The opening paragraphs of the exciting new narrative history of the LDS church begin, oddly, in a jungle village on the slopes of Mount Tambora, Indonesia in 1815.
Think about how nonsensical that seems for the history of a religion founded in 1830 in upstate New York.
The narrative quickly connects the dots, however, revealing how the eruption of Mount Tambora caused dramatic weather changes across the world, which contributed to driving the struggling Smith family away from their home in Vermont to a new opportunity in New York, where young Joseph Smith would eventually find his destiny as founder and leader of the Mormon faith.
But this is an odd choice, right? Do we really need to draw the line that far back? Couldn’t we just say, “Joseph Smith Senior had a bad year on the farm in Vermont and moved his family to New York?” or even, “Joseph Smith first expressed concern about religion while living in New York…” Do we need to trace the causal chain back to an Indonesian volcano?
More importantly, isn’t it a little risky to put causal emphasis on natural disasters in a chapter about the establishment of a church?
In fact, a cynical view of Mormonism would probably interpret this story by asking something like, “Wait, are you trying to claim that God caused a volcano to erupt and therefore caused the suffering of countless human beings around the world for years just so he could move the Smith family to be closer to the gold plates?” The implication, of course, is that this is an incredibly unjust and overpowered activity for an omnipotent God who has our best wishes at heart.
Of course, the history itself makes no such claim about God, or the deeper reasons behind what happened leading up to the Smiths move, but some saints are likely to see God in an erupting volcano. Those of us who may be in the midst of struggles of some sort might easily wonder, “is my suffering also for a greater purpose?” “Is my suffering a message from God?” and, “Why doesn’t God help me?”
For the hurting soul, I wonder if the story of the volcano and the trials of the Smith family may actually not go back far enough. When placed in the context of a secular world, I worry the story of the Smith family migration might come across as arrogant on the part of those believers who say things like “suffering has a purpose.” Not because we are wrong necessarily, but because we may fail to be sufficiently sensitive to the aching hearts of those who are feeling unsure about their own purpose, and God’s awareness of their pain. It may feel like a pat on the shoulder and a patronizing, “God works in mysterious ways,” to those who feel their lives are directly under the cloud of a personal volcano eruption.
In other words, are we being clear enough in teaching that God will turn all things to our good – even the bad things – when we share stories this way? Or are we inviting further doubt by making it seem that – because we’re talking about a divinely guided establishment here – the divine wanted countless millions to suffer just so a little family would be forced to move?
I want to examine the questions this scenario brings up: Who is at fault for the suffering on earth, is there a purpose to it, is it a message from God, am I just collateral damage in God’s plans, and, why doesn’t God help me.
Seems like an easy subject to cover in blog format…. right? … right?
Part 1: The Blame Game
I remember working in a restaurant and, one day, as we ran out of ranch dressing at the “salad station,” one of the servers became irate. He shouted and threw the containers. He searched the assignment chart to see who had been assigned the responsibility of refilling the dressings. He checked the work schedule to make sure that person had actually worked that day. He ranted and raved and took up far more time hunting down the person to blame for his problem than it would have taken to simply refill the dressing container.
In my undergraduate studies I tried to do research on blame. However what I found was that there was almost no research on the subject at that time. Blame is something that comes fairly naturally to us all, and we can see how it negatively affects relationships and jobs, but we really don’t have a clue as to why we feel the need to assign blame.
More recently, some interesting theories based on observed behavior shed some light on possible reasons behind this behavior. It turns out that the psychology of placing blame is remarkably deep, complex, and there is no single clear reason behind it.
One thing researchers have noticed is that we are hyper attuned to the idea that if there is suffering, or a “moral patient,” there simply must be a “moral agent” who caused it, (even when there isn’t).
Why we seem to be wired for this kind of dyadic mentality is uncertain, but we can see it happen all the time. When we notice something goes wrong – somebody is injured so a “moral patient” exists – we instantly look for somebody or something to fill the “moral agent” role.
