Laguna Beach, 1993. As fierce wildfires fueled by 70 mph Santa Ana winds swept through the Laguna Canyon and hurtled towards their neighborhoods, several families in our Laguna Beach ward found themselves literally racing to escape the 200-feet-high flames. When it was over, the fire had claimed 366 homes, and, though most of our ward members’ homes were spared, one family, the Hansens, only had time to grab a few photo albums and run before their house burned to the ground. At the next fast and testimony meeting, *Brother Jones, a former stake president, stood at the pulpit and testified that at the crucial moment when the flames bore down on his house, he had commanded the fires to turn back, and thus, because of his righteous use of the priesthood and his faith, his home had been spared. Meanwhile, the Hansens sat in the congregation, faces blank.
Now I must point out that Brother Hansen had been a bishop of that ward and that he and his wife are very good people who know how to exercise faith. So, did the fact that their house burned down mean that they were lacking in faith? That if Brother Hansen had only used his priesthood, their house would have been spared? (Imagine Brother Hansen sitting in that fast and testimony meeting, thinking, “Ah, yes—the old turn-back-the-flames-with-the-priesthood trick. Wish I’d thought of that one.”) In short, were the Hansens less righteous, less deserving of a miracle than Brother Jones?
Of course not. Most of us know that it’s not as simple as that. I recognize that while Brother Jones’ faith may have played a part in his home being saved—who am I to say it wasn’t a case of divine intervention?—I submit that he was being presumptuous and perhaps even arrogant, not to mention downright insensitive, in his assertion that his faith had saved his home. Likewise, most of us recognized recently that Pat Robertson was being arrogant and self-righteous and just plain silly when he claimed that the earthquake in Haiti was God’s judgment for the deal the Haitians made with the Devil hundreds of years ago.
Both of these assumptions rest on the ideas that A. we know what God is thinking, B. what befalls us is God’s will and is the result of our righteousness or lack thereof (use of the priesthood and faith=house spared; deal with the Devil=earthquake), and, C. we can therefore control what happens to us. But we should know that if God in His mercy causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust, it follows that—as a natural result of living in an imperfect world—fires, earthquakes, and other disasters, as well as the proverbial rain, also fall upon the just and the unjust. Yes, miracles can and do occur through the use of faith and the priesthood, and the Lord does bless us for our obedience and allow us to suffer the consequences of our disobedience, but God’s judgments aren’t always—usually?—easily recognizable or executed in this life, nor are we qualified to decide who is ultimately obedient or disobedient. In other words, life is much more complex than cause/effect formulas.
I’m guessing that most of us try not to be a Pat Robertson or even a Brother Jones, but how often do we make flawed assumptions about causes and effects, though perhaps on a smaller scale? “If I’d only had more faith, I might have been cured,” we might think, or “What did I/they do to deserve this?” “No wonder her daughter got pregnant out of wedlock—she let her wear tank tops and bikinis,” we might think, with a trace of smugness, or, “We reap what we sow.”
I have an LDS friend whose husband is a real estate developer; they’ve been financially well off for years—until the downturn in the economy. They are good people, generous with their time, talents, and means. Last February, when her husband was coming home every day, shoulders slumped, with one piece of bad news after another—more foreclosures, the possibility of bankruptcy—and my friend was lying awake at night, weeping, fraught with worry, one of her friends casually mentioned during a Relief Society meeting that the economic crisis was in part a judgment on wealthy church members, who were finally getting what they deserved.
Yes, sometimes we get what we deserve—for good or for ill—and sometimes God’s judgments and will are apparent. But most of the time it’s not so clear-cut. And let’s face it: in the grand scheme of things none of us really wants what we deserve, because we’re all lacking, and we all need God’s grace. We want mercy, not justice. The best we can do, then, when tragedy befalls another, is avoid judging and offer kindness and love and a helping hand. The least we can do—the very least—is refrain from kicking each other when we’re down.
*Name has been changed.
How can we avoid falling into the Pat Robertson trap in our own lives? How can we avoid being a Brother Jones? What false assumptions have you made about someone else’s trials? What false assumptions have others made about yours? How has another’s kindness helped you through adversity?