I remember pleading with heaven during one particularly difficult day while serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq. I was in tears and truly struggling. I silently prayed and asked, “Why me?” After closing my prayer, I remember having two distinct thoughts.
First, I realized I had volunteered to join the military many years before. It was my choice. And while being sent to Iraq during that point of my life was less than ideal, going to war and leaving my wife and children was part of what I had signed up to do.
Not that I wanted to go to war, per se, but I knew the risks. The oath I took to serve in the military would obligate me to serve, at times, in places and in specific assignments that would not always be pleasant experiences. In fact, quite the opposite.
Second, I heard in my mind the words of the Apostle Paul from the book of Hebrews: “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered” (see Hebrews 5:8). Suffering seemed to be the key word and, at the time, my universal dilemma.
As a result of my life experiences — particularly the most trying and difficult ones — I’ve learned a few things about why we suffer. Some difficult trials we face come because of the choices that other people make; choices we have no control over.
Many challenges we face come from our individual choices. The things we choose to think about and act upon have a considerable impact upon us. Small, everyday decisions shape our lives and mold our circumstances. We cannot blame others for who we’ve become or where we are in life. The decisions we made are ours alone.
Personal struggles also come because of natural laws, such as sickness, injury and death. Moreover, accidents and disruptions of nature occur because of the unchangeable laws that are part of this life.
Sometimes, however, miracles occur — things that are difficult, if not impossible, to explain. Our expectations are disrupted. Heaven intervenes.
One day we may realize why things happen the way they do; why some die and why others survive. In the meantime, however, hope in life after death and faith in God can help us heal and endure.
In moments of darkness and despair I’ve learned it’s better not to ask why. We may never understand why, but we can develop and mature when we frame questions using what, who or how instead of asking why me? For instance, what am I supposed to learn from this trial? Who can I help, or how can I grow spiritually from this particular difficulty?
Although it can be difficult and unpleasant at times, we need to find purpose in our suffering and asking such questions help us to do that.
Prior to my experiences in the Middle East, I used to think I had compassion. In retrospect, I didn’t have as much compassion as I thought I did. Difficulties refine us and our trials can become a blessing if for nothing else than they allow a springboard for us to develop greater Christ-like love and compassion.
Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, said it best when he wrote, “Schooled in suffering, now I learned to comfort those who suffer too.”
Now, serving in a law enforcement capacity, I see people suffering greatly. I see on a daily basis the negative effects of the choices people make from serious addictions to violent outbursts of anger. Often, I meet people in their most agonizing moments — the vulnerability of victimization and the sorrow of death.
I also meet many people who are suicidal and without hope. While I’ve never felt suicidal, I’ve had friends who’ve taken their lives. I'm dismayed by the suicide rate among veterans.
Because I’ve felt great pain and suffering, I can truly empathize with others on a greater level. While there are others who have suffered much more than I have, I can understand all sorrows on some levels because of my experiences.
While there can be a tendency to downplay the hurt of others or think that their pains are nothing compared to our hurtful experiences, I choose instead to look to the example of the Savior Jesus Christ.
King Benjamin prophesied in the Book of Mormon that “he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death” (see Mosiah 3:7). Isaiah described him as a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (see Isaiah 53:3).
While Jesus Christ could choose to bitterly laugh at us for complaining of our hurts or dismiss our pains as nil by comparison to what he suffered, he would never do such a thing. Instead, he chose to be refined through his indescribable and incomprehensible suffering. As a result, he developed perfect understanding and compassion for each of us.
Although archaic in language and expression, I believe the Lord saying his bowels are full of mercy is the sweetest phrase of all scripture.
The Savior does not dismiss our sufferings or ignore our pleading and prayerful petitions. On the contrary, he invites us all to come unto him and to receive “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding” (see Philippians 4:7). His message is still clear today: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (see Matthew 11:28).
I’m proud of my military experiences. Of course, my service hasn’t always been pleasant. Like each of us, I’ve had to endure painful hardships. Like my tour in Iraq, sometimes in life we don’t always get what we want. Life can be painful and challenging at times, but I believe one day after this life is over, we’ll look back with greater understanding of and gratitude for our sufferings.
A veteran police officer with many years of experience recently told me, “I’m grateful for the hurt I experienced because now I can help others who are hurting.”
After all, isn’t that what life’s all about?
Jeffrey Denning is a police officer in the Salt Lake City area. He is a former Federal Air Marshal and veteran of the war in Iraq. He is the founder of Warrior SOS and published a book by the same name.