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David F. Holland is a respected scholar and Professor of New England Church History at Harvard Divinity School. On October 29, 2016, he spoke on the topic “Latter-day Saints and the Problem of Pain” at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU in Provo, Utah.

Recently LDS Perspectives host Nick Galieti interviewed David Holland about his presentation at BYU, his further explorations on the seemingly paradoxical problem of pain, as well as the role pain and suffering play in the journey of the Christian disciple.

David reflects on counsel given to his father from Elder Neal A. Maxwell, prior to an address Holland’s father gave at BYU. The counsel was to be sensitive to the unseen problems that inform the varied histories of audience members, “There are scars that go unnoticed, but you must see them. You must tread with caution on the hallowed ground of another’s suffering.”

Holland shared that two members of his New England area stake committed suicide within a week of each other. It is in this backdrop that David spoke in simultaneous roles as an admittedly amateur-philosopher and historian-scholar.

He reviewed a history of the role of pain and suffering in early American religious settings, as well as proposed answers to the questions many still carry about the relationship of pain to our mortal experiences. Answers for which the restored gospel of Latter-day Saint theology meets in rich and profound ways.

Holland elaborates on how historically religions saw pain and suffering as the voice of God declaring his displeasure with their actions. Others felt discord with the concept of a deity that only spoke when displeased.

The people of early America, when faced with this paradox of “a choice in which God could either be cruel or mute, they increasingly chose the silence.” Thus a mute God, and a rigidly closed cannon became part of how many religious Americans viewed life and religious practice.

Many today view God, or their concept of God, as the answer to pain and suffering. If there is no reprieve from pain, then there must be no God. With so many today feeling the pains of depression and other mental health issues, Holland postulates that “[Mental illness] is the next great frontier of our ministry [as Latter-day Saints].”

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LDS Perspectives Podcast

Episode 34: The Problem of Pain with David F. Holland


Nick Galieti:               Hello and welcome to this episode of the LDS Perspectives Podcast. My name is Nick Galieti, and I’m hosting this episode with our guest, David F. Holland. David F. Holland earned a bachelor’s Degree in history from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree and PhD from Stanford University.

He’s the author of numerous book reviews, journal articles, and review essays, including From Anne Hutchinson to Horace Bushnell: A New Take on the New England Sequence and A Mixed Construction of Subversion and Conversion: The Complicated Lives and Times of Religious Women. He’s the author of Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America, published by Oxford University Press in 2011.

A renowned scholar of American religious history, he casts a broad and inclusive net in understanding the deep intellectual, theological, and cultural occurrences driving New England church history. David F. Holland joined the Harvard Divinity School faculty in 2013 and is the John A. Bartlett Professor of New England Church History.

We’re here today in his offices at Harvard to discuss a recent presentation given at Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU entitled “Latter-day Saints and the Problem of Pain.” Welcome. Thank you for having me here in your office.

David F. Holland:      Thanks for being here.

Nick Galieti:               One of the few university offices Ive seen with a fireplace.

David F. Holland:      A nonfunctional fireplace, but a fireplace nonetheless.

Nick Galieti:               I’ve been on campus at universities across the United States, and they all seem to have a unique feel to them. Harvard is certainly no exception. Having spent time at BYU, at Stanford, and even some time at UNLV, you’re now here at Harvard. How would you describe your experience here and how it’s impacted your scholarly work?

David F. Holland:      Harvard is a remarkably energetic place intellectually, and the stimulation that you get as a scholar here is, it’s not unique, but I think it is fair to say it’s distinctive. Cambridge tends to attract a lot of people with a lot of big thoughts, and I’ve enjoyed being in that atmosphere.

Part of the transition for me was not just transitioning from a state university at UNLV to a private university, but also transitioning from a history department to a divinity school, and the whole disciplinary environment of a divinity school is quite different from what you’d find in a history department. That’s actually been the bigger transition for me rather than the institutional change.

Nick Galieti:               Interesting. To get right to it, the presentation you gave at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU, it’s entitled “Latter-day Saints and the Problem of Pain.” It was a remarkable presentation on a number of levels, but you started out with a wonderful quote from Neal A. Maxwell that was giving some advice, given to your father prior to an address he was to offer, and the counsel was to essentially be more sensitive to the pain of others.

