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Light in Dark Places

Light in Dark Places | Stephen Hancock

Before I begin, brothers and sisters, I just want to say something about my introducer: She has not held prestigious chairs at nationally recognized institutions. She has not made a name for herself as an executive at a multi-national corporation or as an entrepreneur. She has not held high position in the church or the state. Some might see her choosing not to have a career as a waste of considerable talent, talent I get to see when few others do. I see it as her listening to the spirit and choosing to use those talents in the way the Lord asked her to. Not only our children, but also countless children in our community, have had the chance to benefit from her love and attention. La’ie doesn’t know what it owes to Carrie. I know that whatever the Lord asks of her she will do, and I say with Solomon, “Who can find a avirtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.”

Now for my talk, which I hope will be worth your time, as I know you sacrifice the chance to do lunch, some of you, to be here, because the caf closes.In the 17th chapter of 1st Kings, we read of a famine in the land of Gilead. Elijah had sealed the heavens in order to bring the people of the land to repentance. After being fed miraculously in the wilderness, Elijah goes to a city in which God has “commanded a widow woman” to “sustain him.” When he finds the widow, however, and asks her for food, she replies:“As the LORD thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die” (1 Kings 17:12)

The result of this interaction is the miracle in which the cruse of oil does not fail, and the barrel of meal does not waste, but at this moment, the woman involved does not see that miracle. She is faithful, and, we might assume, progressing in the light of the gospel—the Lord has asked her to fulfill a vital mission—but she is not seeing that light. It is a very dark place to be: to see only the chance to eat a last meal and die for both herself and her son. Brothers and sisters, we live in a time when the gospel is on the earth, and we have much to be thankful for. We sing “The day dawn is breaking” and “Brightly beams our Father’s mercy,” but there are times when what presents itself most fully is not a breaking dawn, and while our father is merciful, it is hard to see the light that mercy sheds.
Sometimes this darkness is short lived. We pass through local cloud cover. Sometimes it is more protracted, and we may feel like darkness is all there is, because we cannot reach back and access the memory of the times when the light was bright around us. While our father’s light always shines, there are times when we simply cannot, whether for any fault of our own or not, see it clearly. I would like today to address those times and suggest that we can have hope without denying the terrible despair that can accompany such times or the challenges those times present.
In speaking of MDD or major depressive disorder, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the quorum of the 12 calls it: an affliction so severe that it significantly restricts a person’s ability to function fully, a crater in the mind so deep that no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively—though I am a vigorous advocate of square shoulders and positive thinking!

I would like to address this sort of challenge. While not everyone encounters MDD, I feel many of the remarks that I will make, while having special significance for those who have struggled with the terrible nighttime of this disorder, will be applicable to all of us, as we will all have to pass through darkness at some point in our lives. 
In the Book of Mormon, we are repeatedly told—it is one of the most repeated doctrines in the Book of Mormon—that if we will obey the commandments of the Lord we will prosper in the land, but if we do not we will be cut off from the presence of the Lord. So why is it that even though we are trying to do what is right we have times when, with the Prophet Joseph Smith we feel to ask, “ O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” 

I do not know why these things happen in each individual case, but I am sure that if you are feeling darkness of spirit in your life, you are not alone. Elder Holland speaks of a struggle with depression when he was a young husband. Joseph Smith evidently struggled with a moment or moments when he felt in the dark as to where his father in heaven was. George Albert Smith had repeated bouts of what seems in retrospect to have been major depressive episodes while an apostle that made him unable to function for several years of his life. 

Even the savior had a moment when he felt that his father had forsaken him. Though, as Elder Holland pointed out to us when he was here recently, his father never left, and the light of his love was assuredly shining, the savior felt alone there on the hill of Golgotha. Sometimes such challenges can seem like unexpected calamities that no one understands but ourselves. But as Peter points out, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you” (1 Peter 4:12). 