And when the victim seems to have been injured by an act of nature?
Our psychology makes us blame God.
Part 2: Who Does God Blame?
Our tendency to blame and our sense of justice are closely intertwined. We use blame to figure out who deserves to be punished. This is hugely complicated as we examine not just who is to blame, but every little aspect of their agency and experience in the incident. The more experience they have with the pain, the less likely we are to blame them. The more agency they seem to have, the more likely we are to blame them.
We see this in action all the time in our legal system as sides of a case bring up every misstep, every past bad action, every possible alternative. Does the driver of the vehicle have a history of getting speeding tickets? Was the pedestrian using a marked crosswalk? Was she dressing in inappropriately? Was there a warning label?
Blame is a defense mechanism, a method of attack, and an easy lie to make. It’s second nature to us yet we often use it to distort the truth, and to avoid solving problems. But how does God use blame?
My first encounter with the question of how God assigns blame came when I read about the Exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt when I read God say this:
I will harden Pharaoh’s heart…
God claims to be the one behind Pharaoh’s actions. Of course, if we believe in the agency of mankind, then we can’t accept this statement in a literal sense. Joseph Smith even changed it in his inspired translation to read that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.
But this is not the only time God makes such sweeping statements. While it is clear that God both gives us and honors our agency, it is equally clear that God himself takes the credit for so much! In particular, God, through his prophets, claimed to be responsible for victory in battle, as well as defeats; for natural disasters; the rise of kings and kingdoms; the establishment of Zion; and so much more.
Why is that? Why does God, over and over again, claim responsibility for not just acts of nature, but the bad acts of individual humans?
Part 3: How far back do you need to go?
I suppose that the historians writing the LDS Church history decided to stop at the volcano eruption in their story because any further back and you’ve switched from history to geology and that’s only exciting for a very small *ahem* strata of the population. But let’s imagine the LDS Church history authors had begun even earlier. “When the crust of the earth cracked into plates…” Would that have made it seem less presumptuous in the minds of the doubter or the cynic? Not really. Once you get to the Volcano you’re either blaming God or Nature and either way there’s no viable “next step” in the blame game.
So was the 1815 eruption of Tambora the ultimate source of suffering associated with the Smith migration? Or could we possibly go elsewhere? Can we definitively tie it to God or the devil or anything? And is there any connection between this natural disaster and all other forms of pain on the earth? Is God found in random natural acts, or is there no deeper meaning to geology and physics?
The lowest common denominator for pain found in Christianity is the Fall of Adam – where our mythology states suffering began. But aside from providing a source, can this doctrine also provide meaning, or even hope?
Really, we should all be dead by now.
Set the wayback machine to 1. Like, literally the first day. (We’re not going to get sidetracked into the age of the earth or the literalness of the garden. Just stick with me for a while longer.) We find Adam and Eve in a sparkly pain-free paradise where nothing can go wrong and it never even rains. Jesus Christ has created the entire universe. His work. At some point he makes this earth.
Then, importantly, LDS doctrine tells us that God gives this earth to Adam and Eve and makes them ““lord or governor of all things” related to this earth. (see: Joseph Smith, Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985), 2:12) This is a big deal for one HUGE reason: Their decisions now apply to all of the earth and everything on it.
Jesus Christ – God and creator of all that is (and “all that is” at this point has been identified as being “good,”) tells Adam and Eve “you can have whatever you want, do whatever you want. But I forbid you from eating this fruit.
In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.“
I don’t think he was saying “I’m going to kill you if you eat that.” That would be really unjust. I think he was saying, “look: death is bad. If you eat that fruit, you will die. therefore, I must warn you. I must tell you not to eat that fruit. If you do, you will die. But, I’m putting it here because it has to be your choice whether you eat it or not.”
So there’s some deep waters here, but I’ll try to avoid them for sake of not diluting the message. But let me sum it up this way: Basically Adam and Eve were presented with a choice – to stay with God in the garden, or to leave him forever.
