Pressing Forward in the Days Ahead
Elder Neal A. Maxwell
of the Quorum of the Twelve
(If Thou Endure It Well, p.19-31)
Is our society beyond the point of return? One lesson of Nineveh is that we must not give up. But episodic and loose confederacies of decent people will be no match for the evils and designs of conspiring people, for "behold, the enemy is combined" (D&C 38:12). This warning is to be taken seriously both individually and collectively. "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).
So it is, therefore, that more than any preceding generation in the Church, we-and especially the rising generations-are destined to serve in a period of human history which will be "stern" indeed.
What follows below by way of indicators is representative of those circumstances we are told to endure well. (The charts reflect the United States situation and are based on research done by Perry Cunningham and Kristen Goodman for a CES satellite broadcast talk I gave on 4 June 1995.) Some recitation and contemplation of these trends is part of our preparation in order that we may "overcome the world" in our days. Since the "enemy is combined," it is well to assess the patterns and consequences of his order of battle, how his forces are deployed, and what objectives he seeks. Scanning and pondering key symptoms can thus be a help.
1. Divorce. If current divorce levels persist, about 50 percent of all marriages contracted in the past fifteen to twenty years will end in divorce. Of all marriages contracted in 1995, it is expected that 60 percent will end in divorce. Half of the children whose parents divorce and remarry will also experience a second such family disruption before they reach age sixteen.
In the 1960s, only 7 percent of college students came from homes where the parents were divorced. By the early 1990s, that number had risen to over 30 percent!
Bruce Hafen, Provost at Brigham Young University and Professor of Law, in his extensive studies covering "Marriage and the State's Legal Posture Toward the Family," has written that "American law has taken the freedom to obtain a divorce further than the law of any Western nation." He cites Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon that "in the last generation American society has experienced a 'transformation' in its laws and in its views on family life that is 'the most fundamental shift [in the state's legal posture toward the family] since the Protestant Reformation.'"2 This disturbing development is part of the foreseen "commotion."
In the same address to the American Bar Association, Provost Hafen included two biting questions that bear upon the signs of our times:
As social scientists Elshrain and Popenoe put it, "The most important causal factor of declining child well-being is the remarkable collapse of marriage, leading to growing family instability and decreasing parental investment in children."
[The] evidence now overwhelmingly confirms G.K. Chesterton's remark that we should "regard a system that produces many divorces as we do a system that drives men to drown or shoot themselves."3
2. Single-parent families. In 1960, 73 percent of the nation's children lived with two natural parents who were married only once. Of the children born in 1986, however, 60 percent will spend a portion of their childhood in a one-parent situation.
3. Employed mothers of preschoolers. Today, many single mothers work out of sheer necessity; some valiantly try to keep their families intact. Yet we are compelled to consider that back in 1950 only 12 percent of the mothers with preschool children were in the labor force. By 1993, it was 60 percent!
4. Illegitimate births. In 1950, 13 percent of the births to fifteen-to nineteen-year-olds were to unmarried women. By 1990, it was 67 percent! Looking ahead from 1995, the overall national illegitimacy rate "is predicted to reach 50 percent within the next twelve to twenty years."4
This last trend is not only ominous, it is unprecedented! Gertrude Himmelfarb has warned: "The present illegitimacy ratio is not only unprecedented in the past two centuries; it is unprecedented, so far as we know, in American history going back to colonial times, and in English history from Tudor times." 5
5. Children not living with their biological fathers. About 40 percent of U.S. children now sleep in homes without a resident father. Presently, more than half of the American children will spend a portion of their childhood living apart from their fathers. It may soon rise to 60 percent.
Consider but one consequence of how lamentable this trend is: More than 70 percent of all juveniles in state reform institutions come from fatherless homes. There is a bitter harvest largely as a result of so much breaking of the seventh commandment.
Today, therefore, we have more functioning gadgets of convenience but fewer functioning fathers! Consider how needless divorce sends a scorching signal to children about how unimportant they are, as does the message adult live-ins send to teens about the acceptability of sexual immorality. What are sons raised in fatherless homes supposed to understand about either the role of fathers or the importance of families?
It is not surprising, therefore, that so many interconnections between people and also between people and institutions are fraying. This is more of the prophesied commotion. One writer observed that there is "an inevitable fraying of the net of connections between people at many critical intersections, of which the marital knot is only one. Each fraying accelerates others. A break in one connection, such as attachment to a stable community, puts pressure on other connections: marriage, the relationship between parents and children, religious affiliation, a feeling of connection with the past-even citizenship, that sense of membership in a large community which grows best when it is grounded in membership in a small one." 6
The several destructive trends just cited cannot be reversed with a snap of society's fingers. In fact, if we hear any snaps they will be the sounds of more fraying among the vital interconnections.
Many things will not get better until and unless we have better, stronger families. But this will require much more self-denial, and, ironically, self-denial is a quality best developed in loving families. Hence the fact that current problems were foreseen did nothing to stay their advance. In 1965, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., then assistant secretary of labor, issued a warning:
It is more than a coincidence that each of these trends, which devastate the family, accelerated during the same time period! Furthermore, it is not only today's America that is in trouble. So are the next generations, who will live dangerously "downwind" from these contaminating conditions.
These anti-family trend lines are like a several-headed Hydra, each with its own venom of consequences.
A related consideration pertains to advocacy in behalf of families: "The truth is that only men to whom the family is sacred will ever have a standard or a status by which to criticize the state. They alone can appeal to something more holy than the gods of the city; the gods of the hearth." 8
Like the subtle serpent spoken of biblically, this Hydra surely and steadily bruises mankind (see Genesis 3:1, 12-15). Even so, as far as our individual lives are concerned, its influence can at least be contained by our personal righteousness.