In fact, the quote that you ended with was, “You must tread with caution on the hallowed ground of another’s suffering,” which is a beautiful quote, but first off, I’m curious, which talk your father gave that this advice was given to him, but second, how did this lay the foundation for your presentation?

David F. Holland:      It actually was a talk that I’m not familiar with. I don’t know the details of the address. I know it was when he was Dean of Religious Education at BYU, which was an appointment he received at a very young age, relatively fresh out of grad school and carrying a lot of responsibility without a lot of experience.

One of my dad’s great gifts is humor, and he was opening that talk with a joke that Elder Maxwell thought a little insensitive and cautioned him against it in those terms in a way that my dad had never forgotten. I remember as a young man my dad telling that story and just teaching that principle to me that had been taught to him. It was clearly a really formative experience for him, and then he’s passed that down along to generations.

Nick Galieti:               In preparing for this interview, I decided to try and find some other context to your presentation, and not just from historical context, you nailed that in your presentation, but I reviewed a talk that was actually given kind of a similar name to yours by David Paulsen at BYU entitled “Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil,” which, are you familiar with the —

David F. Holland:      Yeah.

Nick Galieti:               It hits in me, from my perspective, it seems like it’s the other side of this beautifully complex philosophical coin. Yours is called “The Problem of Pain.” Why do you use this as the subject of your talk?

David F. Holland:      The problem of evil is, as you’ve indicated, closely related, really inextricable from the issue of human pain. I think that is one of the basic theological commitments of Christianity, that human pain is closely related to evil and sin and the fallenness of humanity.

I wanted to emphasize pain because, for me the word, and maybe this is just idiosyncratic to me, but the word that conjures up the problem of empathy … what it to experience the feeling of pain and how we cope with interacting with others whose experience of pain may be different from ours but a call to our compassion?

The word that would often be used historically is “suffering,” and suffering would’ve been, I think, a suitable synonym for “pain,” but for me, there’s a kind of urgency to the idea and concept of pain that captured part of what I was trying to wrestle with in that talk.

Nick Galieti:               You bring up this timing issue, urgency, and I think that that was one of the things that I walked away from as a question that I wanted to ask you. There are talks that we would say are good and presentations that are great, but a sidestep of that are talks that we feel are important due to their timing. I felt that I would put your presentation into the category of important. What in your personal experience, maybe as a stake president or here teaching, has caused you to feel that this would be an urgent thing to look at?

David F. Holland:      There’s a personal urgency to this for me. I alluded to this in the presentation, but in the fall of this year, we had a couple of members of our stake take their own lives in rapid succession. One was on a Monday, and the next one was on that Saturday. Both very tragic circumstances — one a young man that I have known and loved ever since arriving here —— one, the father of a young family.

Those circumstances were so distressing not only to me but to our stake family, and it was right in the middle of that that I got this invitation to talk at the Maxwell Institute, and so it really is coming out of a place of my own searching and yearning for some understanding because in both of these cases, the two men who took their own lives, as I learned more about their circumstance and spoke with their parents in one case and the wife and children in the other, spent some time grieving and mourning with these families, but both of these men were just overwhelmed by the pain that they felt in their life and just could not conceive of a way to continue.

That’s a heartbreaking idea, to think of a brother or a sister in that kind of agony. I felt a great sense of failure as a priesthood leader that in neither of those cases did I fully appreciate the depth of their suffering. I knew a little bit about one case, some of the struggles. The other one hit me from completely out of the blue. I should’ve been more aware of the pain. Their stake family should’ve been more aware of the pain. There’s a personal immediacy to the issue for me.

I’ve long, ever since I was a bishop in Las Vegas, I’ve been really personally compelled by the problem of mental illness, and I do see that as the next great frontier of our ministry. There are lots of contemporary issues that we need to get a better handle on and minister to more effectively, including gender orientation and lots of things that are pressing on our time and attention, but in terms of the amount of human suffering and the ripple effects of one of the conditions of mortality, I can’t imagine an issue that is calling for our time and attention and compassion more urgently than mental health.

