The world has a problem with understanding God. I think we all know that. They see the death and sadness of the world, terrifying diseases and atrocities unfolding unabated, and reject the notion of an all-benevolent God who is also all-powerful. This is a traditional dynamic between non-believers and religion.
Unfortunately I think we latter-day saints sometimes see Him the same way, when we are in distress, or when the rivers of sorrow threaten to overflow. We pray, and are not answered immediately. We understand the overall answer to the problem of evil, at least in theory, but don’t understand the silence of God in those individual moments as we kneel at our bedside. I have been going through a silence of my own lately, and I, too, have given into frustration at what I see as unanswered prayers.
So let me give a brief parable that I think will not only help us understand God, but understand ourselves.
My four-month-old daughter Dagny unfortunately has only one method of solving her problems, whatever they happen to be. When you’re holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And so for Dagny, at the first slight pang of hunger, what does she do?
Wails. Sobs. Cries out in anguish. She’d gnash her teeth, if she had any. From zero to panic in less than a second.
She keeps on crying until her mouth is plugged with the rubber bottle nipple. Sometimes that’s up to fifteen whole minutes later. Why is that? Did it take that long for us to hear her? Did it take that long to figure out she might be hungry? Were we ignoring her for fifteen minutes? Did we just not care? What is wrong with us? Aren’t we as her parents supposed to be good and see to her every need? Aren’t we capable of solving all her problems instantly? That’s how it’s supposed to work, isn’t it? If we are benevolent and, compared to her, all powerful to meet her needs, and we love her, shouldn’t that nipple fill her mouth within a second, or even before she ever cried?
Here’s the reality: I’m a stay-at-home dad, so we keep frozen breastmilk in the freezer. That’s the only way to keep it long-term without it going bad, and even then it only really lasts a month or so. So I have to turn the frozen milk unfrozen. You can’t use a microwave to thaw it out because it can kill the nutrients. The only effective way is hot water. At least at our old duplex, it takes a while for the tap water to turn hot enough to melt the ice. So I have to wait for that, and then put the frozen bag of milk in a plastic container underneath the faucet. Then I wait, all the while Dagny’s shrieks of woe resounding in my ears.
Then, at last, it’s warm enough. I pour the bag into the bottle, probably spilling some. Then I put the nipple in her mouth and it’s like pressing a mute button. A beautiful silence follows and I feel peace again, and I get to look into her eyes as she eats.
She still doesn’t understand why it took a full ten or fifteen minutes to get her fed. She’s incapable of seeing and knowing the whole process. But she doesn’t even know that she’s incapable, and so stares angrily at me/us the whole time until she’s sated.
That was the parable. So what’s that one weird trick to understanding God? (Yes, I’m actually going to tell you, unlike those stupid ads.)
Here it is: patience.
Yep. That’s it.
But that’s not weird! It’s what we hear every Sunday!
Sure. But it certainly is weird when we apply it to the world’s conception of God. Weird meaning unintuitive. Because God is not a wizard. He does not just snap His fingers and instantly make all things better and solve all your problems. He is all-powerful, yes, but not in the Robin Williams’ Genie kind of way. He is bound by certain rules. He can accomplish all things within those rules, but that takes time.
For God uses processes as surely as we do. He is not a wizard, but a chessmaster, who wins not simply by snatching the opponent’s king piece off the board, but moving His pieces—those who choose to be obedient to His commandments, all of whom have their own individual limits—in strategic fashion. He acts within the rules of the game and according to the talents of His enlisted ones, sending a bishop zagging across the board in its diagonal capacity, the rook straight across and back and forth, the knight to hook around and checkmate the enemy queen, all working in concert to win. That victory, though inevitable, takes time.
God uses natural processes in creation. We know He did not create ex nihilo. The matter of the universe existed in a chaotic but eternal state. He stepped in and set forth physical laws, and the matter obeyed Him because He is their God as much as He is ours. Those comparatively simple and few laws shaped the galaxies, brewed stars and carved out planets. Eventually our own planet, once a ball of rock and lava and water, became what it is today, full of over eight million different kinds of animals and covered in an extraordinary variety of plant life. That took time.
If it took millions of years to form our planet, how much more time would it take to create a soul? How much time to create a being like Himself?
All in all, I think it’s pretty clear why God would want us to be developing patience. Why it is an eternal attribute. He has to exercise it constantly! For the work of His own hands, and for the impatient spiritual children He has growing here on Earth.
Elder Holland noted that imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. Boy is that true, and that of course is another reason why we need to be patient with Him. Spencer W. Kimball said that it is usually through other people that God meets our needs. And so in being patient with God, we are also being patient with our brothers and sisters, most of whom we might never meet, but who are crucial to the ever-complicated mechanics of producing blessings expected and unexpected to the prayerful.
But like He cautions us in our dealings with others, God only ever uses people who are willing.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned (D&C 121:41)
Imagine how much patience it takes God to work with His children. He will soften hearts and open eyes, He will gently persuade and suffer us long, but He will never use His priesthood to halt the agency of His children or force the world to be a better place.
And of course, in realizing this, we must also be patient with ourselves. God is in no hurry to get us where we need to be, at least by our standards. He is not sitting there judging a scorecard for each and every choice we make. He sees our potential, us at the end of time, and only then are we judged. We are not judged in this life, only coaxed and directed. However long it takes for us to face the right direction and walk down that path, He will endure it. He has patience with us, and that means we also should have patience with us—with others and with ourselves. There is no need (or even a possibility) to obtain perfection or even just great skill in a jiffy. Perfection takes time. A lot of it.
So when we pray, when we ask for certain blessings, we must first ask for patience, and for meekness, and for “Thy will be done.” Because His way is the best way, and perhaps the only way to satisfy all our needs, those known to us and unknown. Our Heavenly Father needs to work behind the scenes, out of our view, dealing with people who can help grant the blessings we seek, getting all the pieces in the right places, and making certain all involved are spiritually, mentally, even physically where they need to be. And in the meantime, He’s building us.
41 But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.
42 And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.
43 Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.
It’s been said (I think by Elder Holland) that the greatest thrill God has is being merciful. How much greater a thrill does He receive when he finally is able to grant us the blessings we’ve been working so hard for, praying so hard for, and suffering so long for with patience and meekness and the childlike will to submit ourselves to whatever God has in store?
All good works take time, even for God.