So, if the apostles, prophets, and the savior himself cannot avoid moments of darkness and separation from God’s light, we can assume that no effort on our part, no degree of righteousness, no strength of character or manly fortitude will make us immune to such experiences. Anyone can, and very many will have to deal with such situations. So for the rest of this talk, I will want to talk about what we can do when we face these parts of our life. When we are having good times in our life, we often think they will go on forever that way. That was the case for my wife and I when we married, got through 4 years of Phd education and work and got a job straight out of my program that provided for us through the first two of our great kids. We had our problems, like everyone, but we were cruising, and we knew that our faith would carry us through whatever came. There are many references in the scriptures to light. The majority of these references are in relation to our Saviour Jesus Christ. Christ said to the Nephites, “Behold I am the light; I have set an example for you” (3 Nephi 18:16) and to those in Jerusalem, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). We figured we were living in that light, and that would mean a string of joy with a few minor problems like a B on a report card, a broken transmission occasionally, or a child who didn’t get into the ivy league college he or she wanted, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Any of you who know my wife will know that she is a happy person. People comment on it. For most of her life, my wife was the sort of person about whom the apostle might have been speaking when he said, “Ye are the children of light.” She naturally carries a light about her, and that is the result of her relationship with her savior. That was for the most part our situation at that point in our lives. We were prospering in the land.

Then in April of 2009, our third child, Mathew, was born. The excitement of a new child carried us through the first few months of sleeplessness, sibling rivalry, and other transitions, but then something changed. Something inside of her changed. The hope and joy that brought light into her life dimmed. As the months went on, she found herself in complete darkness. For the first time she began to doubt, to wonder and to question, and she began to stumble. She had never really questioned her faith or the direction God was taking her life, but for the first time, she did. Everything she held close: her family, faith, confidence, joy, crumbled away, leaving her feeling alone, disconnected, and unsure. She often couldn’t feel anything or only sadness and despair when she did, and she certainly couldn’t find any light. This lasted years and while it has gotten less it hasn’t really ever left, but over time my wife has learned an important lesson, and she has brought me along: even when there is darkness, that darkness doesn’t have to become the focus of our lives.

In President Uchtdorf’s April 2013 General Conference talk he describes a painting in his office entitled “Entrance to Enlightenment”. President Uchtdorf states, “The painting shows a dark room with an open door from which light is shining. It is interesting to me that the light coming through the door does not illuminate the entire room -- only the space immediately in front of the door.” He continues by saying, “To me, the darkness and light in this painting are a metaphor for life. It is part of our condition as mortal beings to sometimes feel as though we are surrounded by darkness . . . but even though we may feel lost in the midst of our current circumstances, God promises the hope of His light -- He promises to illuminate the way before us and show us the way out of darkness.”

God will illuminate one step at a time if we turn to him. He is there wanting to show the way, but it is up to us to decide if we’re willing to trust in him that the next step we take will take us one step away from our darkness and one step closer to his light. For my wife some steps were a constant stream of prayers to get her through just a part of a day, one small act of service for her family or someone else, making sure to read her scriptures even if it was just one verse, a conference talk at just the right time, especially those by Elder Holland. A few years later after renovations and rededication were complete she was able to attend the temple, one more small moment of light to help her see at least the next step. Other steps came to be going for a run to help clear her mind or hiding in her room to read a book or sleep, and other activities she could do by herself to help calm her mind. One step at a time and slowly, with a lot of help and patience from her family and her Heavenly Father, she was able to find a time when her steps were more in God’s light than in her darkness. “He that followeth me,” the savior said, “shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

I have come to love the song Lead Kindly LightLead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom; Lead thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home; Lead thou me on! Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see The distant scene—one step enough for me. Certainly we find ourselves individually and collectively in darkness at times. As my wife’s story points out, the trick is to follow the light we have. No matter how dark it is, retreating further into the darkness makes little sense. Instead, we need to seek the light wherever we can find it, no matter whether that is easy, as it sometimes is, or difficult, as it is at other times. I would like to make some suggestions at this point on how to do so. 

