Tragedy or Destiny?

By Elder Spencer W. Kimball


*This address was originally given by Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the Council of the Twelve at a devotional assembly at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, December 6, 1955


There have been many tragedies of late.  And since there are so many people who seem to blame every so-called tragedy upon the Lord, and are frustrated at what seems to be a calamity, may I present to you a few thoughts which I hope may ease tensions, stimulate sane thinking, and possibly answer, at least partially, some of the questions so often asked and so seldom answered.

The Daily paper screamed the headlines: “Plane Crash Kills 3; No Survivors of Mountain Tragedy”. And thousands of voices joined in chorus: “Why did the Lord let this terrible thing happen?” 

Two automobiles crashed when one went through a red light and six people were killed. “Why would God not prevent this?”

A child was born with limited mental capacity.  He was never to live a normal life.  Why?  Why would the Lord permit him to be so deprived, his parents so burdened? 

Why should the young mother die so young? Why should her eight children be left motherless? Why did not the Lord heal her of her malady?

A little child was drowned.  Another was run over.  Why?

A man one day fell at the top of a stairway, his body was found slumped on the floor.  “A coronary occlusion,” the doctor said.  His wife cried out in agony, “Why!?  Why would the Lord do this to me?  Could he not have considered my three little children who need a father so much?”

A young man died in the mission field and people critically question, “Why did not the Lord protect this young youth while doing [God’s] work?”

I wish I could answer these questions.  Sometime we’ll understand and be reconciled.  The following conclusions are my own, and I take full responsibility for them.  Now I ask some questions: Was it the Lord who directed the plane into the mountain to snuff out the lives of its occupants, or were there mechanical faults or human errors?  Was our Father in Heaven responsible for the collision of the cars and took six people into eternity, or was it the error of the driver who ignored safety rules?  Did God take the life of the young mother, or prompt the child to toddle into the canal, or guide the other child in the way of the on-coming car?  Did the Lord cause the man to die, or was the death of the missionary untimely? Would it have been better to have occurred earlier or later? Answer, if you can.

Now a final question: Could the Lord have prevented these tragedies? The answer is: YES. The Lord is omnipotent with all power to control our lives, save us pain, prevent all accidents; he could drive the planes and the cars, he could feed us, protect us, save us from labor, effort, sickness, even death.  But is that what you want? Would you shield your children from disappointments, temptations, sorrows, and suffering?

The basic gospel law is free agency. To force us to be careful or righteous would be to nullify that fundamental law, and growth would be impossible.  Should we be protected always from hardship, pain, suffering, sacrifice, or labour?  Should the Lord protect the righteous?  Should he immediately punish the wicked?  If growth comes from fun and ease and aimless irresponsibility, then why should we ever exert ourselves to work or learn or overcome?  If success is measured by the years we live then early death is failure and tragedy.  If mortal life is the ultimate, how can we justify death ever, even in old age?  If we look at mortality as a complete existence then pain, sorrow, failure, and short life could be calamity.  But if we look upon the whole life as an eternal thing, stretching far into the pre-mortal past and into the eternal post-death future, then all the happenings may be in their proper perspective and may fall into proper place.   

Is there not wisdom in His giving us trials that we might rise above them, responsibilities that we might achieve, work to harden our muscles, sorrows to try our souls?  Were we not permitted temptations to test our strength, sickness that we might learn patience, death that we might have immortality and eternal life?  In the beginning, the creator explained to Moses, “Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God had given him” (Moses 4:3).  “And the Lord spake unto Adam saying: inasmuch as thy children are conceived in sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good.  And it is given unto them to know good from evil; wherefore, they are agents unto themselves” (Moses 6:55-56). 

Apparently the Lord did not consider death always as a curse or tragedy, for he said, “Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord” (D&C 63:49).  Life goes on and free agency continues, and death, which seems such a calamity, could be a blessing in disguise.

Melvin J Ballard wrote:

I lost a son six years of age, and I saw him a man in the spirit world after his death. And I saw how he had exercised his own freedom of choice and would obtain of his own will and volition a companionship, and in due time to him and all those who are worthy of it, shall come all of the blessings and sealing privileges of the house of the Lord.

If we say that early death is a calamity, disaster or tragedy, would it not be saying that mortality is preferable to earlier entrance into the spirit world and to eventual salvation and exaltation? If mortality be the perfect state, then death would be a frustration, but the Gospel teaches us there is no tragedy in death, but only in sin.

