high above the trees while all the peacock can do is scream at them.

I had a friend in seminary that fell in love with a girl in class. He was very much in love. One day he notice his neighbor-lady cutting her red roses. He commented on how lovely they were and she offered him some. He said that he would give them to his girlfriend and then the neighbor lady offered to cut him a dozen and tie a ribbon on them also.

He drove across town to his girlfriend's house, gave her the flowers, and confessed his love again. As he was telling her about his love and the roses she stopped him and exclaimed, "Oh look deep down in one of these flowers is an aphid, an insect." My friend was very upset. He said that the colors of the roses was radiant red, the petals looked sculptured and the fragrance was almost intoxicating and all this girl could see was one single microscopic bug.

This it is with many of you. Some of you are so intent and focused on your limitations you fail to see the beauty in yourselves. A number of you spend you entire day looking for the tiniest of faults and never see the radiance in you. You afflict yourselves with sorrow and a sadness that you take to bed with you.

I see you despise yourselves when you make poor choices. I hear you dwell sometimes for days when you fail to meet the expectations of others or worse your own expectations. You harp on your mistakes and what could have been and then blame yourselves time and again and inflict upon yourselves needless pain.

So many of you place so much value on appearances that you inflict daily wounds on yourselves. You are deceived so easily when others appear to be doing well and you are not doing well. You see others who appear to be smarter, who appear to be quicker, prettier, slimmer, and talk better than you. Others appear to be gliding through school while you struggle through your classes on your hands and knees. And you accept the appearance of things as true and come to the conclusion that something is really wrong with you.

A number of us confuse behaviors and performance with our value as a child of God. At the University we are constantly evaluating your scholastic performance, it is what we do. Your job is to study hard and master the content and subject material so that you have the knowledge to graduate and participate and contribute in a meaningful way to your families and society.

But that is not to be confused with the value of your spirit, the worth of your soul or the price of your inherit goodness. How you value yourself and your worth to the Lord and what you mean to others is very different from your day to day performance. Yet many of you put yourselves through much sorrow because you believe that your worth is wrapped up in how well you do, not who you are.

Some days you do well and some days your performance is not as good, but your worth and your values is separate, constant, distinct and beautiful.

One of the greatest self afflictions I see is when a person can't bring themselves to forgive themselves. It is as if you're past transgressions, mistakes, regrets, and trauma seems to haunt you constantly. You know not the Atonement. Yet many of you will say that you know that the Lord has forgiven you, yet you can't and won't forgive yourselves.

Isaiah 53:3-5 If you will be healed of your self-afflicted wounds then you would be healed by the stripes of our Savior.

Alma 7:11-13 You can't suffer enough for your sins, you can't be a redeemer for your own sins, and humans can't do that. Only Christ can and has done that for you. Your sins are blotted out by his suffering and your repentance, the Atonement consoles and heals your infirmities and sickness.

If you will not cease these self-inflictions over your own un-forgiveness then you have left an opening for Satan to exploit. He will take advantage of this grave mistake on your part. For the Father of all lies is not only the great tempter his is also the exploiter of your frailties. By not forgiving yourself Satan expands on your own despising. You may have already hears some of his whispers: "You don't deserve to be happy. See how awful you are. If they really knew you and what you have done they would reject you and leave you." How do we break out of these cycles of self-inflicted afflictions? By searching with the Spirit what is in your heart. How do we break out of this confusion between performance and our worth as children of Heavenly Father? By looking for the goodness in our hearts.

In First Samuel 16, the prophet is sent to anoint a new King of Israel. Saul has sullied and lost his right to lead by pride and disobedience. As the prophet Samuel stands in the House of Jesse, horn of anointing oil in hand he surveys the seven sons of Jesse. Samuel is not different from many of us, he is impressed with the appearance of these the finest of Israel, for he says, "Surely the Lord's anointed is before him.

But the Lord rejects them all in verse 7 the Lord says, "Look not on his countenance, or on his height of his stature. . . for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for the man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart." And with the Lord knowing the heart of the youngest and smallest and most inconspicuous of them all, Samuel anoints David the shepherd boy, the next King of Israel.

The Lord provides your afflictions enough to strengthen you, deepen your charity, and enlarge your soul with humility. But your self-inflicted afflictions are needless pain and sorrow. Inquire of the Holy Spirit of what is in your heart. Explore with the help of the Lord the wonders and beauty that lie therein and the journey I assure you will be beautiful and you will find peace.

For the Lord does not compare you, nor keep a checklist on your performance, nor does he consider your appearance. I testify in the name of Christ that our Heavenly Father looks upon your heart and rejoices in you, his child. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.