Before I do so, however, I would like to let you know my own story. Those who know me know I’m generally up-beat. I have down days, like anyone, and I get angry like anyone. Sometimes I’m hopeful, and sometimes I’m a complainer. But generally, I have been able to shrug things off easily at most points in my life. I tend to make bad jokes as often as possible. I know more chicken and road jokes than most of you have had hot meals.  
But after the birth of my fourth child, it wasn’t just my wife who got the baby blues. Suddenly I was in the midst of the deepest darkness I had ever known. Some of that experience doesn’t bear relating here, but it was more than simply a bad day or two. I did not honestly know how I would get through it. There was a long stretch where I felt more often than not nothing. There were other times when I would wake in despair each day and claw my way through a world in which I did not recognize hope. For someone who tries however haltingly and imperfectly to live according to the spirit of the Lord, I was completely unsure how to function because it was hard to feel that sprit. And what was worse, I didn’t know what was causing this. A lack of sleep, yes, and other stresses may have triggered it, but I didn’t understand why my mind and heart were acting in this way. I decided to seek help, but finding a counselor was difficult, and when I did find places to go, I didn’t find someone who understood what I was encountering. And the longer this went on, the harder it was to continue. If you’ve ever closed your eyes and tried to walk, you may know that each step gets more difficult to take, because you have less surety of what’s in front of you. I felt soon as if I did not know what steps to take. 

And this leads me to my first suggestion, which is when the lights go out, keep moving, especially if you are prepared. In his famous dream, Lehi sees “numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led to the tree by which I stood.” But the journey soon becomes less than pleasant, and “there arose a mist of darkness, yea even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way.” When the darkness comes, it becomes very easy to just wander, and that can be dangerous, physically and spiritually. Life does not stop when you encounter darkness while you look to extricate yourself, and Satan knows that the voices of temptation can lure you away from the path especially easily at those times. But “others” were not lost. They “came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron and they did press forward through the mist of darkness.” 

Brothers and sisters, I hope that when you encounter darkness that you are holding to that rod, and I hope that you keep your grip as you press forward. I can tell you that when darkness descended for me, I had little light to go on to keep pressing forward, but what led me through the mists was doing the things I had been doing—following the path I had been following and clinging to the rod that I had clung to to that point. I kept going to my classes and teaching, even when my heart was numb to it. I kept following the commandments even at those times when I didn’t get the warm feelings our primary teachers told us would be there when we did good things. And I kept fulfilling my duties to my family, even when I didn’t feel much in the way of overwhelming love when I looked at my children. Why did I do this? Because faith meant telling myself that last week I knew what was right. I had read the scriptures, and even if I didn’t feel it right now, I knew what was right because I had had the Lord reveal it to my heart in times past, and I walked on. I didn’t have new direction from the Lord, but his directions hadn’t changed. So I kept following the light I knew of. I often say that even if you don’t care now, you may in a week or two. Keep on doing what you know you need to do. And among those things was to keep reading the scriptures. Remind yourself of the lessons you have learned in the past and the things that have been important to you. Even when things aren’t so dark, this is wise. We are creatures that live in time, and we forget. Keep reminding yourself why you do what you do, or others will try to lure you into doing other things. Hold, brothers and sisters, to the rod.

