SALT LAKE CITY — On the day before what would have been his 65th wedding anniversary, President Thomas S. Monson spoke personally and movingly of his wife's recent death and his assurance that God is with us in times of adversity during the Sunday morning session of the 183rd Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Our Heavenly Father, who gives us so much to delight in, also knows that we learn and grow and become stronger as we face and survive the trials through which we must pass," said the 86-year-old church leader, who is observing the 50th anniversary of his call to the church's Quorum of the Twelve during this conference.
"We know that 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 we were, more understanding than we were, more empathetic than we were, with stronger testimonies than we had before."
For President Monson, the passing of his beloved wife, Frances, six months ago was such a time of sorrow and grief.
"She was the love of my life, my trusted confidant and my closest friend," he said. "To say that I miss her does not begin to convey the depth of my feelings ... She was an angel, indeed."
President Monson said his testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ has been "of utmost comfort to me during this tender time of parting," including "the knowledge I have that my dear Frances lives still."
"I know that our separation is temporary," he said. "We were sealed in the House of God by one having authority to bind on earth and in heaven. I know that we will be reunited one day and will never again be separated. This is the knowledge that sustains me."
During times of suffering, "there is a temptation to ask the question, 'Why me?,'" President Monson said.
"At times there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel, no sunrise to end the night's darkness," he said. "We feel encompassed by the disappointment of shattered dreams and the despair of vanished hope. We join in uttering the biblical plea, 'Is there no balm in Gilead?' We feel abandoned, heartbroken, alone. We are inclined to view our own personal misfortunes through the distorted prism of pessimism. We become impatient for a solution to our problems, forgetting that frequently the heavenly virtue of patience is required."
At such times, President Monson said, "a fundamental question remained to be answered by each of us: Shall I falter, or shall I finish?"
"Some do falter as they find themselves unable to rise above their challenges," he said. "To finish involves enduring to the very end of life itself."
Those who have made the gospel of Jesus Christ the center of their lives find that "this is what will pull us through whatever comes our way," President Monson said.
"We will still experience difficult challenges, but we will be able to face them, to meet them head on and to emerge victorious. From the bed of pain, from the pillow wet with tears, we are lifted heavenward by that divine assurance and precious promise: 'I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.' Such comfort is priceless."
As he concluded his remarks, President Monson urged his listeners to "have a commitment to our Heavenly Father that does not ebb and flow with the years or the crises of our lives."
"Only the Master knows the depths of our trials, our pain and our suffering," he said. "He alone offers us eternal peace in times of adversity ... Whether it is the best of times or the worst of times, he is with us. He has promised that this will never change."
President Monson was the concluding speaker for the Sunday morning conference session, which opened with similarly personal remarks from his first counselor in the First Presidency, President Henry B. Eyring.
President Eyring spoke about counsel he has given to two of his grandchildren who will be married this year and who are wondering about the keys to family happiness. Such counsel is difficult to give, he said, because "Heavenly Father has made each of us unique."
"No two of us have exactly the same experiences," he said. "No two families are alike ... Yet a loving Heavenly Father has set the same path to happiness for all of his children. Whatever our personal characteristics or whatever will be our experiences, there is but one plan of happiness. That plan is to follow all the commandments of God."
Repentance, baptism and serving in church callings are also choices that are keys to family happiness.
"The pressures at every stage of life can tempt us to reject or neglect calls to serve the Savior," President Eyring said. "That can put us in spiritual peril for ourselves, our spouse and our families. Some of these calls may seem unimportant, but my life, and my family, was changed for the better by my accepting a call to teach a deacon's quorum. I felt the love of those deacons for the Savior and his love for them."
Service in the kingdom leads members to closer companionship with the Holy Ghost, he said, and "it is only with the companionship fo the Holy Ghost that we can hope to be equally yoked in a marriage free from discord."
"I have seen how that companionship is crucial for felicity in a marriage," he added. "The miracle of becoming one requires the help of heaven and it takes time. Our goal is to live together forever in the presence of Heavenly Father and our Savior."
President Eyring said his message to his grandchildren, "and to all of us trying to forge eternal families, is that there is joy guaranteed for the faithful."
"From before the world was, a loving Father in Heaven and his Beloved Son loved and worked with those whom they knew would wander," he said. "God will love them forever."
All of us can take courage "from the assurance that we all once felt the joy of being together as a member of the beloved family of our Heavenly Father," President Eyring said. "With God's help we can all feel that hope and that joy again."
Speaking right after President Eyring, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve drew from the Ten Commandments to underscore his discussion of misplaced priorities, including gay marriage.
