Section 122: Why the Lord Allows Adversity
See the background materials for section 121. The text recorded in section 122 is found on pages 4-6 of the second part of that correspondence and follows without interruption the text of D&C 121:34-46. Like section 121, section 122 was first included in the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants at the direction of President Brigham Young. We do not know the details of how specific portions of Joseph’s letters were selected for canonization or why they were divided as they now are into sections 121, 122, and 123.
Generally speaking, section 122 is the Lord’s word to Joseph Smith in his time of trial.
D&C 122:7-8 The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?
verses 1-4 The Lord’s affirmation of Joseph’s standing as prophet. By this time Joseph was not the untested prophet of earlier years. He had withstood adversity in many forms. He was now a fully mature prophet of God who spoke powerfully for Deity.
1 The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name, and fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee;
verse 1 “hell shall rage against thee” One necessary sign of the truth or of the validity of a prophet is that he is hated and persecuted by the wicked (see Matthew 10:34-39; John 15:18-20). It would seem that if a man encounters no violent opposition from some elements in the world, he is not of God (see Luke 6:26).
2 While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand.
verses 1-2 “The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name” The Lord assures Joseph that despite his present wretched and humble circumstances, his name is destined to be known around the globe, both by those who would hate him and those who would love him. At the time this revelation was given, Joseph’s name was not widely known outside Ohio, New York, and Missouri, although there was an occasional mention of him in the press of the Eastern States. With the exception of a small number of English converts, he was virtually unknown to the world beyond the eastern United States and Canada.
This revelation was directed to the prophet Joseph and refers throughout to events in Joseph’s own life. But because Joseph addressed the letter containing it specifically to the Church through Emma, the principles taught here are equally applicable to other saints who may find themselves similarly afflicted or who may also be asking Joseph’s question, “O God, where art thou?” (D&C 121:1). Thus, as the Prophet, Joseph here receives answers both for himself and for the Church.
3 And thy people shall never be turned against thee by the testimony of traitors.
verse 3 A traitor is, by definition, someone who has, in fact, turned against another. “Thy people” refers to the saints collectively rather than individually. It is understandable how, after long months in Liberty Jail, Joseph might have needed divine assurance that his isolation from the saints did not mean alienation from them. Some individual church members did turn against him from time to time because of the testimony of apostates or simply because they stood still while the Church moved on. At this time in particular, several of Joseph’s former friends had slandered his name or offered perjured testimony against him in Missouri courts, hoping to save themselves or their property. Nevertheless, Joseph always enjoyed the loyalty of a majority of the saints, who remained unmoved by the lies of enemies in or out of the Church.
4 And although their influence shall cast thee into trouble, and into bars and walls, thou shalt be had in honor; and but for a small moment and thy voice shall be more terrible in the midst of thine enemies than the fierce lion, because of thy righteousness; and thy God shall stand by thee forever and ever.
verse 4 “their influence shall cast thee into trouble” The antecedent of the word “their” is “the testimony of traitors” in the prior verse. The Lord promises Joseph, as he did his ancient apostles, that he will have trouble for the sake of the truth as long as he remains in the world (see Matthew 10:34-39; John 15:18-20; 16:2).
“more terrible . . than the fierce lion” This divine promise applied to Joseph Smith personally, but it also applies to the biblical Joseph and to his descendants generally. The ancient Joseph, like his modern counterpart, was also sold into bondage by false brethren who had cast him into a pit (see Genesis 37:20, 24). Both the ancient and the modern Joseph were falsely accused of crimes and unjustly imprisoned. But eventually ancient Joseph was justified and sat on the throne of Egypt. Even so has the prophet Joseph been vindicated by the fruits of his mission, and he has taken his place at the head of this dispensation forever (see D&C 90:3). The voice of influence of the prophet Joseph individually (see verse 4) and of the descendants of ancient Joseph more generally shall become more terrible and fierce in this dispensation than a lion among the sheep (see Isaiah 5:29; Micah 5:8; 3 Nephi 20:16; 21:12).
