(RNS) — If you’re looking for easy platitudes about why bad things happen to good Latter-day Saints, Melissa Inouye’s new book “Sacred Struggle” is probably not for you. You’re not going to find happy assurances here that God only sends the hardest stuff to his very favorite people who can prove their worth to him by handling it. You won’t be told that everything happens for a reason, or that you’ll emerge from your current trial as a healthier or more successful person.
No, this is a book for grown-ups who understand that if they’re serious about becoming more like Christ, suffering is an unavoidable part of the deal.
Published earlier this month, “Sacred Struggle” (Deseret Book) is unflinching in its realism but also in its hopefulness. Inouye, a Harvard-trained historian who works for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wrote it between cancer treatments and amid parenting struggles. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that Inouye is my friend and we are in the same monthly writing group. I should also say that I had no idea this book was even in the works until it was already a fait accompli, because she pulled it together from a series of pandemic talks she gave to a variety of academic, professional and devotional audiences. She was worried the talks might not cohere together as a book but, as she put it, “turns out I only talk about the same thing.” That thing is suffering.)
When I interviewed Inouye on a trip to Utah this month, I started where the book starts: with Satan’s Plan. According to Inouye, Latter-day Saints say we want God’s plan, and believe we actually voted for that plan in the premortal life. But we don’t usually welcome suffering into our lives as something that’s baked into a system God dreamed up and we greenlighted. Instead, we keep gravitating toward Satan’s foolproof blueprint for a pain-free life.
“We want a world where God keeps us safe and none of us is gonna strike out or have problems,” Inouye said. “But in Latter-day Saint theology, that is precisely the plan of Lucifer.”
She laughed about a woman she heard about who wanted to make up T-shirts saying “Moms for Satan’s Plan.” But she also knows why a childhood free of pain and mistakes just wouldn’t work. “It would get your kid through all the tricky things as teenagers and as adults. But they would get to the end of their life and wouldn’t have gotten anything out of it. They wouldn’t have become the kind of persons that life, and suffering, can help them become,” she explained.
Inouye has had a weighty dose of suffering herself in the last few years. In 2017, at the age of 37, she was diagnosed with colon cancer, and life since then has been a roller coaster of diagnoses, treatments, side effects, remissions and recurrences. The cancer came out of the blue to someone who had been extraordinarily healthy to that point; she ran a marathon after the births of each of her four children.
She also did childbirth all four times without pain medication. She says she used to be a “no pain, no gain” kind of person, and a self-described Tiger Mom. Necessity has made her a more relaxed parent. “I have become a little less Tiger Mom-ish because of my cancer treatments. I would like to be more Tiger Mom-ish, but sometimes I just can’t. Now I’m like, ‘OK, go play those video games. Have fun.’”
She can laugh about this transformation, but the suffering that lies at the root of the change has been deeply painful.
“In the moment, suffering feels horrible and senseless, and you feel abandoned. But what the book is trying to do is process the difficulty that’s inherent in life and to show how pain is everywhere,” from our social interactions to our physical experiences.
“If the pain were a bug and not a feature, then you’d be like, ‘This is a really crappy life.’ But if it’s a feature, then you can see its fruits. And in my life, without a doubt, the fruits of suffering have been really good. They’ve been things that I need.”
One of those fruits is a heightened compassion. Inouye points to the parable of the rich young ruler in the Gospels — someone who grew up with privilege, kept the commandments and tried to be a good person. What he lacked, she says, was lack itself. He’d never run to the limits of his own abilities, never confronted human brokenness.
Inouye can relate. “I grew up as a very privileged person, and I think I was like the rich young man in that I lacked lack. Now I almost feel sorry for my younger self because that person was so strong and fit and confident, but just had no idea how to connect with people who weren’t just like that.”
Without suffering, she now believes, we are closed off to the life experiences of most people, and we don’t even realize what we’re missing.
“What I understand about the Holy Spirit is that it creates these empathic connections between us and others who are feeling and experiencing the same thing. When that happens, it’s amazing.”
As a historian, she says that some of life’s toughest pain comes not from disease and physical pain, but from the evils that human beings visit upon each other. Her great-grandparents were imprisoned during World War II for no other reason than that they were Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. Their land was confiscated, and the business they’d worked so hard to build was reduced to nothing. And even after the war, as they rebuilt everything from scratch, they were discriminated against and economically exploited through unfair lending practices.
That kind of suffering marks a family. It made her grandparents incredibly hard workers who placed high expectations on their kids and grandkids. But it also made them compassionate to people without privilege, people on the margins.
In that way, Inouye said, suffering can invite Jesus to be present. Jesus was not interested in having a successful and safe life for himself, but in reaching out to people in pain.
“When you look at what Jesus was doing, his life diverged from those who tended to only emphasize a straight-up-just-follow-the-commandments-as-written-and-traditionally-enforced ethos. He was criticized for the ways in which he broke with the religious establishment. In a broader way, he drew criticism by always wading into the stickiest situations of his society, always crossing boundaries, expanding meanings,” Inouye said. “He was this marginal person who came from a marginal place that made people automatically suspect him. Jesus was doing the path of most resistance, tackling these really difficult, awkward, confrontational situations. If that’s what it means to follow Jesus, then that’s a bit worrying. It sounds like a tall order, you know?”
On the other hand, she knows she’s not expected to endure suffering — her own and that of other people — all on her own.
“The great thing about Jesus’ tall order is that it’s something powerful and beautiful worth getting behind. What I love about the Latter-day Saints is that we make covenants to always be on Team Jesus. Sometimes I think we grow up thinking that being on Team Jesus means rushing out to clobber the opposing team, who are on Team Satan, and returning victorious. But actually, being on Team Jesus means being a good teammate to everyone on Jesus’ team. And who’s on Jesus’ team? Everyone,” she said.