"The principle is not whether we have other priorities," Elder Oaks said. "The question posed by the Second Commandment is 'what is our ultimate priority? Are we bowing down to and serving priorities or gods ahead of the God we profess to worship? Have we forgotten the Savior, who taught that if we love him we will keep his commandments? If so, our priorities have been turned upside down by the spiritual apathy and undisciplined appetites so common in our day."
For Latter-day Saints, Elder Oaks said, "God's commandments are based on and inseparable from God's plan for his children — the great plan of salvation."
"knowledge of God's plan for his children gives Latter-day Saints a unique perspective on marriage and family," he said. "We are correctly known as a family-centered church. Our theology begins with Heavenly Parents, and our highest aspiration is to attain the fulness of eternal exaltation, which we know to be possible only in a family relationship.
"We know that the marriage of a man and a woman is necessary for the accomplishment of God's plan," he continued. "Only this marriage will provide the approved setting for mortal birth and to prepare family members for eternal life. We look on marriage and the bearing and nurturing of children as part of God's plan and a sacred duty of those given the opportunity to do so. We believe the ultimate treasures on earth and in heaven are our children and our posterity."
Because Latter-day Saints believe that the power to create mortal life is the most exalted power God has given to his children, and they believe that God has forbidden its misuse outside the bonds of marriage between a man and a woman, Elder Oaks said the church cannot "condone such behaviors or ... find justification in the laws that permit them."
"Man's laws cannot make moral what God has declared immoral," he said. "Commitment to our highest priority — to love and serve God — requires that we look to his law for our standard of behavior. For example, we remain under divine command not to commit adultery or fornication even when those acts are no longer crimes under the laws of the states or countries where we reside. Similarly, laws legalizing so-called 'same-gender marriage' do not change God's laws of marriage or his commandments and our standards concerning it.
"We remain under covenant to love God and keep his commandments and to refrain from bowing down to or serving other gods and priorities — even those becoming popular in our particular time and place."
Elder Oaks concluded that "in this determination we may be misunderstood and we may incur accusations of bigotry, suffer discrimination, or have to withstand invasion of our free exercise of religion. If so, I think we should remember our first priority — to serve God — and, like our pioneer predecessors, push our personal handcarts forward with the same fortitude they exhibited."
The other apostle to speak in the Sunday morning conference session was Elder Richard G. Scott, who spoke of the personal strength that can come into individual lives through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
"It is a fundamental truth that through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, we can be cleansed," Elder Scott said. "We can become virtuous and pure. However, sometimes our poor choices leave us with long-term consequences. One of the vital steps to complete repentance is to bear the short- and long-term consequences of our past sins."
The good news, Elder Scott said, "is that the Lord sees weaknesses differently than he does rebellion."
"Whereas the Lord warns that unrepented rebellion will bring punishment," he said, "when the Lord speaks of weaknesses, it is always with mercy."
"Each of us has had times in our lives when we have made poor choices," Elder Scott continued. "We are all in desperate need of the redemptive power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Each of us must repent of any rebellion. 'For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.' He cannot because he knows what it takes to become like him."
Elder Scott urged his listeners to "fill your life with service to others."
"As you lose your life in the service of Father in Heaven's children," he said, "Satan's temptations lose power in your life."
Also speaking during the session was Sister Bonnie Oscarson, General Young Women president, who warned the young people of the church that "we live in perilous times and the decisions which you are called upon to make on a daily, or even hourly, basis have eternal consequences."
"The decisions you make in your daily life will determine what will happen to you later," she said. "If you do not yet have a firmly rooted testimony and conviction that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the kingdom of God on the earth, now is the time to do what it takes to gain that conviction. To delay making the effort required to earn that kind of conviction can be dangerous to your soul."
Elder Richard J. Maynes of the Presidency of the Seventy was the other morning session speaker. He spoke about the principle of enduring to the end, noting that "the race that is set before us on this earth is an endurance race, filled with ostacles."
"The obstacles in this race are the challenges we wake up with each morning," Elder Maynes said. "We are here on earth to run the race, to exercise our moral agency, and to choose between right and wrong. In order to honorably and successfully finish the race and return to our Heavenly Father, we will need to pay the price of dedication, perseverance and self-discipline. We need to get into spiritual shape. We need to develop spiritual stamina. We need strong testimonies that will lead to true conversion, and as a result we will find within ourselves the inner peace and strength needed to endure whatever challenges we may face."
Music for the Sunday morning session was provided by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Prayers were offered by Sister Cheryl Esplin of the general Primary presidency and Elder Francisco J. Viñas of the Seventy.