When I was 18 and getting ready to apply to go on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, people asked me all the time where I wanted to serve my mission. If I’m being honest, I thought that Europe would be cool, but in the Church, we don’t choose where we serve our missions, so I felt pretty open to going anywhere I was assigned.
There was one thing I knew God wouldn’t make me face on my mission. I was 100% sure He knew I couldn’t handle it, so of course there was no way I’d be assigned somewhere where I’d have to face my fear of these things.
Big spiders. Like, big enough to eat a bird kind of spiders.
I’ve been afraid of spiders my whole life, ever since I was a tiny kid and had nightmares about spiders as big as my pillows (or bigger) being in my bed with me.
Ugh. I still vividly remember those nightmares.
Anyway, because I’m so freaked out by spiders, I was sure that God wouldn’t ask me to deal with the beast versions of them that exist in some parts of the world.
Then I was assigned to the Philippines Iloilo Mission.
At first, I was pretty excited. The Philippines seems so foreign when you grow up in Utah. But then I realized –
The Philippines is home to the banana spider. Including the legs, an average banana spider is easily as big or bigger than my hand.
I was horrified. Why would God send me somewhere that had creatures like that? I knew I couldn’t handle seeing spiders like that, couldn’t handle the paranoia of not knowing when I’d see one. How could He do that to me?
I went on my mission anyway. And yes, I saw banana spiders various times – inside my apartments. Try sleeping at night knowing one of those could be crawling around your bedroom.
And it turned out banana spiders weren’t all that hang out in the Philippines. There were cockroaches that were nearly impossible to kill, ant colonies that lived in my kitchen table, neverending mosquitos, and I even heard stories of cobras and other snakes on the islands (but I never actually saw one).
Not going to lie, I was pretty freaked out by some of these things. But guess what?
I made it through just fine. My fear of spiders never left, but I found out that I can face it better than I thought I could. And now I’m glad God challenged me to face my fear and grow from it.
We Don’t Always Understand God
Let’s be very real for a second. We are limited and mortal beings. God teaches us His doctrines, principles, plan, and commandments, but mostly keeps it at a level we can understand. We don’t know the whole eternal spectrum of things. Frankly, we’re so wrapped up in temporary time that we can hardly comprehend the idea that anything could be eternal.
This all means that the way we think can be very different from how God thinks. We face challenges in our lives and wonder how God could punish us with those difficulties. God, on the other hand, understands how those challenges will actually benefit us.
God is much more concerned with our eternal growth than He is with our present comfort – and yet He’s more than willing to step in when we’re struggling so He can comfort us, support us, and carry us.
We may see ourselves as victims, sufferers, even prisoners. We think we’re damaged, lost, and deserving of pity.
God sees us as His children and heirs. He looks at us and sees potential and love. He helps us, not because we’re deserving of pity, but because He loves us more than we can possibly imagine, whether we deserve it or not.
And, as a man named King Benjamin put it, we probably aren’t deserving:
21 I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.Mosiah 2:21
God does so much for us. We do suffer. We do face challenges that stretch us and test our capabilities. We sin, we do things wrong, and we struggle. And we don’t always understand why.
Sometimes, like with my spider story, we can see in hindsight what the point of our struggle might have been. And other times we might not.
God Asks for Faith, Not for Understanding
I have another mission story to share here. See, when it came to the spiders, I eventually figured out that God was pushing me to face my fear and grow from it. But there was something else that happened at the end of my mission that I still don’t really understand.
I’d been on my mission for about 7 months when I woke up in the middle of the night with pain bursting in my chest. It was bizarre. It wasn’t enough to bring me to complete consciousness, but I was awake enough to know what I was feeling.
After a few minutes, it eased a little bit and I managed to fall back to sleep, thinking that if it still hurt in the morning, I’d mention it to my companion.
The next morning it hurt a bit, but not nearly as bad as the night before, so I took it as a sign that nothing was actually wrong and assumed it would soon leave completely.
It didn’t. It came back stronger again, and I had to do something about it.
I did eventually go to the doctor and tried medications that didn’t help, so I went back to the doctor, and he decided I must have some sort of heart problem.
I was sent from my mission to Manila (the capital of the Philippines) to be assessed by an American doctor. He was convinced I did not have a heart problem, but since there was clearly something wrong, it was decided after a couple of weeks that I needed to return home to the United States.
By the time I left the Philippines entirely, I had been on my mission for 9 months to the day. Originally, I was supposed to stay for 18 months, so I ended up serving only half of my mission.
And I was pretty upset about it. I’d wanted to serve a mission for most of my life, so having it cut short was never in the plan.
The one comfort during this time came from a few verses of scripture I found before leaving Manila:
2 For verily I say unto you, blessed is he that keepeth my commandments, whether in life or in death; and he that is faithful in tribulation, the reward of the same is greater in the kingdom of heaven.
3 Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation.
4 For after much tribulation come the blessings. Wherefore the day cometh that ye shall be crowned with much glory; the hour is not yet, but is nigh at hand.Doctrine and Covenants 58:2-4
These verses helped me hope that something good would come of it all.
For anyone concerned about my health at this point, I can assure you that I do not have a heart problem. I actually have something called fibromyalgia, which is a type of neurological condition, but I’m not going to go into more details here since they aren’t relevant.
But, aside from my health, what did I learn from all of this? What was the point of it all?
I don’t really know.
I mean, I learned a lot during this time. Like how important it is to choose to live life with a medical condition than to let the medical condition control my life. Like finding more gratitude for the support of my family and friends when I was struggling.
But as far as the main point of my mission being cut short? I don’t really know. There are all sorts of possibilities, I suppose. But I don’t know that there’s one big reason that it needed to happen.
And sometimes life happens like that.
Sometimes God doesn’t give you perfect understanding of the reasons for your trials. He simply asks that you face them well and do your best – even if that understanding never comes.
And sometimes there isn’t one huge reason why things happen the way they do. There could be hundreds of reasons. Reasons that seem small but that still play a role in God’s plan.
I do know this: God never abandoned me through all of this. And He hasn’t given up on me. Whatever you’re facing, remember that too. He hasn’t given up on you. He has reasons for what He does and what He asks you to face, even if you don’t know them all.
If we trust Him and rely on our faith in spite of questions and fears, His power will work in our lives in ways we never expected.
11 And after that cometh the day of my power; then shall the poor, the lame, and the blind, and the deaf, come in unto the marriage of the Lamb, and partake of the supper of the Lord, prepared for the great day to come.Doctrine and Covenants 58:11
Let’s look forward to “the great day to come” and step forward in faith instead of dwelling on fear and struggles. That will make the greatest difference in this uncertain time.