5 If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea;
6 If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb;
7 And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.
verses 5-7 The Lord enumerates many possible trials and persecutions, most of which Joseph had already experienced firsthand. Even President Thomas B. Marsh and Elder Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve had sworn affidavits falsely accusing Joseph of actions against the state of Missouri. After the Prophet’s arrest at Far West, the militia held him and the other prisoners on the town square. As they were preparing to move the brethren to Independence, the Prophet requested a private audience with his family, but he was denied. He was not allowed even to see his parents and could speak only briefly in front of his guards to Emma and his children. “Who can realize the feelings which I experienced at that time, to be thus torn from my companion, and leave her surrounded with monsters in the shape of men, and my children, too, not knowing how their wants would be supplied; while I was to be taken far from them in order that my enemies might destroy me when they thought proper to do so. My partner wept, my children clung to me, until they were thrust from me by the swords of the guards” (HC, 3:193). The Lord then assures Joseph that all of these adversities “shall give thee experience and be for thy good.” Literally in “the hands of murderers,” Joseph and his companions were “dragged to prison” and eventually “cast into the pit” at Liberty Jail.
Brother George Q. Morris in general conference reminded us of the role of adversity in our lives:
The Lord said to Adam that for his sake the earth was cursed, and that he should eat his food in sorrow all the days of his life [Moses 4:23]. The scriptures say that man is born unto trouble as the “sparks fly upward” [Job 5:7], which means that it is in the design of God that we should have these adversities and experiences in the world. In the midst of life, death and a sea of trials and troubles are ever with us. So none of us is free from them, and it follows that we should find some way of meeting them successfully. . . . “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like a toad, though ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in its head” (Shakespeare). . . .
The prophet Joseph Smith one time said, when someone had remarked that somebody had an affliction because of his sins, that it is an unhallowed statement to make, [and] that afflictions come to all. And M. Henry said: “Extraordinary afflictions are not always the punishment of extraordinary sins, but sometimes the trial of extraordinary graces. Sanctified afflictions are spiritual promotions . . . .
So, in adversity we may have that which will exalt us, or we may have that which will degrade us. We may have that which, if we indulge in self-pity and bitterness, may destroy us. In all our adversities there are these two elements, and the determining factor is how shall we endure them? Shall we endure them well? If not, they may destroy us (CR, October 1958, 70-72).
The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said that suffering “operates revolutions in our way of life” and causes us to become, instead of a “sunny garden flower,” a “banyan of the forest, yielding shade and fruit to wide neighborhoods of men.” Brother Orson F. Whitney, in commenting on this statement of Emerson’s said: “How true! To whom do we look, in days of grief and disaster, for help and consolation? . . . to those who have suffered and out of their experience in suffering they bring forth the riches of their sympathy and condolences as a blessing to those now in need. Could they do this had they not suffered themselves?” (Improvement Era, November 1918, 22:5-7).
Elder James E. Faust offered the following powerful statement on the same topic:
Here then is the great truth. In the pain, the agony, and the heroic endeavors of life, we pass through a refiner’s fire, and the insignificant and the unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross and make our faith bright, intact, and strong. In this way the divine image can be mirrored from the soul. It is part of the purging toll exacted of some to become acquainted with God. In the agonies of life, we seem to listen better to the faint, godly whisperings of the Divine Shepherd (Ensign, May 1979, 53).
“the sentence of death passed upon thee” When Joseph and his companions were betrayed and arrested at Far West, they were held overnight in the camp of the Missouri militia. At about midnight, commanding General Samuel D. Lucas issued an order to General Alexander Doniphan: “You will take Joseph Smith and the other prisoners into the public square of Far West and shoot them at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning.” General Doniphan, deeming it to be an illegal order, refused to carry it out, declaring: “It is cold-blooded murder. I will not obey your order. My brigade shall march for Liberty tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock; and if you execute these men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God.” The execution obviously did not take place (HC, 3:190-91).
“if thou be cast into the deep” It appears that at this point the Lord’s examples turn from the literal, which Joseph had already suffered, to the figurative, which he might possibly suffer. There is no trial that Joseph or the saints had suffered, or would suffer, or could suffer that is not included in the phrase “all these things” at the conclusion of this verse. Similarly, no possible human suffering can be excluded from the declaration of verse 8 that “the Son of Man hath descended below them all.”