And this leads me to my second suggestion. The light can shine, but even when it wants to, we have to invite it. The Lord is always reaching out, but sometimes other things make it hard for us to take his hand. Do not be guilty of shutting the curtains when the light is trying to come in the window. Even when you are in darkness, there are often opportunities to have flashes of light. In terms of walking with your eyes closed, something I’ve probably tried an odd amount of times, it becomes much easier if you open your eyes every few seconds. You don’t really need to see everything not to run into things. They don’t change that quickly. So open yourself to the light as often as you can, even when it’s dark. Often, when I was at my darkest points, the one thing that could pierce the darkness was the spirit of the Lord. And it didn’t drive it away permanently. But priesthood blessings, scripture reading, prayer, and listening to conference addresses and other spiritual messages were able to bring me the spirit. Moroni tells us that if we ask with a sincere heart, God will manifest the truth of all things to us by the power of the Holy Ghost, and the Lord keeps his promises. Seek the truth, and leave yourself open to those times when the Lord would teach you. Even in the darkest times, this will give you moments of light. President George Albert Smith, even after his encounters with real dejection, said:If you feel discouragement at any time, . . . go to some quiet place and kneel down and pray to the Lord and ask him to rebuke the evil spirit, for you may always know that discouragement and despondency are the result of an evil influence. Some of the best men in the world have been attacked by it and only by persistent prayer and faith have they been able to rebuke it. . . . A man cannot be unhappy while the spirit of the Lord is burning in his bosom.(qtd in Woodger 145)

Of course he knew by his own experience that this didn’t mean the end of one’s problems, and we can’t assume an apostle was just not praying before. But it does mean there are ways to put off the influence of the things on both sides of the veil that would try to bring us down, even if only to give us the glimpse of the light that will keep us going. There have been times when I have been in my most difficult hours, throughout my life, when I have felt compelled to spend a lot of time in the scriptures, more time than I would otherwise think is necessary, perhaps. Don’t begrudge yourself the time you need, when you are struggling, to seek the Lord’s guidance as much as you may need.

My final suggestion is somewhat like the second, but takes it a step further. I would suggest that you not only study the words of the Lord and seek his guidance, but also that you do the work of the Lord. God has so organized his work that every worthy disciple may participate, and I don’t think that is accidental. As we fulfill callings, serve in the temple, minister as part of the relief society or priesthood quorums, do missionary work, or serve in whatever other capacity to bring our fellow men to Christ and make their lives more fulfilling, the Lord will guide our efforts, and that comes with the corresponding support of the Holy Ghost. When we are in our darker hours, it can be difficult at times to feel the influence of the Spirit. But the scriptures are replete with promises that the Lord will help us when we are on his errand. We are told, for instance, that when we teach, we do it by the Spirit of Truth. “Wherefore he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another and both are edified and rejoice together” (D&C 50:22). When I was experiencing one particularly low time, I was called to be a teacher in the Sunday School, teaching the youth church history. Some of my favorite moments were when I was teaching those lessons. I was able to rejoice with them for a moment here or a moment there. And lest you think that you don’t have the sort of calling that will let you seek the Lord’s help in that way, remember that everyone teaches in the church, and everyone does the Lord’s work. Fathers and mothers, you teach your children. I know there have been times I have been greatly thankful for the opportunity to teach my children because it meant the Lord would be there to help me and the spirit would testify of what I was teaching. And we get the help of the Lord in countless other ways as we labor in the kingdom. The Lord told the prophet Joseph Smith, “And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.” This is the promise of the Lord to those who are on his errand. As he says, “I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say” (D&C 82:10).

