This past Sunday, I spoke in church. As I am wont to do, I like to get more mileage out of these talks–this one took a long time for me to finish, so why not have it as a blog post? So for all of you who have always wondered what my views on personal accountability, stewardship, and salvation are–wonder no more. Here ya go:
For the past several months, my mind keeps coming back to the relationship between personal accountability and stewardship. We’re told we’re responsible for our own salvation, but we’re also told we need to do everything we can to help other people be saved, too. There have been times I feel like I’m failing at my calling and duty as an Elders Quorum President when members under my stewardship are becoming less active in the Gospel.
Just this past week at Stake Conference, Elder Ellis referred to the Parable of the Talents, found in Matthew 25. The basics of this one are simple. A man entrusts three different stewards with varying amounts of money. The steward entrusted with five talents makes an additional five talents. The one entrusted with three makes another three. But the one entrusted with one does nothing with it, for fear of losing it. When it comes time for a reckoning, the one who was fearful is chastened, while the ones who invested their talents and increased them are rewarded.
We are taught by our leaders that we are supposed to magnify our callings. That we are to do them well. To follow the promptings of the Spirit and do what God would have us do. What we forget—what I forget, at least—is that doing what the Spirit tells us to do will not always result in a perfect ward, quorum, or family. Free agency prevents that happening. If we do our best to contact our home or visiting teaching families, and yet the meetings constantly fall through, or they decline our visits, does that make us worse stewards?
On the surface, it would seem to. After all, in the parable, the stewards who were given their talents and invested them both doubled their money. They were successful. So if we don’t have something tangible at the end of the day to show how hard we worked, doesn’t that mean we have been poor stewards? After all, the one man who hadn’t increased the initial investment was told by his lord, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:
27 Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.
28 Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.
29 For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
30 And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Isn’t that a bit harsh? I read that, and I worry. If I’m not successful at my calling, it seems like I’m going to be in a lot of trouble when it comes time to report on my efforts.
But I think when I read this parable, I focus too much on the what and not enough on the why. Was the one steward cast out because he hadn’t made enough money, or because he hadn’t even tried? I tend to think it was his lack of effort that the Savior was highlighting in the parable, and that one of the main messages we’re supposed to take away from this story isn’t a “be successful or be damned” moral, but rather a “try and you can’t fail” maxim.
Think of it for a moment. If Christ had wanted to, he could have presented three different scenarios. We all know, after all, that every time you invest money, you’re not always going to double it in a year. But He didn’t put that in the parable. There are essentially two groups of investors. Those who tried, and those who did nothing. The ones who tried, succeeded. Unsurprisingly, the ones who didn’t, didn’t.
Fantastic, right! All I need to do is put forth a little bit of effort, and I’m off the hook. Of course, every time I think that, something—the Spirit—tells me that I’m off in my interpretation. We need to try our hardest, not just put forth a token effort. And God, being God, knows when I’m trying my hardest and when I’m not.
“So why is it,” I’ve wondered from time to time, “that I have to be responsible for both my salvation and the salvation of others, whether those others are in my family, the ward, or the community?” Because at times I feel that what I really need to find is a good scriptural basis for letting other people take care of themselves. I want a doctrinal excuse for not having to worry about my fellow man, because sometimes, it seems like my fellow man really doesn’t want any help.
If you serve in any callings in this church, it won’t be long before you’re confronted with the responsibility of helping someone who doesn’t want any help. I remember on my mission in East Germany, I had this opportunity many times. Most people we talked to resented us being there, and yet I never felt like a failure. It didn’t matter to me that people weren’t lining up to be baptized. Sure, it was disheartening at times. I remember one young man named Eric. He was in his late teens, and he was unemployed. He’d spend his days playing video games and eating Bratwurst, living the German dream. We’d found him when we were street contacting, and he was interested enough to have us come over and teach him the lessons.
Things went fine. More than fine, actually. Eric was committed to being baptized, he was reading the Book of Mormon. Everything was going smoothly, until suddenly it wasn’t anymore. He stopped reading. Stopped even showing up for appointments. And from there it dwindled away to nothing.
But again, I didn’t feel like a failure. I’d done what I was supposed to do—I’d presented the Gospel to Eric, and he’d declined to explore it further. That experience was repeated many times on my mission. Leipzig had about 120 missionaries, and about 60 baptisms per year. East Germany wasn’t very interested in the Gospel, period.
