During last week’s Come, Follow Me reading I was startled as I heard my own voice while listening to the audio of 1 Nephi 17. Laman and Lemuel are complaining to Nephi about all their trials and hardships:
[Our father] hath led us out of the land of Jerusalem, and we have wandered in the wilderness for these many years; and our women have toiled, being big with child; and they have borne children in the wilderness and suffered all things, save it were death; and it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions.
Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy. (1 Nephi 17:20-21, BoM)
“We have suffered” echoed in my mind as I remembered the worst inner dialogue I have ever used in my life–and it was on my mission. “I hate this. I hate being a missionary. I feel so miserable. Why am I suffering so much? I can’t wait for this to be over. I enjoyed my other travel experiences so much more. I would be so much happier if I were anywhere else.” If that’s not self-defeating, I don’t know what is. These words repeated over and over in mind for months. In all fairness, I think I was dealt a rough hand on my mission, but I could have and should have found healthier ways of working through my challenges, misery, pain, and bitterness. (Luckily God taught me much and my inner dialogue doesn’t reflect the type of missionary I turned out to be.)
Part of my problem was that I had started my mission feeling like a Nephi. I knew the scriptures, I loved the Gospel, I was excited to teach people, I had made good choices my whole life, I had an education, and on and on. But God needed to teach me some important lessons and, as a result of a unique personality combined with some very difficult circumstances, I took these lessons very hard––in fact they were devastating. I felt like God had broken me down to nothing so I clung desperately to the accomplishments and qualities I had once used to pad my identity.
One of the most challenging things God taught me was in revealing a series of lies I had told myself about my character. As He exposed those lies, I fought the truth, desperately afraid of what would happen to me. But then, as I surrendered to His “stretching and ‘higher’ ways,” He helped me accept who I really was (both the good and the bad) and begin building a new character better founded in the teachings of Jesus Christ (see Maxwell, “Consecrate Thy Performance,” General Conference, April 2002.) For example, I had to accept that I was actually judgmental and self-righteous. As God built me back up, He taught me how to love people wherever they’re at and how to graciously acknowledge and admit my own weaknesses and shortcomings.
My “suffering in the wilderness” experience leaves me with sympathy for Laman and Lemuel. It is so easy to immediately label them as “the bad guys” in the narrative and every time I re-read the Book of Mormon I want to fall into that old pattern. But I am catching myself––I don’t want to judge them. I get why they were so upset! I left all my comforts, too, and wandered in the wilderness for a long time. Suffering is the worst! No one wants to suffer.
So, how do we solve the Laman and Lemuel dilemma? When we’re suffering in the wilderness, what do we do? For me, I’m going to change my inner dialogue and, instead of taking things so hard, I’m going to try and laugh more and be actively grateful for every blessing, the big and small. I’m going to submit more readily to God’s “stretching and higher ways” rather than cling to whatever it is God wants me to give up. Instead of being angry about what God is supposedly doing to me, I’m going to focus on what I can be doing to make life happier for others. Instead of rhapsodizing about the past, I’m going to look forward to the future and envision the happy, enjoyable times ahead. Instead of asking, why is this happening to me, I’m going to ask, what does God want me to learn from this experience? How is this experience going to change me in positive ways; how will it make me a better mother, wife, friend, disciple?