We know so little.  Our judgment is so limited.  We judge the Lord often with less wisdom than does our youngest child weigh our decisions.  I spoke at the funeral service of a young BYU student who died during the last World War.  There had been hundreds of thousands of young men rushed prematurely into eternity through the ravages of war.  And I made a statement that I believed this righteous youth had been called into the spirit world to preach the gospel to these deprived souls.

In the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead by President Joseph F. Smith [D&C 138], he saw this very thing.  He sat studying the scriptures on Oct. 3, 1918, particularly the statements in Peter’s epistle regarding the antediluvians.  And he writes, “As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me and I saw the hosts of the dead.  While this vast multitude waited and conversed, rejoicing in the hour of their deliverance, the Son of God appeared declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful.  And there he preached to them the redemption of mankind from the fall and from individual sins on condition of repentance.  But unto the wicked he did not go, and among the ungodly and unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh his voice was not raised, neither did the rebellious who rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets behold his presence or look upon his face.  And as I wondered I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth.  But behold, from among the righteous he organized his forces and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel.” (D&C 138:11, 18-21, 29-30). Our redeemer spent his time in the world of spirits instructing and preparing the faithful spirits who had testified of him in the flesh that they might carry the message of redemption unto all the dead unto whom he could not go personally because of their rebellion and transgression.  He goes on, “Among the great and mighty ones who were assembled in this vast congregation of the righteous were father Adam, Mother Eve, and many of her faithful daughters.  Abel, the first martyr, Seth, Noah, Shem the great high priest, Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Moses, Ezekiel and Daniel, and all these and many more, even the prophets who had dwelt among the Nephites.  The Prophet Joseph Smith, and my father Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young and other choices spirits in the spirit world.  I observed that they were also among the noble and great ones who were chosen in the beginning to be rulers in the Church of God.  I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption” (D&C 138:38-57).  Death then may be the opening of the door to opportunity, and some questions are answered, at least, by this Vision.     

I would be happier to have my sons be effective missionaries than to have them honored in high secular places.  To be bishops in God’s Kingdom than kings on earthly thrones.  For there is no greater work in which to be engaged and the proselyting work does not end with death, but carries over into the life beyond.      

Now, we find many people critical when a righteous person is killed, a young father or mother is taken from a family, or when violent deaths occur. Some become bitter when oft repeated prayers seem unanswered. Some lose faith and turn sour when solemn administrations by holy men seem to be ignored and no restoration seems to come from repeated prayer circles. But if all the sick were healed, if all the righteous were protected and the wicked destroyed, the whole program of the Father would be annulled and the basic principles of the Gospel, free agency, would be ended.

If pain and sorrow and total punishment immediately followed the doing of evil, no soul would repeat a misdeed. If joy and peace and rewards were instantaneously given the doer of good, there could be no evil -all would do good, and not because of the rightness of doing good. There would be no test of strength, no development of character, no growth of powers, no free agency, only Satanic controls.

Should all prayers be immediately answered according to our selfish desires and our limited understanding, then there could be little or no suffering, sorrows, disappointments, or even death. And if these were not there would be an absence of joy, success, resurrection, eternal life and Godhood.  “For it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things,” righteousness and wickedness, holiness, misery, good and bad (2 Nephi 2:11). 

We are assured by the Lord that the sick will be healed if the ordinance is performed, if there is sufficient faith, and if the ill one is “not appointed unto death” (D&C 42:48). Here are three factors. Many do not comply with the ordinances. Great numbers are unwilling or incapable of exercising sufficient faith. But there is the other factor which looms important: “If they are not appointed unto death.” Every act of God is purposeful. He sees the end from the beginning. He knows what will build us, or tear us down, what will thwart the program and what will give us eventual triumph. The Lord does not always heal the sick, nor save those in hazardous zones. He does not always relieve suffering and distress, for even these seemingly undesirable conditions may be a part of a purposeful plan.