I don’t know what it is about this historical moment, what it is about my own personal development that has made this such a timely concern for me, and maybe it’s just that in our culture generally we’re lowering the stigma that has long been associated with mental health issues and we’re talking about it more and people are more explicit or transparent about it, whatever the combination of historical and personal and ecclesiastical factors, it’s a really pressing concern for me. It’s something that we’re trying to address in our stake in a fairly systematic way.

That was a little bit of the context in which that presentation was developed in the fall.

Nick Galieti:               The main goal or maybe even the main thesis seemed to center around this idea of answering the question that many people have that, what is the purpose and function of pain in our mortal existence? That’s the heart of the paradox because when we’re talking about pain with respect to God, God is viewed as the answer to pain. With that being said, is this more a question about the function of pain or about the function or character, rather, of God?

David F. Holland:      My concern in that talk had more to do with the latter. I think a lot of people have talked about the theological value of suffering, its ability to render us humble, submissive, to generate certain kinds of strength within our character. Those kinds of talks have been given for literally hundreds of years.

I don’t mean to minimize their value. I’ve found great solace and insight in them, and they teach great truth. It has been my experience in ministry in that sometimes that answer rings a little hollow in the middle of somebody’s agony. Tell them, “Oh, this is good for you.” That can only go so far however true it might be.

The real objective of the talk was to suggest that the God of the Restoration exposes certain characteristics in his nature that not only can we take comfort from but that I think we have an obligation to emulate. One of the experiences that I’ve had in my ecclesiastical life is trying to minister to, this is very fresh from my mind, as recent as yesterday, with young people who are coming to grips with a non-heteronormative sexual orientation or gender identity.

The sentiment that I hear repeatedly from those that find themselves in this circumstance is, on the one hand, frustration with God and His apparent unwillingness to resolve this tension in their life, on one hand, and yet, at least for the thoughtful and prayerful among us, a great sense of appreciation for the small tender mercies that have given them the strength to carry on this journey.

There’s a certain kind of what can seem at the surface be incongruity there. Why would God provide all these little solaces, all these little consolations or encouragements while still not taking away the big source of the struggle? In these conversations, they and I have come to this place where we recognize that in those moments, what God seems to be saying is, “I can’t take this burden from you, but I can walk this road with you, and I will ease your path in a way that makes it possible to carry on.”

That’s not going to be a satisfying answer for everybody, and I understand that, but certainly in my personal experience with these courageous souls who are shouldering some of life’s heaviest burdens, that principle that you have a God who’s walking the road of sorrow with you can make all the difference, even if the burden remains.

In that example, I see in God a call to improve our own ministry where we’re not always going to fix it. I think there’s a real Mormon tendency to want to fix it, to want to bring things into conformity with our sense of order and how things ought to be, and this complicated world of ours is regularly resistant to that tendency, but that we always have this chance to walk the road with our brothers and sisters. I think that’s the meaning of Christ’s call to go the second mile. That’s the very metaphor he uses: Somebody asks you to walk one, you walk two, with them.

That’s really, I guess, the payoff for the talk for me is to think about the Restoration, and its historical context and the kind of God that it reveals, and then what that means for us in our interaction with one another.

Nick Galieti:               There’s a social challenge in this, too, in a very practical way. If so many people are in so much pain, who’s there to walk with them?

David F. Holland:      Right. Yes.

Nick Galieti:               That’s certainly a challenge, but one that you address near the end of your presentation. I think the conclusion you come to is that one of the greatest things that has come from the Restoration is the Zion community. This idea that we are seeking to embrace and embody as many people as are willing, and that in that community, we have a shared pain. Can you answer the question, what is the reward for pain?

David F. Holland:      I think ultimately that answer is reserved to God about the individual consequences of individual stories. I wouldn’t presume to know exactly how pain is recompensed in an eternal sense.

I was just reading in Job this morning, as a matter of fact, my son’s on a mission in Brazil, and in my own personal study, I’ve been struck by a couple of passages in Job particularly, Chapter 32, where Elihu is a young friend of Job who finds himself dissatisfied with all the answers that the old folks are giving to Job’s pain and steps in to declare the goodness of God.

