Sarah Jane Weaver: My journey to understand why ‘prophets face lions’

After learning of President Nelson’s recent fall, Church News executive editor reflects on the lessons she learned from President Monson

In August 2017, I visited President Thomas S. Monson’s downtown Salt Lake City apartment. Days shy of his 90th birthday, President Monson sat in a comfortable chair in his living room awaiting a visit from his counselors in the First Presidency, President Henry B. Eyring and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf.

During the previous years, President Monson’s workload had lessened, according to a Church statement released May 23, 2017. Still, as I entered the apartment, accompanied by a photographer, I felt an undeniable confirmation that President Monson was the Lord’s Prophet on earth. I was also awe struck by the tender watch care and love he received from his counselors.

Looking around, I noticed a photograph of President Monson and his late wife, Sister Frances Monson. In the photograph, Sister Monson was waving as they left general conference. There were also paintings in the room — one of Daniel standing in the lions’ den and one of the Provo River, where President Monson liked to fish.

Seeing the images caused my mind to rush.

President Thomas S. Monson and his wife Frances leave the General Relief Society Meeting at the Conference Center on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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Called as a bishop at age 22, a mission president at age 31 and as an Apostle at 36, President Monson blessed the lives of millions with his personal ministry. He never retired, he took few personal vacations, and he had been called to Church service before achieving great success in his career. In his service to the Church, he gave almost every weekend and literally tens of thousands of hours away from his family.

Then, as he entered his 10th decade, he also dealt with the limits of age.

“Why does it need to be so hard?” I thought.

The answer I was seeking, although I did not see it then, was probably right in front of me on President Monson’s wall — Daniel in the lions’ den.

President Monson obviously knew the path through mortality has never been easy. The Old Testament records the trials of Daniel and other ancient prophets, just as the New Testament is a record of the Savior’s sacrifices and His apostles’ struggles. Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum gave their lives for the Church in the early days of the Restoration.

And hardship did not end with them.

President Monson would have personally witnessed the health struggles of those who led the Church in the 54 years since he had been sustained as an Apostle.

Following the illness and death of President Spencer W. Kimball in 1985, President Monson served in the First Presidency with President Ezra Taft Benson, President Howard W. Hunter and President Gordon B. Hinckley — all of whom dealt with serious and extensive health challenges in their later years. President Hinckley, for example, endured chemotherapy for cancer in his mid-90s.

I remember looking at President Monson during that 90th birthday visit and longing for him to have the ability to continue sharing his enormous compassion.

I didn’t know then that he was.

Church President Gordon B. Hinckley (front) first counselor Thomas S. Monson (left) and 2nd counselor James E. Faust (behind Hinckley) shake hands with members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles following the Sunday afternoon session April 2, 2006.
Church President Gordon B. Hinckley (front) first counselor Thomas S. Monson (left) and 2nd counselor James E. Faust (behind Hinckley) shake hands with members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles following the Sunday afternoon session April 2, 2006. | Keith Johnson, Deseret News

After his death, his daughter, Ann Dibb, shared with the Church News some details of her father’s final months. I learned that — at a time when his own memory and physical health were diminishing — President Monson was still able to visit those who were sick, lonely or needed lifting. 

Sister Dibb — a former counselor in the Young Women general presidency — said some of the most valuable things she did with her father were those visits. Many were to people who were also at the end of their lives — including those who were once powerful, but now infirm. There was “beauty in those moments,” she said.

Those visits were important to not only the people who needed a visit but also to her father, who needed to serve, Sister Dibb said. “He was there for what mattered.”

President Monson’s final days are an example to each of us. There is power in observing what a prophet chooses to do when he can’t do all he wishes he could do.

In his October 2013 general conference address, President Monson said there “will be times when you will walk a path strewn with thorns and marked by struggle.” Still, he added, there will come days in retrospect when “you will realize that [the Lord] was always there beside you.”

In recent days I have again pondered my final interaction with President Monson and the sure witness I received that he was the Lord’s Prophet.

I also find myself wondering why, during those final years, things had to be so hard for him. I wondered that again this week when President Russell M. Nelson, 99, announced he would not attend general conference in person because of a fall that injured the muscles in his lower back.

Like so many prophets before him, President Nelson has dedicated his life to the Lord — including walking away from his career as a pioneering heart surgeon.

We have all witnessed President Nelson’s strength and energy. Since being sustained as the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Jan. 14, 2018, at age 93, President Nelson has traveled to 35 nations, adjusted Church organization, led the Church through a pandemic, issued historic invitations and built bridges of understanding.

After traveling to Washington, D.C., one year ago to cover the rededication of the refurbished temple there, President Nelson responded to a few media questions. I asked him how it felt to be out among the members again after COVID-19 travel restrictions. Referencing his ability to connect with the Church through technology, he simply said: “I never really left them.”

President Russell M. Nelson is interviewed in the visitors center after the Washington D.C. Temple rededication.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is interviewed in the visitors center after the Washington D.C. Temple rededication in Kensington, Maryland, on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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I suspect this general conference will be a little like that time for President Nelson as he follows doctor’s orders and participates in conference via technology — just as will most of the Church.

His words to us after announcing his fall illustrate his ongoing watch care for the Church and its members. “I pray that each of us, wherever we may be, will approach this sacred weekend with our hearts full of gratitude for the privilege of hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed by His servants,” he wrote.

Just as with his predecessors, President Nelson teaches us by example; we will learn much as we observe what he chooses to do when he can’t do all he wants to do.

Still, I wish this time could be a little easier for him — or any others walking a path “marked by struggle.” I wish it could have been easier for Daniel or President Monson and so many others.

But the truth is undeniable: Prophets face lions. They always have.

President Nelson, like Daniel, is dealing with his challenges by mustering courage and faith and looking heavenward.

“May this general conference be a time of joy and spiritual rejuvenation for you,” he wrote to the Church. “I know that it will be for me!”

— Sarah Jane Weaver is the executive editor of the Church News.

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