Being human we would expel form our lives sorrow, distress, physical pain, mental anguish and assure ourselves of continual ease and comfort. But if we closed the doors upon such, we might be evicting our greatest friends and benefactors. Suffering can make saints of people as they learn patience, long suffering, self mastery. The sufferings of our Savior was part of his education.  For “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience through the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Hebrews 5:8-9).  I love the verse of the song frequently sung, “How Firm A Foundation,” the sixth verse I believe:  “When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not thee over flow, for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

Elder James E. Talmage gave us this: “No pain that is suffered by man or woman upon the earth will be without its compensating effect if it be met with patience.” On the other hand, these things can crush us with their mighty impact if we yield to weakness, complaining, or to criticism.

Elder Orson F. Whitney wrote this:

No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is ever wasted.  It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude, humility.  All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God.  And it is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation that we gain the education that we came here to acquire and which will make us more like our Father and Mother in Heaven.

The Lord stated, “he that hath faith in me to be healed, and is not appointed unto death, shall be healed” (D&C 42:48).  If not appointed unto death, and sufficient faith is developed, life can be spared.  But if there is not enough faith many die before their time.  It is evident that even the righteous will not always be healed and even those of great faith will die when it is according to the purpose of God.  Joseph Smith died in his thirties, as did the Savior.  Solemn prayers were answered negatively.  There are people who are bitter as they watched loved ones suffer agonies and interminable pain and physical torture.  Some would charge the Lord with unkindness, disinterest, injustice.  We are so incompetent to judge.

I like the words of some verses, the author of which I do not know:

Pain stayed with me I said to him today, ‘I will not have you with me anymore.’  I stamped my foot and said, ‘Be on your way!’  And paused there, startled at the look he bore.  ‘I, who have been your friend,’ he said to me, ‘I, who have been your teacher?  All you know of understanding, love, of sympathy, of patience, I have taught you.  Shall I go?’  He spoke the truth, this strange, unwelcome guest.  I watched him leave, and know that he was wise.  He left a heart grown tender in my breast.  He left a far, clear vision in my eyes.  I dried my tears and lifted up a song, even for one who’d tortured me so long.      

In his hometown Nazareth, the Lord said to the people, “Ye shall surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country” (Luke 4:23) But Jesus said unto them, “A prophet is not without honor save in his own country and in his own house.  And he did not there many mighty works because of their unbelief” (Matt. 13:57-58), then he continued, “But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias…when great famine was throughout all the land; But unto none of them was Elias sent, save Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow.  And many lepers were in Israel at the time of Eliseus the Prophet, and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:25-27).  

The power of the Priesthood is limitless but God has wisely placed upon each of us certain limitations. I may develop Priesthood power as I perfect my life. I am grateful that even through the Priesthood I cannot heal all the sick. I might heal people who should die. I might relieve people of suffering who should suffer. I fear I would frustrate the purposes of God.

Had I the limitless power, and yet limited vision and understanding, I might have saved Abinadi from the flames of the fire when he was burned at the stake, and in doing so I might have irreparably damaged him and limited him to a lower kingdom. He died a martyr and went into a martyr’s reward -exaltation. He would have lived on the earth and could have lost his faith, his courage, even his virtue, and his exaltation.

I would have likely have protected Paul against his woes if my power were boundless. I would surely have healed this “thorn in the flesh” and in doing so I might have foiled the program and relegated him to lower glories. Thrice he offered prayers, asking the Lord to remove the “thorn” from him, but the Lord did not so answer his prayers. Paul many times could have lost himself if he had been so eloquent, well, handsome and free from the things which made him humble. Paul speaks, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure… And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.  Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2Cor.12:7, 9-10)). Such a healing of Paul might have ruined him.

I fear that had I been in Carthage jail on 27th of June, 1844, I might have deflected the bullets which pierced the bodies of the Prophet and the Patriarch.  I might have saved them from the sufferings and agony, but lost to them the martyr’s death and reward.  I’m glad I didn’t have to make that decision. 

With such uncontrolled power, I surely would have felt to protect Christ from the insults, the thorny cross, the indignities at the court, physical injuries.  Perhaps I would have struck down his persecutors with shafts of lightning.  When he hung on the cross I would have rescued him, would have administered to his wounds and healed them, giving him cooling water instead of vinegar.  I might have saved him from death and lost to the world an atoning sacrifice and frustrated the whole program.