I believe the Lord wants us to put his promises to the test, and if we will do so, we greatly increase our chances of having encounters with him that will cut through the darkness. Of particular value to me personally was the chance to visit the Temple. I recognize that it can be difficult for some to visit the temple when struggling with depression or other conditions that make it difficult to feel the spirit, and I have felt that, but at other times, the House of the Lord has been a true refuge to me and a place where the Lord could heal my heart, gradually, over time. It is the sort of place where we can not only get a glimpse of what is ahead of us, but also, in the Lord’s time, a broad view of the expanse of eternity, however short lived that can sometimes be. I have seen miracles in the temple that have let me know the Lord was there and cared for me at times when I most needed to know those two things. I believe that attending the temple when we can is a way of showing faith that can, when the Lord is ready, produce miracles. 
And this brings me to a last and important point that I want to make. While we all go through trials and we all face darkness, there are sometimes trials that need special care. It was in the Temple that I first got confirmation that one of the helps for me would be medication that could help me through the physical elements attached to my spiritual and emotional trials. I was very reluctant to approach that kind of help. I knew that darkness was something I would meet in my life, but I thought real faith should get me through it without other help. Even when the Lord confirmed to me in the temple that it would help, it was difficult for me to accept, though without that confirmation it would perhaps never have happened. Afterwards, this was more difficult because I didn’t find the medication that would help me the first time. Everyone is a bit different. Some of you may have difficulties thinking of talking to a counselor or even talking to a bishop about such things. There are many resources available for us in this time that have not been available in all times to combat some of the afflictions we might have to endure. Not all of them are for everyone. For some, only a good friend is needed to talk to, or a bishop, for others counselors or medication can help. As a good bishop once told me, whatever leads us towards the light is right. Let the Lord lead you where he will.

And now I want to sum up my remarks by saying that this all amounts to the idea that whatever you meet in your life, whatever you endure, cling tightly to the gospel of Jesus Christ. As the savior himself related in the parable:Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. (Matthew 7:24-25)

The Lord has promised us that if we will build upon his rock, our house will not fall. And yet, the rains came, and the floods came, and the winds blew. They beat upon that house. This is not a comfortable scene. I had the chance in 2008 To witness a flood here in Laie that affected many houses. The homes on our street did not fall, because they were built on sound foundations, but that doesn’t mean people were comfortable. That wise man who built his house on a rock was likely cold, and wet, and battered. Maybe he looked up and said, how am I going to clean this all up. Maybe he wanted to just curl up in his bed and forget the flood, but his bed was too wet to do it. But he still had his house. 

Brothers and sisters, that house is the gospel of Jesus Christ. On the day when you don’t want to walk out the door. On the day when you want to stay in bed because it doesn’t seem like much good could come from it. When you have to pick up each foot and put it in front of the other because you can’t feel joy in what you are doing but it must be done, remember that the rock of the gospel is the one rug they can’t pull out from under you. No matter what, your savior is there for you. Nothing that the world can throw at you can affect your salvation if you don’t let it. The end is assured. You may not be happy today. You may not feel like you can do what they’re asking of you, but you can do what the Lord is asking, and if you do, you will have joy. You will win the race. And while that may not make your problems go away now, it is something. It is the chope that cometh of dfaith, that “maketh an eanchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast.” A ship may not always sail in a storm. Sometimes it drops anchor and waits it out, but sometimes the goal is to ride out the storm and keep the ship together. Be kind to yourself, cut yourself that much slack, and rely on the Lord. If you have doubts or fears, that’s normal, but I bear you my testimony that he is there. Sometimes he calms the storm, and sometimes he is just the rock that keeps you steady in it, but he is there.

The good news is not that life is easy, but that he made it possible, even assured us the victory, if we will turn to him. The good news is not that we are holy, but that he is holy. The good news is not that there is no darkness, but that there is light in the darkness. And that light is the light that lighteth every man woman and child that cometh into the world, so the good news is better than you might think. Take a look next to you, on either side. That person has that light. So does the person in front of you and in back, inside this room and outside, every person you pass on the street. It is strong in the temples that are spreading across the world. Even the most miserable sinner ever did not get through this life without feeling it. In fact, brothers and sisters, it is almost literally everywhere. Is there darkness? Yes. But in that darkness there is light. And if we find that light, it is so ubiquitous that we may not notice the darkness so much.

I testify that Jesus Christ, our savior, is indeed that light. I have felt his spirit so plainly it has been a fact to me. I know that that light is stronger than any darkness, and if we cling to it, turn to it, it will always light our path

Woodger, Mary Jane, “‘Cheat the Asylum of a Victim’: George Albert Smith’s 1909-1912 Breakdown”, Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 34, No. 4 (2008): 113-152.