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Pacific Ponderings

How Long, O Lord, How Long

One of the hardest things about living through the current pandemic is not knowing when it will end. We yearn to know how long the crisis will last. We want to know when and if life will return to normal, meaning the way it was before the coronavirus swept the earth. Hence we find ourselves echoing the cry of prophets through the ages: “How long, O Lord, how long?”

The mental anxiety of not knowing if and when an ordeal will end is often more taxing than the physical suffering itself. Parley P. Pratt said that the pioneers who endured that first terrible winter in the Salt Lake Valley suffered more from fear than from actual hunger.[1] Think about that. Remember how hungry the saints were: "The people tried eating crows, thistle tops, bark, roots, Sego Lily bulbs--anything that might offer nutriment or fill the empty stomach."[2] Yet they suffered more from fear than from hunger. For "the valley was new," says Brother Pratt, "ne[i]ther was it proven that grain could be raised."[3]

The pioneers suffered anxiety about the future. I call this suffering the ordeal within the ordeal.[4] The trial of timing is common to almost every ordeal we endure.[5] Not knowing if and when our afflictions will end constitutes a perennial human predicament. Thus in all ages, men and women have hurled Heavenward this anguished cry: "How long, O Lord, how long!" (Cf. Ps. 13:1-2, 35:17, 89:46, Hab. 1:2, Alma 14:26, D&C 121:2-3).

In spite of our pleas, the Lord almost never tells us how long our suffering will last. Sometimes he tells us our suffering will be short—but remember how God calculates short and long on his celestial chronometer may be very different than how we calculate time on earth. God rarely reveals in advance exactly when and how we will be delivered from affliction. Rather, he bids us to endure adversity well, whatever its length, and trust in promised blessings, whenever they come, in time or eternity.

This is the peace that the Lord gave to Joseph in Liberty Jail in response to this prophet’s anguished cry “how long?”: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; and then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high” (D&C 121:7-8). We, too, must learn to endure our moment well, however small or long it seems.

We live in the last days. As saints of the latter-days, we ought to get used to and get good at walking into the future with faith in spite of not knowing “the day and hour” when the end will come. This is what it means to live in the last days. It means to live in a time when “no man knoweth” when all turmoil and suffering will end. It means learning to wait on the Lord, to abide his time table, and to live with faith, patience, and hope for the future even without receiving an answer to our anguished question “How long, O Lord, how long.”

Yet despite this, we can also take hope in the comforting words of Eliza R. Snow, “Though outward ills await us here, The time, at longest, is not long.”[6] We will get through the current crisis. More important than how long the crisis will last is how well we endure it, as well as every other outward ill that awaits us before the end comes.

I look forward with you to General Conference, when I expect to be strengthened in my ability to endure this small moment well, however long it lasts.

[1] Eugene England, Brother Brigham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 146
[2] Leonard Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), 49.
[3] England, Brother Brigham, 146.
[4] I have discussed this more fully in a 1992 devotional at BYU called “One Step Enough”: https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/john-s-tanner/one-step-enough/
[5] Neal A. Maxwell often spoke about enduring the Lord’s timetable. One example is from his Conference talk “Plow in Faith” where he counseled that disciples need to learn to say not only “thy will be done” but “thy timing be done” ( Ensign, May 2001, 59).
[6] Eliza R. Snow, “Though Deepening Trials,” in Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985, no. 122.