With unlimited power, I might have healed my father and my mother.  I might never have let them die.  Would you dare to take the responsibility of bringing to life your own loved ones?  I, myself, would hesitate to do so.  I am grateful that we may always pray, “Thy will be done in all things, for thou knowest what is best.”  I’m glad I do not have the decisions to make.  We might consign loved ones to loss of faculties, loss of powers, to a terrible doom.  Everyone must die.  Death is an important part of life.  Of course, we are never quite ready for the change, and not knowing when it should come, we properly fight to retain our lives.  Why are we so afraid of death?  We pray for the sick, we administer to the afflicted, we implore the Lord to heal and reduce pain and save life and postpone death – and properly so.  But is eternity so frightful, so awful? 

The Prophet Joseph Smith confirmed the thought:

The Lord takes many away many, even in infancy, that they may escape the envy of man, and the sorrows and the evils of this present world.  They were too pure, too lovely to live on this earth.  Therefore, if rightly considered, instead of mourning we have reason to rejoice as they are delivered from evil.  We shall soon see them again.  The only difference between the old and the young dying is one lives longer in heaven and eternal light and glory than the other, and is freed a little sooner from this miserable world.          

Yes, blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.  They shall rise from the dead and shall not die after.  “And he that liveth when the Lord shall come, and have kept the faith, blessed is he;  nevertheless, it is appointed to him to die at the age of man” (D&C 63:50).  All are not healed or saved, even though great faith is manifested.    Hear the Lord again, “And the elders of the church, two or more, shall be called, and shall pray for and lay their hands upon them in my name; and if they die they shall die unto me, and if they live they shall live unto me.  Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die, and more especially for those who do not have hope for a glorious resurrection.  And it shall come to pass that those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them; They that die not in me, wo unto them, for their death is bitter.  And again, it shall come to pass that he that hath faith in me to be healed, and is not appointed unto death, shall be healed” (D&C 42:44-48).  If he is not appointed unto death.  That is a challenging statement.  I am confident that there is a time to die.  I am not a fatalist.  I believe that many people die before their time because they are careless, abuse their bodies, take unnecessary chances or expose themselves to hazards, accidents and sickness. 

In the modern Revelations we read this, blessed is “my servant Lyman Wight,” he “should continue in preaching for Zion…and I will bear him up as on eagles’ wings…That when he shall finish his work I may receive him unto myself, even as I did my servant David Patten, who is with me at this time, and also my servant Edward Partridge, and also my aged servant Joseph Smith,  Sen.,  who sitteth with Abraham at his right hand, and blessed and holy is he, for he is mine” (D&C 124:18-19).  Is it so revolutionary to say that David Patten was blessed with martyrdom?  How glorious to die for the cause he was assured of the high glory of exaltation, as witnessed this statement, for I “receive him unto myself, even as I did my servant David Patten, who is with me at this time” (D&C 124:19).  As of the antediluvians we read, “Hast thou marked the old way which wicked men have trodden? Which were cut down out of time, whose foundation was overflown with the flood: Which said unto God, Depart from us: and what can the Almighty do for them?” (Job 22:15-17). 

In Ecclesiastes we find, “To everything there is a season, and a time to ever purpose under the heaven:  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted” (Eccl. 3:1-2).  And again, “Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldst thou die before thy time?” (Eccl. 7:17).  I believe we die prematurely but seldom exceed our time very much.  Though there are exceptions. 

Hezekiah, 25 year old king of Judah, was far more godly then his successors or predecessors.  The Judean King had an allotted time to die, “In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And the prophet Isaiah…came to him, and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live” (2 Kings 20:1). Hezekiah, loving life as do we, turned his face to the wall and wept bitterly.  “remember now how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight,” he prayed to his Father.  It was wholly proper that Hezekiah, like ourselves, should cling to life and protect it.  The Lord yielded unto his prayer, “I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears:  behold, I will heal thee: …and I will add unto thy days 15 years; and I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king Assyria” (2 Kings 20:3, 5-6).  The Lord slightly modified his plan and gave Hezekiah 15 years and freed Judah from Assyria.

Again, Abinadi could not be killed before his time to die.  “Touch me not,” he challenged, “for God shall smite you if ye lay your hands upon me, for I have not delivered the message which the Lord sent me to deliver; therefore, God will not suffer that I shall be destroyed at this time.  Ye see that ye have not power to slay me, therefore I finish my message” (Mosiah 13:3, 7).  He was fully protected until his mission was fulfilled then was permitted to be martyred.  “Oh God, receive my soul” (Mosiah 17:19).  He cried and his face shone with exceeding luster even as Moses did while on the Mount of Sinai while speaking unto the Lord.  He undoubtedly received exaltation also as a martyr.

