“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.” (2 Nephi 2:11)
I remember once talking with a woman who told me she had anxiety issues. When I asked her to describe her experience, she said, “Have you ever been out for a walk, minding your own business, and then out of nowhere a dog rushes out and starts barking at you?” I told her I had been in such situations, even just a few days prior. She replied, “What did you feel like?”
I remarked how I was very startled. My heart rate jumped, breathing grew shallow, and I felt great fear. It was an automatic and immediate response, requiring no thought on my part. I told her it was an uncomfortable feeling as well. She sighed and said, “I feel like that all the time.”
“I feel like that all the time.” Such is the case for many who experience chronic anxiety. Anxiety is designed to be helpful, increasing our awareness and physical capacities for small moments. Some have described this as a “fight or flight” response. Yet these moments are intended to be short and in reaction to true threats. Those who have anxiety disorders have such feelings on a very regular basis, and often in response to threats that are not truly dangerous, but only seem so.
For example, when one of our sons was twelve years old, he was asked to give a short talk to our ward of about 100 people. He accepted the assignment but was very nervous about it. His anxiety increased over time, and he ultimately wanted to back out at the last minute.
I remember the morning he was supposed to give the talk. We had not yet left home to go to church. He was in a full-blown panic, hyperventilating and in great distress. His body was reacting as if he were in physical danger, the same as if he were being chased by a bear or dangled from the edge of a cliff.
My remarkable wife sat him down and explained to him that one, there was no actual danger, even though his mind felt otherwise, and two, the long-term solution to this anxiety was to press forward and confront the fear. Our son agreed to give the talk. It was a very anxious experience for him, but he completed the task.
One might ask, “Why would you require him to do something that caused such distress? Wouldn’t a loving parent intervene and stop the anxious situation from happening?”
The answer to this question lies in an understanding of the long-term benefits of difficult tasks. The story of our first parents and their initial experiences on earth is instructive.
The Garden of Eden was prepared by God, beautifully designed with vegetation, including fruit-bearing trees and other plants. When Adam and Eve were placed in the garden, they were advised they could partake of any of the available fruit, with one exception.
“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
To the best of our knowledge, there was no barbed wire fence surrounding the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There was no large sign with skull and crossbones stating, “DO NOT EAT; IF YOU DO YOU WILL DIE.” It appears Father in Heaven created this tree and fruit within full view and access of His children, the effect of partaking thereof being death, and simply gave a verbal warning about the consequences. This begs the question, why wouldn’t He have done more to prevent access to such a dangerous fruit? Why not put that fruit far out of reach of His children? Why even plant the tree in the first place?
Lehi explains this situation as he counsels with his son Jacob: “And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter. Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:15-16, emphasis added).
What does Lehi mean by “his eternal purposes in the end of man?” This is another way of saying “God’s long-term designs for his children” or “what Father in Heaven wants for his children in the eternal perspective.” So, what are God’s long-term goals for His children?
The scriptures give greater understanding to God’s purposes for us. “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
This two-fold purpose indicates our Father in Heaven wants us to overcome the effects of physical death (immortality) and to live like He does (eternal life). One of the primary effects of the Atonement of Jesus Christ is the gift of resurrection. Because of the Fall of Adam, all born in mortality will die, but thanks to Jesus Christ, that same group will be raised from the dead to never die again (see 1 Corinthians 15:22 and Alma 11:42-43). Thus, God’s first declared purpose of “bringing to pass immortality” has been fulfilled.
The second purpose, eternal life, is different from immortality. Eternal life is to live with God, live like He lives, and is the “greatest of all the gifts of God” (D&C 14:7). Unlike resurrection, the gift of eternal life comes only as we are obedient to the commandments and faithful to our covenants.
We also know that this world was created so we can have the experiences that will help us become like our Father in Heaven. Referring to the creation, God stated, “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:24-25, emphasis added). Hence, a primary purpose of this life is to be tried and proven, to see if we will do those things that we have been commanded to do. Just like any good test would be a rigorous examination of a person’s knowledge and abilities in a certain discipline, the “test of life” is a rigorous examination of our determination to choose the right under difficult circumstances. Let’s review the principles previously outlined:
- God has created opposition in the world, and we are tempted to choose one way or another
- One of the primary reasons for this opposition is to bring to pass God’s goals for His children
- Achieving eternal life is one of God’s main intentions for the human race
- Eternal life can only be attained as we are tested and tried through difficulty
Perhaps this gives greater perspective regarding why life can be difficult at times, and why we are required to pass through trials. Sometimes we view trials as curses, or a deviation from the heavenly plan. However, I believe trials are exactly what we need in order to grow and become like our Father in Heaven. Recently my wife was telling me about a friend who has a son on a mission. Her friend made a comment along these lines: “Before our son went on a mission, we had heard about all the great blessings that come to families when their children are missionaries. We looked forward to that. However, since he has been on a mission, we have had an increase in trials in our lives. I’m not sure why we aren’t being blessed like other families with missionary children.” My heart went out to this good sister, and at the same time I thought, “What makes you think those so-called trials are not actually blessings?”
Suppose I want to get in better physical shape and therefore hire a personal trainer. The trainer and I meet and discuss my goals. We establish a plan that involves increasing my exercise regimen and changing my diet. For the first month, I follow the plan closely. The workouts are intense. My muscles are sore. My fridge is full of fruits and vegetables. My stomach wonders if candy bars have suddenly gone off the market entirely. It is a painful process of change, but I stick to it. I start to notice small increases in my stamina and small decreases in my weight.
After a month, the trainer and I meet again. This time he says, “I’ve decided to change course. I don’t want you to exercise at all. In fact, try not to even break a sweat. Go ahead and eat anything you want, as much as you want, at any time. If it feels good, do it. Don’t worry about following any of the previous plans we had.” I guarantee it would be much easier to follow such counsel than to stick to the original plan. But would such a turn of events be considered a “blessing” to me? Following the new plan would surely result in poorer physical health and decreased energy. That was not what I signed up for. Even though it would be easier in the short term, I know after time I would reflect on my lack of progress and be disappointed. Even though smooth sailing is pleasant, it does not help us grow nearly as much as the struggle that comes with rough seas.
Anxiety is a part of life. It is a normal reaction to many issues. Excessive anxiety can become problematic but can also be effectively managed. We need to remember that “this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God” (Alma 34:32). We are not going to meet the measure of our creation if we do not go through trials and difficulties. If you struggle with anxiety, it could very well be part of your Father in Heaven’s plan to help you learn and become stronger. Try not to view all challenges as something gone awry or amiss. Many challenges are heaven sent, and if managed well, will help us become something much better and more noble.
This has been an excerpt from Peace Be Unto You: Anxiety Management Using Gospel Principles, by David T. Morgan, PhD. The full book addresses multiple aspects of anxiety management and has practical solutions for change. His writings contain insights and keys to apply gospel principles to emotional challenges. You can see more content, connect with him on social media and ask questions on his website, www.ldspsychologist.com.