Smoke Signals and the Grace of God

While traveling on our life’s journey, we all face times of testing and trial; times when things don’t go the way we want or expect them to; times when we find out if our faith and trust in God is real or imagined. In such instances no one is immune to the disappointment, discouragement, and despair that can accompany these things.

A few years ago a dear friend of mine shared a story with me that I have never forgotten. It taught me that not only do I not always know what is best, but that even in my darkest, most trying moments, God is near, and He is at work in my life.

The only survivor of a shipwreck was washed up on a small, uninhabited island. He prayed feverishly for God to rescue him, and everyday he scanned the horizon for help, but none seemed forthcoming. Exhausted, alone, and discouraged he eventually managed to build a little hut out of driftwood to protect him from the elements. He also used the hut to store his few possessions.

But then one day, after scavenging for food, he arrived home to find his little hut in flames, the smoke rolling up to the sky. The worst had happened; everything was lost. The man was stung with grief and anger.

“God, how could you do this to me?!” he cried. Early the next day, however, he was awakened by the sound of a ship that was approaching the island. It had come to rescue him.

“How did you know I was here?” the weary man asked of his rescuers.

“We saw your smoke signal,” they replied.

It is easy to get discouraged when things are going bad, but we shouldn’t lose faith. God is at work in our lives. The next time you feel like your little hut is burning to the ground, it may just be the smoke signal that summons the grace of God.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise.” This was clearly the case for the man in the story. However, like many of us, it was difficult for him to recognize that truth in the midst of his tribulation.

The counsel of President George Q. Cannon is helpful in such situations:

“The saints should always remember that God sees not as man sees; that he does not willingly afflict His children, and that if He requires them to endure present privation and trial, it is that they may escape greater tribulations which would otherwise inevitably overtake them. If He deprives them of any present blessing, it is that He may bestow upon them greater and more glorious ones by and by.”

The man was required to endure the trial of his hut burning to the ground, but that privation allowed him to escape the greater tribulation of trying to stay alive while remaining on the island alone. He was deprived of the blessing of sleeping in the hut that night, but it was that very deprivation that allowed him to receive the greater blessing of being rescued.

The principles put forward by President Cannon represent a theme that can be observed in the scriptures, as well as in our lives. Trials and tribulations serve as smoke signals that summon the grace of God. These smoke signals can invite boats in the form of opportunities, friends, lessons to learn, or greater blessings than we were presently enjoying. Viewing our trials this way gets easier as we remember Heavenly Father’s character and become more familiar with this pattern.

This pattern can be seen in many examples in the scriptures. Ammon may have felt his hut was burning to the ground and all was lost when he was imprisoned for two days upon reaching the land of Nephi, but that trial allowed him to meet and teach King Limhi and his people, as well as lead them out of bondage back to the land of Zarahemla.

Alma was very discouraged after being  withstood, reviled, spit upon, and then cast out of the city of Ammonihah. But this smoke signal summoned a boat in the form of an angel who told him to return to the land of Ammonihah where he met Amulek. If this had never happened, he would not have witnessed God’s hand as “they had power given unto them, insomuch that they could not be confined in dungeons; neither was it possible that any man could slay them.” (Alma 8:31)

Joseph likely felt like his hut was burning to the ground when he was sold into Egypt by his brothers, or when Potiphar’s wife had him put in prison. But these hardships gave him the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dream which led to his promotion, enabling him to temporally save many people, including his own family, from the coming famine.

Brigham Young taught, “If you possess the light of the Holy Spirit, you can see clearly that trials in the flesh are actually necessary.” Perhaps it was his possession of that Spirit, and understanding of the necessity of trials, that led him–after being driven out of Nauvoo, and crossing the plains to the Rocky Mountains–to make this statement: “We are infinitely more blessed by the persecutions and injustice we have suffered, than we could have been if we had remained in our habitations from which we have been driven – than if we had been suffered to occupy our farms, gardens, stores, mills, machinery and everything we had in our former possessions.”

Joseph Smith braved many hardships and tribulations during his life. Possibly the most trying of those experiences was the four months in the middle of winter he spent unlawfully confined in a dungeon, ironically named, Liberty Jail. In his letters he spoke of the jail being a “hell, surrounded with demons. . . where we are compelled to hear nothing but blasphemous oaths, and witness a scene of blasphemy, and drunkenness and hypocrisy, and debaucheries of every description.” He wrote, “We have . . . not blankets sufficient to keep us warm, and when we have a fire, we are obliged to have almost a constant smoke.” “Our souls have been bowed down” “and my nerve trembles from long confinement.” “Pen, or tongue, or angels,” Joseph wrote, could not adequately describe “the malice of hell” that he suffered there. (Holland, Lessons From Liberty Jail)

To make matters worse, in the midst of this imprisonment, the Saints were being driven out of their homes in Missouri via an extermination order signed by Governor Boggs. These conditions drove the prophet to cry out, “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” (D&C 121:1) Surely Joseph could relate to the man watching his hut burn to the ground who cried out “God how could you do this to me?!” But Joseph’s burning hut of adversity sent up a smoke signal that would summon a boat in the form of some of the most powerful lessons ever taught in the scriptures contained in Doctrine and Covenants sections 121-123.

As challenging and profound as each of these stories are, none match the affliction and distress endured by the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross at Calvary. As described by Jesus himself, so great was the suffering it “caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit – and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink.” The culmination of the suffering consisted of the Father withdrawing His Spirit, causing the Savior to cry out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” These flames of anguish burning down Jesus’ hut summoned the greatest gift of grace this world has ever known – the atonement. It is through this figurative rescue boat that we are endowed with the strength to not just pass through our trials, but to allow our trials to “pass through us in ways that sanctify us.” (Elder Maxwell)

President Thomas S. Monson proclaimed:

“There are times when we will experience heartbreaking sorrow, when we will grieve and when we may be tested to our limits. However, such difficulties allow us to change for the better, to rebuild our lives in the way our Heavenly Father teaches us, and to become something different from what we were – better than what we were, more understanding than what we were, more empathetic than what we were, with stronger testimonies than we had before.”

Linda S. Reeves has offered this perspective thought, “What will it matter, what we suffered here if, in the end, those trials are the very things which qualify us for eternal life and exaltation in the kingdom of God.” In other words, what will it matter how many huts we watch go up in flames if, in the end, those smoke signals are the very things that beckon the rescue boats – the grace of God – to come to our aid and take us to where we need to go.

Whatever the hut that is in flames represents for us, we can rest assured with the knowledge that God is not maliciously burning it to the ground for his own satisfaction, nor will he allow it to burn to the ground without sending a smoke signal summoning a rescue boat. He is at work in our lives orchestrating the experiences, challenges, and trials that will bring us the greatest amount of knowledge, experience, and eternal progression.

As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught:

“The tests of life are tailored for our own best interests, and all will face the burdens best suited to their own mortal experience. In the end we will realize that God is merciful as well as just and that all the rules are fair, we can be reassured that our challenges will be the ones we needed, and conquering them will bring blessings we could have received in no other way.”

Whether we recognize it in the moment or not, He does have our best interests in mind. With our limited vision we may be satisfied for the moment with figuratively living in a hut on a deserted island, because it is better than drifting away aimlessly in the ocean. But God sees the bigger picture, and knows that we can accomplish much more if He can rescue us from where we are. Even if it requires us to experience some frustration and despair as our circumstances are altered. So remember, the next time you feel like your little hut is burning to the ground, it may just be the smoke signal that summons the grace of God. In the words of George Q. Cannon “No matter how serious the trial, how deep the distress, how great the affliction, God will never desert us, He never has, and He never will.”

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