The persecutors could not touch Enoch, his time had not come.  He had a great mission to fulfill, “And it came to pass when they heard him, no man laid hands on him; for fear came on all them that heard him; for he walked with God” (D&C 6:39).

Lehi and Nephi, the sons of  Helaman who converted many thousands, were put in prison without food.  The persecutors tried to slay them but they were encircled about as with fire.  The missionaries spoke boldly, “Ye cannot lay your hands on us to slay us” (Hel. 5:26).  The earth shook, the prison walls trembled and a voice as if from above the cloud of darkness said, “seek no more to destroy my servants” (Hel. 5:29).

Frequently the Redeemer mentioned; “My hour is not yet come” (John 2:4), and then as he approached Jerusalem for the last time he announced to his disciples, “My hour is come” (John 12:23). 

Returning to the apostle Paul, the devil seemingly was determined to destroy him, but until his time to die had come all hell could not prevail against him.  Paul says, “I am…in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.  Of the Jews five times I received forty stripes save one.  Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep…in perils of waters, in perils of robbers,…in perils of the wilderness, in perils of the sea, in perils among false brethren;…in hunger and thirst,…in cold and nakedness” (2 Cor.11:23-27).  Until his mission was fulfilled, his life and labours could not be terminated by any powers of earth or hell.  But when his mission was completed he went to his death as a martyr.

To the saints of Phillipi he said, “For I am in a straight betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (Phillip. 1:23).  And at Miletus, when his people surrounded him, he confided to them his premonitions “And now, behold, I go bound in the Spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me…and now,” he said, “I know that ye also see my face no more” (Acts 20:22-25, 25).  Then Paul answered at Caesarea “What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus,” and they said “thy will be done” to the Lord (Acts 21:13-14).  He bore testimony in Jerusalem and Rome and here in the capital of the world his work finished and he died a martyr according to tradition and prophecy.  But not until his time to die had come did he join the immortals.

Heber C. Kimball was given an unusual promise for the Lord showing his control of our destinies.  He was subjected to a test, which like the one given Abraham, was well nigh unthinkable.  Comfortless and in great perplexity he importuned the Prophet Joseph to inquire of the Lord, and the Prophet received this revelation, “Tell him to go and do as he has been commanded, and if I see that there is any danger of his apostatizing I will take him to myself” (Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball).  God controls our lives, guides and blesses us, but gives us our agency.  We may live our lives in accordance with his plan for us or we may foolishly shorten or terminate them. 

I am positive in my mind that the Lord has planned our destiny.  We can shorten our lives but I think we cannot lengthen them very much.  Sometime we will understand fully and when we see from the vantage point of the future we shall be satisfied with many of the happenings of this life which seemed so difficult for us to comprehend.  We knew before we were born that we were coming to the earth for bodies and experience and that we would have joys and sorrows, pain and comforts, ease and hardships, health and sickness, successes and disappointments and we knew also that we would die.  We accepted all these eventualities with a glad heart eager to accept both the favorable and unfavorable.  We were undoubtedly willing to have a mortal body even if it were a deformed one.  We eagerly accepted the chance to come earthward even if it might be for a day, a year, or a century.  Perhaps we were not so much concerned whether we should die of disaster, of accident, or of senility.  We were willing to come and take life as it came and as we might organize and control it - and this without murmur, complaint, or unreasonable demands.  We sometimes think we would like to know what was ahead, but sober thought brings us back to accepting life a day at a time and magnifying and glorifying that day.

Sister Ida Aldridge gave us a thought provoking verse,

I cannot know the future, nor the path I shall have trod but by that inward vision which points the way to God.  I would not glimpse the beauty or joy for me in store, lest patience ne’er restrain me from thrusting wide the door.  I would not part the curtains, or cast aside the veil, else sorrow that await me might make my courage fail.  I’d rather live not knowing, just doing my small mite.  I’d rather walk with faith by God than try alone the light.

My young brothers and sisters, God bless you.  Life is good when we control it and master ourselves.  It is one great opportunity and tremendous privilege.  May God bless us all to gain in knowledge, in wisdom, faith and works bringing to us eternal glory.  And this I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.




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