I’ve never really noticed it before, but that’s a chapter that I think has a lot of resonance for a young missionary, so I just finished writing a letter to my son about that. The story of Job and how Job gets recompensed for his suffering, I think we’ve all taken some solace from that, that he’s restored twofold for everything he’s lost. There’s a beautiful message in that that we all have personal experience and have observed others for whom that promise can only possibly be answered in the next life.

I don’t know what the moral calculus of pain and reward is in the universe. I do know that I have a lot of heroes in this life who have allowed their experience of pain to deepen and expand their soul to provide a power of empathy and compassion that I’ve seen change lives around them.

It’s interesting to me that the Prophet Joseph Smith wanted to sing “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” and that there is something in that that the disciple of Christ identifies with, and that’s not a great Mormon Ad, right? That’s not something we put on posters, “Join the Church and Experience Grief.”

Nick Galieti:               Yeah. “Suffer with us.”

David F. Holland:      Yeah, right, but it seems to be an unavoidable part of the discipling process. I think its consequences, its forms, its ultimate resolutions are so individual, I really am very wary of trying to put a soundbite answer on that, except to say that I believe in a God who suffers with us, a God who promises us meaning out of our sorrow and who will stretch and deepen our hearts as we will let him, and that that’s the point of all this.

Nick Galieti:               One of the questions that you address in the talk is trying to come to an understanding of the utility of pain in our mortal experience. You interpret President Hinckley’s teachings as saying that coming to this understanding of the utility of pain actually can increase one’s pain. The mental health commentary on that would assume that diminishing pain comes in the sharing of it. How do we balance that?

David F. Holland:      I don’t want to simplify President Hinckley. I think I used one quotation there as one example of one perspective. I think if you look at the whole corpus of prophetic teaching, you’d find a much richer, more nuanced statement. I was cherry-picking lines that orient us in multiple directions, so I don’t want to be understood as …

Nick Galieti:               Sure.

David F. Holland:      … reducing his position to one statement.

I do think, speaking of paradoxes, that there is an experience of suffering that occurs when we engage in others’ pain. I think we see all around us the desire to flee the reality of human suffering. I see it in myself. I use myself as an example. Every time I’m listening to the radio on, it’s another story about refugees, and I find myself overwhelmed by the suffering in the world, and I hit the button and turn on the sports talk radio.

Nick Galieti:               Just to get away from it.

David F. Holland:      Just to get away. In some ways, our whole culture is designed to provide us with those kinds of escape hatches from the reality of suffering.

As a priesthood leader or as a neighbor or as a parent or a spouse, any time you step into the story of another person’s pain, you’re opening yourself up to feel that, to share that, and to experience that. We’re biologically wired to flee pain, and yet, I think we’re spiritually wired to run to it.

We live in that tension, and so we are in a sense increasing pain when we enter into the story of another suffering, but there is something in that sharing that is diffusive and that allows the other person to shoulder it and survive, and that’s the disciples’ price. That’s the price we have to be willing to pay.

Now, I do think we have to be careful. Every comment I make I think should be couched in the caveat of not running faster than you have strength. I think we’ve all seen caretakers who undo their own well-being by not maintaining appropriate sense of critical distance from another’s suffering. It’s a very fraught boundary between how much do you engage and how much do you retain your own mental health and emotional stability? Everybody’s got to be careful with that.

I wouldn’t be misunderstood as calling on people to do unwise things, but I do think that when we’re called upon to mourn with those that mourn, that that’s a very real aspect of the disciples’ obligation, and that with God’s help and with a lot of prayer and wisdom, that we can find a place where we can share that pain without being overwhelmed by it, and that in the sharing of it we all get to take a step forward toward what our Father wants us to be.

Nick Galieti:               I want to thank you for your time. Of course, we’re going to put a link to that talk, that presentation at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute in conjunction with the posting of this episode at Thank you again for your time and for your insights on what I consider to be a very timely and important topic.

David F. Holland:      Thank you. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

Disclaimer:                 LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of LDS church leaders, policies, or practices.





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