Christ at the Column, Antanello da Messina, c. 1470
I’ve had plenty of occasions to contemplate patience lately. I thought about patience as I sat in horrendous traffic on my way to the Temple last Wednesday. I thought about it as I scrubbed scorched milk out of a cooking pot for what felt like an hour. I thought about it as I waited to hear back from an editor that has had one of my manuscripts for months. And, when she finally got back to me with a negative response, I thought about patience as I contemplated the seeming lack of progress of my career.
These are garden-variety, everyday trials of patience, but I've have had opportunities to practice patience on a significantly grander scale. When we stood by helplessly twelve years ago as our tiny baby Tess struggled for breath and life in a NICU incubator; when Anne repeated her older sister’s five-week-premature arrival trick and added a collapsed lung to the mix, just for extra drama; and then, last March, as I sat in another hospital room and watched my father fade from this life.
Perhaps my first significant experience with patience as an adult occurred while I was on my mission to Montreal, Canada. I loved every day of my mission. I thrived on the daily intensive study of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I enjoyed the country and culture, and I found true, deep joy in serving and working with people who wanted to learn more about our church.
But one day, I woke up and couldn’t get out of bed. I was so sick that just walking across our tiny apartment to the bathroom or eating a meal would exhaust me, and I’d have to sleep for several hours to recover. After several visits to the doctor, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). This was a relatively new disorder in 1989. The doctors in Canada tried a few experimental treatments with me, but nothing worked.
My mission president was a physician by training, and for some strange reason, many, many missionaries in our mission had already come down with CFS during the first two years of my mission president’s service. He called me in to see him, and told me that after much prayer and consideration, he’d decided that I’d have to go home. I begged him to change his mind. He was compassionate, but firm. He’d seen other missionaries stay in the field for months in my condition, only to have to be sent home in the end.
When I went back to my apartment that evening, I cried and prayed and cried some more. I was so angry; I couldn’t understand why the Lord would do this to me. I was a good missionary. I loved Christ and His good news, and I loved bearing testimony of both. I had become fluent in French and conversed easily. I kept all the mission rules. I worked hard and got along well with my companions. Didn’t the Lord need me? Why was He punishing me?
In the days before I left Montreal, I spent my waking hours in prayer and scripture study; that’s about all I had the strength to do. One day, I came across this verse in Doctrine & Covenants Section 5:
“Yea, for this cause I have said: Stop, and stand still until I command thee, and I will provide means whereby thou mayest accomplish the thing which I have commanded thee.”
That verse cross-referenced to Isaiah, chapter 30, verse 15:
“In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength: and ye would not.”
No, that’s right, Isaiah: I’d rather not.
But “in returning and rest shall ye be saved”: those words hit me like a thunderbolt. It seemed like they had been written just for me, and the Holy Ghost whispered their truth to me as I read and re-read them. Suddenly, I saw that my getting sick and going home was neither a random accident nor a punishment. It was part of Heavenly Father’s plan for my mission and my life. I might not know the reasons why, but I realized that I could trust Him and obey gracefully.
For the next year, I slept 20 hours every day, and after that, got better very gradually. I learned both patience and humility as I relied on the Lord to guide me through something that I didn’t understand then and still don’t fully understand to this day, almost exactly 24 years later.
Brigham Young taught that when he didn’t understand something, he would pray “Give me patience to wait until I can understand it for myself.” And then he’d keep praying for understanding. (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, p. 75) I try to do the same.
Likewise, patience cannot be separated from trust, faith, and hope. In Proverbs 3:5-6, we read,
“Trust in the Lord with all thy heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”
Why are we always trying to direct our own paths, when the Lord can do it so much better? Our impatience is actually a lack of trust, faith, and humility; it implies that we know better than God does. When we remember to lean not unto our own understanding, we find the beginnings of patience.
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “Patience means active waiting and enduring. It means staying with something and doing all that we can—working, hoping, and exercising faith; bearing hardship with fortitude, even when the desires of our hearts are delayed. Patience is not simply enduring; it is enduring well!” (Uchtdorf, “Continue in Patience," 4/2010)
Oh, that’s hard for me. I have to endure well? When I’m in a trying situation—whether it’s something temporary, like a cranky child, a rude driver, or a broken dish; or something ongoing, like a chronic illness or a relationship that has turned toxic—sometimes it feels like it’s all I can do just to keep my mouth shut.
And that’s a good start. But it’s not enough to grit our teeth and push through; God asks us to work through our trials cheerfully, putting selfish desires aside and reaching out to help others in the midst of our own struggles.
But He does not leave us to that work alone. Speaking to his son Helaman, the prophet Alma counseled, “For I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day.” (Alma 36:3)
Jesus Himself is our ultimate Example of patience in trials. He was patient with His disciples, with His family, and with the multitudes that constantly sought help from Him. He was patient with children and sinners and hypocrites. Then in the Garden of Gethsmane, He patiently bore the weight of every sin and every pain of each one of us, descending below all things (D&C 88:6) that He might raise us all up unto eternal life. At the end of his mortal life, He was humble and patient with those who persecuted and killed Him. No matter what happened, Christ submitted His will to that of His Father and endured to the end with perfect patience.
He calls to us to do the same, always promising His help and grace. He counseled the Prophet Joseph Smith in the revelation recorded in Doctrine & Covenants 101:38: “And seek the face of the Lord always, that in patience ye may possess your souls, and ye shall have eternal life.”
In other words, if we first attain the proper perspective—a vision of what our mortal life is really about—we find that patience comes much more easily. When we seek the face of Christ by remembering Him throughout our days, our burdens become lighter. We’ll possess our souls—body and spirit—instead of letting circumstance control us. We’ll be living with agency, acting and not being acted upon. (2 Nephi 2:14)
Neal Maxwell echoed this, saying “Patience is a willingness…to watch the unfolding purposes of God with wonder and awe—rather than pacing up and down within the cell of our circumstance.” (Maxwell, “Patience,” 11/1979) I love that image. How often do I imprison myself in a cell of my own worry, irritation, and dissatisfaction? Unlocking the door to that cell is as simple as letting go and looking up. The use of patience, like the use of every heavenly virtue, magnifies our agency—which is exactly why we’re commanded to do so.
Though patience in trials is a significant challenge, and patience with those around us can be difficult at times, my biggest struggle in patience is with myself. I live with my significant weaknesses and frailties every hour of every day; I can’t ever escape them. And every time I falter—which is constantly—I’m tempted to get frustrated with myself. Shouldn’t I be better by now? Shouldn’t I have learned these lessons I keep repeating over and over?
But when I feel that temptation to frustration and despair, I try to remember my “personal” scriptures, those verses that opened my eyes and quieted my heart when I was full of anguish on my mission:
“In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength….” “Stop, and stand still until I command thee, and I will provide means whereby thou mayest accomplish the thing which I have commanded thee.”