This, surprisingly, is hymn of despair. Although there are precious few songs in our hymnal that express this kind of anguish, I’m grateful for the diversity of experience they attest to.
Part of what is so poignant about this hymn is the way that despair is paired with expressions of belief and devotion. The trials through which the hymn progresses are all the more devastating because the singer is expressing faith, but not yet experiencing the fruition of that faith. “Shadowed hope our joy delay[s]” even though “our hearts confess, our souls believe / Thy truth, thy light, thy will, thy way.” We know that God has a “loving will” and can “release our anguished, weary souls,” and yet we are still in “the prison tow’r”, caught in “grim confusion’s awful death.”
The contrast is devastating! And it is a contrast that deserves to be devastating because it expresses the lived experience of so many people. As much as we like to tell personal narratives in which trials are overcome and we emerge stronger, with Shiny Faith 2.0, the fact of the matter is that many people experience suffering far more pervasive and long-lasting than we may be comfortable admitting. There are people with debilitating, incurable physical and mental illnesses, people who live with chronic pain, and people who have lost more loved ones and experienced more personal grief and disappointment than we even knew was possible in one lifetime. Faith takes on a radical cast when it is called to answer the truly chronic trials of human life.
There are few people who experienced this truth more profoundly than Joseph Smith. The “how long?” that opens this hymn echoes Joseph’s own famously beleaguered plea:
“How long shall thy hand be stayed? … Yea, O Lord, how long shall [thy people] suffer these wrongs … before thine heart shall be softened toward them?” (D&C 121:2-3)
But buried in these same verses is a truth that has given me comfort when I consider the gut-wrenching struggles of mortality. Joseph ends his plea with these words:
“Remember thy suffering saints, O our God; and thy servants will rejoice in thy name forever.” (D&C 121:6)
I have long found it interesting that Joseph calls the saints God’s “servants.” It recasts his question in a whole new light. It is as if he were asking: ‘Haven’t we been good servants? A servant receives fair recompense for their actions, and we are not finding that justice. Why haven’t we received our wages?’
It is in this light that I find God’s response overwhelmingly moving:
“My son, peace be unto thy soul…” (D&C 121:7)
God’s response is essentially: ‘Joseph, you’ve misunderstood. You aren’t my servants, you are my sons, and sons are treated differently.’
Servants are hired. They punch in at 8:00 am, they punch out at 5:00 pm, and in return they are given a fair wage at the end of each day. Sons, however, are in a relationship far more binding, and thus far more demanding. In return, they are given a full inheritance, but it can only be obtained through the rigorous work of being sealed.
When we face the injustices and unfairness of life, we would do well to remember that God does not deal with us as servants, but as sons. The answer to the question “how long?” may be difficult to hear and even more difficult to bear, but the promise is that if we will allow ourselves to be true sons, “endur[ing] it well,” we will find “peace … unto [our] soul” and “triumph” (D&C 121:7-8).
“How long?” Perhaps longer than we wish. But the Lord remains “Most Holy and True,” and his goodness extends to engaging us in the painful but truly rewarding work of being Sons.