This is a question I have been asked many times, sometimes by good people who are going through bad things, sometimes by people who doubt the existence of a loving God because of the tragedy that fills our world. So many of the "bad things" seem to be so senseless: hurricanes and floods, plane and auto crashes, neglected children and broken homes, pain and disease, war and terrorism, the crimes that people knowingly commit against one another.
"How," a woman once asked me, her voice trembling with passion as she pointed to pictures of tsunami victims on the cover of a magazine, "how could a loving God allow this to happen to thousands and thousands of innocent people?"
I told her that I didn't know why. But that I did know that there is a God and that He does love us.
I do not pretend to have all of the answers, but I wanted to share the thoughts I've had the past few days as I've been reflecting on my dad's parable. When God sees us floundering and crippled and unable to fly like the little bird in my front yard, why doesn't He prepare us a box filled with soft kleenex, hold us and pet us, and gently toss us into the air to help us strengthen our wings? Why is it when we are our lowest and plead with God for help that we often feel the most alone?
Hard times build character
My mission president's wife often told us to use our pain and disappointment as sandpaper to smooth the rough edges of our character. I have found that trials of all kinds are often a catalyst for growth. If we allow them, they can help us refine our very natures and develop Christlike attributes like patience, humility, and love. As I finally reach the "other side" of my trials, I am consistently amazed to see the changes in myself. Crucibles and refining fires are not pleasant experiences, but as we emerge from them we are purer, we are stronger, we are more humble, we are more grateful.
Tragedy humbles us and causes us to draw nearer to God
There is something about the nature of personal tragedy that drives even the most faithless or most complacent among us to our knees, searching for relief. Tragedy puts us in situations that are impossible to handle by ourselves, brings us pain that is too great to be borne unaided, gives us wounds that seem too deep to heal. It can be the great isolator, causing us to feel utterly alone. In desperation, in pain, in fear, in longing for comfort, we turn to the only One with the answers, the only One who can completely understand our pain, the only One with the power to heal and soothe our spirits.
So why, then, when we need Him most, does God often seem to leave our prayers unanswered? I do not know all the answers to this question, but I have come to know through personal experience that there is something to be gained from pain, loneliness, and soul-searching. In those defining moments, as we wait for the pain to end or the situation to resolve or the comfort to come, as we sit in spiritual silence and wonder if there really is anyone listening when we pray, it is in those moments that we discover our faith, our trust, our hope in God, our belief in and dependence on the healing power of the atonement of Jesus Christ. During times of pain when we feel we have no faith, when we pray and receive no answers, we have an opportunity to exercise our faith and hope by relying on the faith we had and witnesses we've received in the past. And as we stumble falteringly forward in the darkness, we will find, if we allow ourselves, that we are not alone. Our faith will flood back to us, tested and validated. We will ultimately receive the peace and healing we so desperately craved, but in the time and the way that is most beneficial to our individual growth and need.
Trials give us experience we can use to help others
I think one of the greatest acts of love the Savior demonstrated was His willingness to suffer the pains and trials of all people, not because He needed the experience, but because He wanted to know how to help us (Alma 7:11-12). The people who have helped me the most through my difficult times are those who have gone through something similar: they were able to relate to me and comfort me much more effectively than just a compassionate ear and kind words ever could. Since the Savior knows us perfectly because he has experienced our pains and afflictions, he knows how to help us according to what we're going through. Likewise, while I believe that we learn from each of the trials we pass through, one of the highest callings that we can receive from God is to endure a trial that will give us the experience that we need to one day help someone else. I have had hardships that I could not understand or find meaning in at the time, but much later I was able to use my experiences and the lessons I'd learned to help other people who were going through similar difficulties. By serving others in this way I not only realized one reason why I had been given that trial, but I also felt the joy that comes from being used as an instrument in the hands of God.
Sorrow is prerequisite to joy
There is a balance and order in the universe that includes opposition in all things in both spiritual and temporal realms. Without injury or sickness, we could never appreciate the blessing of health; without the pain of sorrow, we could not appreciate or know the sweetness of joy. It is a paradox, but it is true. I have come to believe that the deeper the pain and sorrow we have felt, the greater our capacity to feel joy becomes. Almost as if each trial and hardship empties us of something, deepens us somehow, and when the time comes, the void carved out by pain and sorrow is filled with joy--more than we've ever felt because before we never had the capacity for it previously.
A life of goodness does not equal a life of easiness
For some reason, many of us subconsciously feel that if we are "good" and meet expectations by living right or keeping the commandments of God, we should be blessed with an easy and carefree existence, free from devastation, pain, and fear. One only has to look as far as Jesus Christ to see that even a perfect life of righteousness does not guarantee a charmed life of material wealth and bliss. We know that keeping the commandments is the only way to be truly happy, and we also know that although making righteous choices isn't aways easy, in the long run it's much easier than dealing with the consequences of sinful choices that were initially easy to make.
God gave us the free will to make our own choices
It can be tempting sometimes to blame God for the hard things in our lives: "Why did He let this happen?" is an easy thing to say. Especially when we have no idea how many times He has reached out to prevent trials and accidents and pain in our daily lives. In the end, though, we are responsible for not only the choices we make that sometimes cause tragedy in our own lives or in the lives of others, we are also responsible for our reactions to whatever situation we may find ourselves in. As we "endure to the end" of our trials (a comforting phrase, for it implies that there is an end), we become stronger and develop confidence in God and in ourselves. God respects us. He wants so badly for us to be happy, but even more than that He wants us to choose it for ourselves. He loves us so much that He wants us to have what we want even more than what He wants for us. Salvation, happiness, and peace are all things we have to choose for ourselves.
This is a long post, but still an incomplete answer to my initial questions. Life can be hard. Sometimes it's our fault, sometimes not. Sometimes we feel God's love and comfort, sometimes we don't. But He is there. He loves us. And He loves us enough not to hold us and pet us and fix us immediately during all of the hard times. And because He knows what's best for us much better than we do, even in loneliness and pain and trial we need to move forward with the faith that, someday, He will help us learn to fly.