And because God had given Adam dominion over the whole earth, his choice would be for Adam’s entire kingdom: the earth and all of his descendants. In the terms of our Dyadic perspective of blame, they now have both ALL the agency and ALL the experience.
So what did they do? They walked away from God.
So this is the point where people say, “Okay, he walked away from God, but so what? It made life harder? It made it so they could have kids?” But I don’t think that’s really a complete picture of the sheer magnitude of this choice.
The consequence for the fall was death, yes, but it was also walking away from God. And God is the personification of everything good.I think that’s why Mormon says:
all things which are good cometh of Christ; otherwise men were fallen, and there could no good thing come unto them.
He’s indicating that literally every good thing is thanks to God. That means that falling away from God is falling away from literally every good thing.
Not just weeds growing in your corn fields. Not just labor pains. Not just death. By rejecting God and accepting Satan’s temptations and the fall, the consequence is not just death but no life. No joy. No happiness. No peace. Nothing that can be called “good.”
Am I making sense here? If Adam and Eve had instantly collapsed in death, and the earth plunged into the sun immediately after the forbidden fruit were eaten it would have been entirely appropriate.
Before the fall: this is Christ’s creation. Nothing imperfect exists here. Only the potential for imperfection according to our agency. After the fall: absolutely no promise of anything good. Ever.
We. Should. All. Be. Dead.
Or writhing in the torture pits of Shiwan Khan. Or mutated by galactic radiation belts. Or crushed by a meteor. Bottom line: we have absolutely no reason to think that this fallen world would be anything approaching nice.
The shocking thing isn’t “why do bad things happen to good people?” it’s, “Why the heck am I even breathing?”
King Benjamin knew the answer to this question:
[God] is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another…
Lehi also spoke about this:
the days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh; wherefore, their state became a state of probation, and their time was lengthened, according to the commandments which the Lord God gave unto the children of men. For he gave commandment that all men must repent; for he showed unto all men that they were lost, because of the transgression of their parents.
This life – this whole earth – is a grace period between the Fall of Adam and the consequences of that Fall. Every breath, every kind word, every act of service, every painting, every song, every good book, your job, your family, literally anything you can think of that is good is thanks to God holding back the consequences of the Fall.
Part 4: Taking Credit, Taking the Blame.
According to psychologists, our minds hare “hyper-attuned” to seeking out an agent behind suffering. When no immediate moral agent for suffering is evident, we tend to look at God without even thinking about it. In one survey, respondents easily identified God as the person with the most agency and least experience, meaning he was the most free to act in relation to suffering, but never the recipient of harm. Moral Typecasting Theory says that once we “cast” God in the role of perpetrator (or “agent”), we have a very difficult time re-casting him as victim, or sufferer.
This leads people to accuse God of being unjust, or lacking in power. Surely, they reason, if God had power to help, he would help.
Yet even as these voices accuse God, they also identify the justice of God’s ability to suffer with us.
Because Jesus Christ is the creator of this world – the ultimate agent, he has the ability to take full responsibility for it. His world, his fault. And he does . I think that that’s what all those verses in the scriptures are hinting at. He’s not claiming he manipulated the mind or heart of Pharaoh, but he’s willing and able to take the blame for what Pharaoh is about to do, and ultimately pay the price for it.
He’s not saying he stirred up Israel’s enemies against their own agency, but as the ultimate agent, he is taking the blame for it.
God stood by and allowed Adam and Eve to choose a world full of randomness, cruelty, and injustice. Therefore he is able to place himself “on the hook” for everything that happens here.
But not only does he take responsibility for every last bit of injustice, pain, suffering, and death, but he also allows us to receive the blessings for all the good we do! He could just as easily take responsibility for every act of human kindness, every pile of firewood chopped by the scouts, every great piece of art or moment of compassion. But he doesn’t. He lets us keep that. He helps us grow those traits in ourselves. When Christ says “look what I did” he only takes credit for the flaws and the sins.