It is worthy of note that warning voices are not confined to religious sources. Other forecasts are becoming increasingly foreboding, including one warning that "any further reduction-either in functions or in number of [family] members-will likely have adverse consequences for children, and thus for generations to come." 9
As if this pattern, by itself, were not alarming enough, these "worst of times" trends are also undercutting of the "best of times" advantages.
There is more education, but there is less hope. Paul Rogat Loeb quotes Christopher Lasch in his observation that if our young have no hope for the future, this is in great part because we have left them ignorant of their past: "If young people feel no connection to anything, . . . their dislocation is a measure of our failure, not theirs. We have failed to provide them with a culture that claims to explain the world or [that] links the experience of one generation to those that came before and to those that will follow." 10
This life's temporal lens distorts. The things of the moment are grossly magnified, and the things of eternity are blurred or diminished. No wonder God asks us mortals to trust His perfect love and His perfect knowledge!
There is generally better health, but various plagues will come (see D&C 84:97; 87:6; Revelation 21:9).
There is more personal mobility but much, much less community.
There are more and better highways, but fewer safe streets. Since 1960, violent crime in America is up 560 percent!
The knowledge explosion is certainly real, but with it there is a disconnecting and trivialization of some truths. This is occurring amid a flood of information. Neil Postman argues effectively that the connection between information and human purpose has been severed. 11
So many, therefore, are "ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 3:7). No wonder T. S. Eliot lamented, "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" 12
Way back when these trends had barely started, prophetic voices were raised. For one, President Stephen L Richards spoke in 1958 of the urgent need to put an exemplary "father back at the head of the family." President Richards saw fathers beginning to distance themselves from their families, but he also foresaw "an ever-increasing calamity that shakes our very national life, not only for present generations but that may shape its course for ages to come." 13 The foreseen "calamity" is upon us, and it is shaking "our very national life."
But the public was not in a listening mood back then. Political and educational leaders did not then see or care to see the gathering storm. Many were not only imperceptive but also smug. Their smugness reminds one of the attitude of "that ancient retiree from the Research Department of the British Foreign Office [who] reportedly said, after serving from 1903 to 1950: 'Year after year the worriers and fretters would come to me with awful predictions of the outbreak of war. I denied it each time. I was wrong only twice.' [World War I and World War II.]" 14
As we strive to "endure well" the macro, societal, and global challenges which form the context of our days, it is comforting to know that we are not left alone, for our God is a personal God. Note the following customized, divine communications:
"And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome" (Acts 23:11). The resurrected Lord of the universe visited one person in a castle jail: He extended appreciation to Paul. He gave him encouragement, and He also gave him a "missionary transfer" from Jerusalem to Rome. How big was Jesus' audience? One!
Jesus was likewise disclosing and encouraging to a believing, solitary woman of Samaria, another audience of one, to whom, by the way, He disclosed "all that ever [she] did" (see John 4:39). "The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things. Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he." (John 4:25-26.)
Thus the Lord of the universe, early in His ministry, disclosed His true identity to an audience of one. He knows each and all of us, too. And as in the instance of the woman of Samaria, He knows all things we have ever done, and He knows what lies ahead of us. And He loves us. He can steady us individually even in the midst of general commotion.
The Prophet Joseph and the revelations confirm that God lives in an "eternal now," where the past, present, and future are continually before Him. He is not constrained by the perspectives of time as are we. He sees the end from the beginning. You and I, on the other hand, are in the muddled, mortal middle. So when we are discouraged, let us keep in mind the Prophet Joseph's assurance that God has made "ample provision" in order to accomplish His purposes even in the midst of human wickedness. 15 His plan has taken things into account beforehand. In this manner and with such faith we can live comforted and assured in the midst of challenges, including the devastating trends that will increasingly beset the times in which we live.
We are involved in an unfolding which we can only see through a glass darkly, but which the Lord sees with the unique clarity of omniscience. For instance, President Brigham Young observed of certain political disorders and upheavals in the world with their attendant miseries and difficulties, that, even so, out of these there could come some benefit, because in those nations "the door will be opened and the gospel will be preached to all." 16
Nephi said he once heard the voice of the Father. Among all He might have said, what did the Father choose to say in one of those special moments? He declared that the words of His Son were true, but He also emphasized how important it is that we endure to the end (see 2 Nephi 31:15). Nephi beautifully associated the capacity to endure with pressing forward, feasting on the scriptures, and developing the capacity to love (2 Nephi 31:20). So positioned, we will be able to deflect the fiery darts of the adversary or quench them with the shield of faith. After all, Jesus has forewarned us of these times: "Behold, I speak these things unto you for the elect's sake; and you also shall hear of wars, and rumors of wars; see that ye be not troubled, for all I have told you must come to pass; but the end is not yet. Behold, I have told you before." (Joseph Smith-Matthew 1:2324.)
It is a marvelous thing to see how the gospel enlightens us and tames us. Sin does just the opposite; it dulls, darkens, and hardens us. One ongoing miracle in the Church is people whose faith is sufficiently strong that they are letting the gospel tame and remodel them.
These really are our days, and we can prevail and overcome, even in the midst of trends that are very disturbing. If we are faithful the day will come when those deserving pioneers and ancestors, whom we rightly praise for having overcome the adversities in their wilderness trek, will praise today's faithful for having made their way successfully through a desert of despair and for having passed through a cultural wilderness, while still keeping the faith.
We can make of these days ahead "days never to be forgotten" in the history of the Church. Ours can be "a voice of gladness" even amid the stern but foreseen days of "gloominess," while being "alive in Christ" in the living Church. (See Joseph Smith--History 1, footnote to verse 71; D&C 128:19; 2 Nephi 25:25.)