If Christ doesn’t offer to take away our negative experiences or our suffering, what does He offer? I love the comments of Carlfred Broderick, who said, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is not insurance against pain. It is a resource in the event of pain, and when that pain comes (and it will come because we came here on earth to have pain among other things), when it comes, rejoice that you have resource to deal with your pain. ((Carlfred Broderick, “The Uses of Adversity.”)) In other words, Christ offers us a resource to respond to our negative experiences.
How does this work? Earlier, I said that negative experiences have no meaning until we give them meaning. Consider, for example, the Nephite’s experience with adversity and war: “But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility.” ((Alma 62:41))
Both groups experienced the same adversity, but the adversity took on a different meaning for each group. When we are living in sin, negative experiences can take on meaning that embitters us. Our negative experiences serve as a reminder to us that we’ve been wronged in some way, hurt in some way, and we feel entitled to restitution and perhaps even vengeance. We feel bitterness towards whatever or whomever we feel to be the cause of our hurt. This bitterness of soul is misery. All we can think about is ourselves and how much pain we are in.
In contrast, when we turn to Christ, negative experiences can take on meaning that enlivens us. When we suffer with Christ in our hearts, our pain takes on a new meaning. We are no longer thinking of ourselves, but of others. When a father has lost a child, for example, he become embittered and rail against God and seek to hurt whomever he feels responsible—or his heart can continue to ache for the loss of his child, and he can empathize and seek to be a companion to others who are also hurting. In short, his pain can shrink his compassion and empathy for his fellow human beings, or it can expand his ability to love and serve others.
In summary, Christ doesn’t always remove pain from our lives, He does make the experience of pain qualitatively different. For example, I believe Christ can turn what I would call misery into something I would call sorrow instead. Here’s how this could be diagrammed on the chart:
I wish to emphasize that both experiences are negative experiences. Christ doesn’t transform our negative experiences into positive ones—He simply gives them new meaning, a meaning that takes the edge of misery off of our pain and adds to it a sweetness of self-forgetfulness. hurting in a self-centered way is misery. Hurting with others is still hurting, but it is a kind of hurt that leads to personal growth. President Spencer W. Kimball explains that, with Christ, suffering, pain, and heartache is part of the reason we came to earth. He said,
Being human, we would expel from our lives sorrow, distress, physical pain, and mental anguish and assure ourselves of continual ease and comfort. But if we closed the doors upon such, we might be evicting our greatest friends and benefactors. Suffering can make saints of people as they learn patience, long-suffering, and self-mastery. The sufferings of our Savior were part of his education.
Christ can purify our hearts, and by so doing change the way we experience pain. While the amount of pain may not have changed, the kind of pain we experience is different. I believe that sorrow (as opposed to misery, and as defined here) is a kind of pain that is much easier to endure than misery, because I believe that Christ’s grace enlivens and lifts us when we turn our pain over to Him and let Him transform it.
It’s All about Love
What is the qualitative difference? I know there is a difference because I’ve experienced it, but I’m not entirely sure I know how to articulate the answer to that question. However, that hasn’t stopped me from taking a stab at at least one possibility. When we read Enoch’s account about God weeping, ((Moses 7:28-31)) I believe we see that God’s sorrow is born of love. God is experiencing sorrow because He loves His children.
I think that is the qualitative difference that Christ makes in our own experience of pain. By drawing our thoughts to God and the others around us, He focuses us on what is Other, rather than ourselves. This Other-centric way of seeing makes turns our pain from hurting for ourselves into hurting for others. Here’s how I might label the two different rows on the chart:
In other words, when Christ purifies our hearts, He redeems our pain by turning it into love. Hurting because we love is still hurting, but it’s a sweeter kind of hurt. It isn’t an embittered, self-pitiful kind of hurt. It’s hurt that propels us forward into service, rather than to the couch to eat ice cream in pajamas all day. It’s rather remarkable—Christ works charity and love into our hearts, so that when we hurt, we think of others and hurt for others rather than ourselves. The person who has found serenity in the midst of pain, bereavement, and suffering is the one who no longer thinks of him or herself, but of the suffering of others. Their suffering gives them empathy and compassion. Sorrow is a way of experiencing our suffering in a loving, other-centered way.
Likewise, Christ transforms mere enjoyment into joy, and that transformation also has to do with love. Feeling gratified and satisfied with what I am getting out of life is enjoyment. Feeling gratified by the happiness and success of those I love is joy. I believe that joy is other-centric.
Expressions of Love
I’m now going to make a bold claim: I believe that joy and sorrow are both expressions of love. Love rejoices in the joy of others, and sorrows for the suffering of others. Likewise, joy experienced with a pure heart is centered on others, and sorrow experienced with a pure heart is centered on others. In this way, I believe that joy and sorrow are not altogether separate and distinct from love, but are rather expressions of love. Consider, for example, Ammon’s reaction when he realized how many of the Lamanites were truly converted to Christ. He said,
And now, I ask, what great blessings has he bestowed upon us? Can ye tell? Behold, I answer for you; for our brethren, the Lamanites, were in darkness, yea, even in the darkest abyss, but behold, how many of them are brought to behold the marvelous light of God! … behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God. … Behold, how many thousands of our brethren has he loosed from the pains of hell; and they are brought to sing redeeming love, and this because of the power of his word which is in us, therefore have we not great reason to rejoice? ((Alma 26:2-3))
Ammon experienced joy, but it was because of the blessing God had bestowed upon those whom Ammon served and loved. His joy was focused on others, not himself. His joy was an expression of love—he was rejoicing in the joy of others. Likewise, sorrow is also an expression of love. God’s tears of sorrow for the sins of His children is just one of many examples of other-centered sorrow in the scriptures. The other-centric nature of joy and sorrow is what makes them pure—they are pure from pride and selfishness.
We can see that the converse may also be true: enjoyment and misery could both be expressions of self-centeredness (or malice). When we are focused on ourselves, we take pleasure in our own positive experiences, and find misery in our negative experiences.
In the next article of this series, I will explore how I interpret Lehi’s claim that “men are that they might have joy.” I believe that joy is an expression of love, and that a crucial part of our experience on this earth is to experience pain so that we can learn how to love. In addition, I believe that centering out hearts and thoughts on others brings us peace, and that peace is what we are really searching for in life.