Part 5: Our Choice
So, here we are, on the slopes of Mount Tambora. The ash cloud is stretching past the horizon and millions of people are about to experience a micro-ice-age, with crops lost and lives disrupted. Some may die. Some will move to New York State. What do you do with that information?
The reality is that you choose.
Do you need to find the ultimate agent of this injustice? Then blame God. It’s appropriate and he even lets us do it. When we pray for meaning God doesn’t hesitate to involve himself in our search. He accepts his role as ultimate agent whenever we need him to.
Are you the person who doesn’t need to know who forgot to fill the ranch, preferring instead to just get on with work? Great. Just get on with the work in front of you. It’s a wonderful gift you have and there are great blessings ahead for you. But, if we mean to truly emulate Christ, then we have to recognize the suffering of others and that some of that suffering may be due to seeing God as the source of so much pain.
Our role, perhaps, is to ease that pain by helping, when possible, people also see God as the source of so much good. And, when we fail to do that, to be there with our suffering siblings as Christ is.
11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
President Gordon B. Hinckley taught: “As members of the Church of Jesus Christ, ours is a ministry of healing, with a duty to bind the wounds and ease the pain of those who suffer.” I believe that Christ is our example in this, not just by taking the blame, but by taking the pain.
Part 6: God the Agent, God the Victim
Remember that mental habit I mentioned? It’s hard for people to see somebody as agent and then mentally shift and see them as victim? That one? Well it’s true. For those of us who feel some sort of anger, frustration, or lack of understanding when it comes to God, it’s going to be much harder to see him as any sort of benevolent being, much less a friend.
But the message of Christ is a message of a double-being. A creator – the agent, and a redeemer – the willing victim. Christ fills the role of the blamed person behind all the bad, and he also suffers for it. He fills the role of not just the source of suffering but the victim of his own creation. Why is that?
Because by taking the blame for all of it, and suffering for it ALL, he can relieve us from the burden of the consequences of our sins.
Every bad act you performed can really, ultimately, be blamed on God. After all, he is the causal source of everything. He is the one who should be punished for putting you in this position, surely. And, having shouldered that punishment for us, there is no need for a punishment to be meted twice – as that would also be unjust.
13 Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.
14 Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness.
Christ’s sacrifice allows us to experience pain, mistakes, and even sins, without being condemned by them. Elder Hafen put it this way:
Adam and Eve learned constantly from their often harsh experience. They knew how a troubled family feels. Think of Cain and Abel. Yet because of the Atonement, they could learn from their experience without being condemned by it. Christ’s sacrifice didn’t just erase their choices and return them to an Eden of innocence. That would be a story with no plot and no character growth. His plan is developmental—line upon line, step by step, grace for grace.
So if you have problems in your life, don’t assume there is something wrong with you. Struggling with those problems is at the very core of life’s purpose…
Paul said, “If so be that we suffer with him,” we are “joint-heirs with Christ.”15 All of His heart, all of our hearts.
What possible pearl could be worth such a price—for Him and for us? This earth is not our home. We are away at school, trying to master the lessons of “the great plan of happiness”16 so we can return home and know what it means to be there. Over and over the Lord tells us why the plan is worth our sacrifice—and His. Eve called it “the joy of our redemption.”17 Jacob called it “that happiness which is prepared for the saints.”18 Of necessity, the plan is full of thorns and tears—His and ours. But because He and we are so totally in this together, our being “at one” with Him in overcoming all opposition will itself bring us “incomprehensible joy.”…
We cannot really feel charity—Christ’s love for others—without at least tasting His suffering for others, because the love and the suffering are but two sides of a single reality. When we really are afflicted in the afflictions of other people, we may enter “the fellowship of his sufferings”27enough to become joint-heirs with Him.
May we not shrink when we discover, paradoxically, how dear a price we must pay to receive what is, finally, a gift from Him. When the Savior’s all and our all come together, we will find not only forgiveness of sin, “we shall see him as he is,” and “we shall be like him.”28