“if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee” In making his atoning sacrifice in Gethsemane and on the cross, Jesus Christ was taken into the very jaws of hell, was subjected for a time to all the malice and power of Satan, and experienced vicariously the perils and pains of all men—even the damned. In his resurrection, he triumphed over them all. Here Joseph Smith is told that if he should be called upon to suffer to a lesser degree such horrible feelings as these, the experience would be ultimately for his own good. Elder Neal Maxwell has taught, “The whole experience in Liberty Jail, as Joseph indicated, was such that without it he could not possibly have understood certain dimensions of suffering” (But For a Small Moment, 7). Like our Savior and like the Prophet Joseph, it is possible for innocent people to be called upon to suffer terrible things—even approaching the pains and perils of hell. Such experiences, if we endure them in faith, will teach us Christlike compassion, patience, faith, and other virtues through suffering innocently as the Savior did—though on a much smaller scale—and will ultimately make us more like him and be for our good (see Jacob 1:8; D&C 6:37).
“all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” It is true that people suffer for their own poor decisions—for their sins—but given the precedent for innocent suffering set by the Savior and his prophets and disciples, most certainly punishment for sin should not be our first or only answer to the question of why people suffer. See Adversity and Suffering in Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 3, chapter 1.
8 The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?
verse 8 “The Son of Man hath descended below them all” The mortal experiences of Jesus Christ plus his very real experience of all that hell can inflict, in Gethsemane and on Calvary, have given him personal knowledge of every possible form of human suffering. There is no human trial or pain with which he is not intimately acquainted and which he did not ultimately overcome. Having experienced the sum total of what anyone has ever suffered, his compassion is as infinite as was his agony. Alma taught: “And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy; according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor [help or aid] his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12; see also Mosiah 3:7; 14:6, 11; Hebrews 2:18).
“Art thou greater than he?” Sidney Rigdon, though released from jail months before Joseph and his companions, was not improved by the experience; rather he was broken by it. Sidney later complained that Jesus’s suffering was nothing compared to his own, thus indeed holding himself greater in that respect than his Master (HC, 3:264; see also Young, Times and Seasons 5 [October 1844]: 666). Again, we remind the reader that Sidney certainly suffered emotional injury and probably some degree of mental illness. The Lord, who knows Sidney intimately and perfectly, will judge him fairly. Joseph, on the other hand, humbly accepted his cross, and the Lord soon delivered him from bondage a better man, a better disciple prepared for the climax at Carthage.
If Joseph or any of the saints are truly followers of the Savior, should they expect to be excused entirely from the difficult path our Savior followed? Are we too good to suffer in a small way as he suffered, if and when it might be asked of us? Should the innocent servants expect to be spared their minutest share of what their Master, Model, and Guide bore entirely and alone (see Matthew 10:22-25, 38-39)?
9 Therefore, hold on thy way, and the priesthood shall remain with thee; for their bounds are set, they cannot pass. Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever.
verse 9 “hold on thy way” The expression “hold on thy way” means, in our modern terminology “hang in there.”
“the priesthood shall remain with thee” In D&C 43:3, the Prophet was told that as long as he remained faithful he would hold the keys of the kingdom but that if he fell from faithfulness, those keys would be given to another. A similar promise to Joseph was repeated in D&C 64:5. However, in D&C 90:3 the Prophet is told, unconditionally, that he would never lose the keys of the kingdom and that they would remain with him not only in this world but in the world to come. This progression may indicate that sometime between September 1831 and March 1833 (the date of section 90), the nature of the Lord’s promises to the prophet Joseph had changed—amounting to a much stronger assurance that his exaltation was secure (see, for example, D&C 132:49).
“their bounds are set, they cannot pass” Though, in some sense, here in mortality, we are left alone to experience the trials that mortality offers, ultimately the limits of these trials are set by an all-knowing and living God. While we must not attribute every mishap or evil event in our lives as the “will of God,” we can and should hold firmly to the idea that if we are faithful, our eternal future is secure. Joseph Smith, for example, had a mission to perform, and if he was faithful, his life would be preserved until his mission was completed—no matter what any man or any devil might do. A year or so before his death, Joseph Smith declared, “I know what I say; I understand my mission and business. God Almighty is my shield; and what can man do if God is my friend? I shall not be sacrificed until my time comes; then I shall be offered freely” (HC, 5:259).
- Michael J. Preece