So with all that experience with rejection and helping people who didn’t want help, I had to wonder what was different now. Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that I don’t get whisked away every four or six months, like some sort of roving Mary Poppins. On a mission, wards have a beginning and an end. You show up, work hard, and at the end of your time there, you can see a real effect from your efforts. If someone’s baptized, then that’s it. Mission successful. As a member of a ward, you see things from a different perspective. One of us might be active today and not coming to church a year from now. Other members haven’t come for decades, and suddenly pop back up at church one week. As a missionary, I taught about enduring to the end, as a member, I get to see how that works in real life.
Not that church attendance is the only marker of how well a person is doing spiritually—or even the best marker. Showing up to a building for one, two, or three hours a week doesn’t mean you’re headed for the Celestial Kingdom. I certainly struggle with my own issues, as I’m certain everyone in this room does, too. And that’s the thing. At times, I feel like my struggles are more than I can deal with. How should I be expected to help others deal with their problems when I have trouble handling my own? Why can’t we all just look out for ourselves and forget about everyone else?
In many ways, we seem to be hit from both sides as active church members. We’re told that we are responsible for our actions. We must repent, improve ourselves, and do our best to become more perfect. Matthew 5: 48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. That’s telling us to be perfect. It doesn’t say “be ye perfect, as long as somebody else helps you.” And I don’t think we’re going to be able to get away blaming our imperfections on others when it comes time to be judged at the last day. Can you say, “I would have been nicer to other people, if they had just been nicer to me”?
But at the same time that we’re commanded to be perfect, we also know we’re responsible to help our fellow man. Go after the lost sheep. Bring them back to the fold. Time and time again, President Monson has encouraged us to reach out to those who have fallen away from the Gospel. To lose ourselves in service.
And here’s where it breaks down for me sometimes. If I’m responsible for my salvation, how can I also be responsible for someone else’s? Isn’t he responsible for himself, too?
For a while, I’d thought I’d found scriptural backing for this sentiment in the Parable of the 10 Virgins. Matthew 25:1 Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.
2 And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.
3 They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:
4 But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
6 And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.
7 Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.
8 And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.
9 But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.
10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.
11 Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.
12 But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.
13 Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.
Bam! Here it is. Just what I was looking for. You keep track of yourself, and let other people worry about themselves. Just keep your eye on your own oil, and forget everyone else. Right?
Wrong. Because you have the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. Matthew 18: 23 ¶Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.
24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.
25 But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
26 The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.
28 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.
29 And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
30 And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.
31 So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.
32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:
34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.
35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
So how do these parables gel? Should the virgins have been willing to share their oil, if you’re following the rules of the Unmerciful Servant parable? I thought about that for a while, and I think I came up with an answer. In the parable of the 10 virgins, each only had enough to get them through the night. If one of the virgins had brought a supersize mega value container of oil, I’m confident the Lord would have expected her to share some of that oil with the others. Yes, it wouldn’t have been exactly fair. Yes—she would have been the one with the foresight to bring all the oil, and the others would have been lax in their duty to prepare themselves. But we need to have faith that He whose place it is to judge will judge wisely and well. I certainly hope when the time comes to judge me, the Law of Mercy will be liberally applied. But how can I expect that if I don’t do my best to be merciful to others?
When it comes to other people, it’s far too easy to be a big Law of Justice kind of a guy, mainly because it’s such a great excuse. The temptation is there, of course. Just sit back and help anyone willing to make it easy to help them. But that’s not how God operates, and I for one am very grateful that it isn’t. There are so many times when I don’t make it easy on Him to help me. So many times when I seem like I don’t want any help myself. Does He turn away from me then? He doesn’t. Sometimes I just wish that didn’t mean I had to do the same.
I’ll be honest. I want to be able to judge other people. I feel like I should be able to dismiss someone else’s problems, marking them up to poor judgment, just desserts, and people getting their comeuppance. When it comes time to look at my mistakes, of course, it’s a different story. There are extenuating circumstances for all of the things I do wrong each day.
If there’s anything I’ve learned as a parent of two children, it’s that all of us seem to be born with an inherent desire for life to be fair. If I’m dishing out dessert, sometimes I feel like I really ought to weigh the portions, just to be able to prove that they’re exactly equal in every way. It’s one thing when it’s primary kids, but at times I catch myself doing the same thing. Maybe someone else gets a promotion or a raise. Or else I work hard to do something, then have to turn around and do it for someone else, and they don’t even seem to think it was that big of a deal. It’s hard not to feel disappointed or even cheated at times. Like your hard work and effort ought to result in automatic blessings.
And let’s face it: hard work and effort do bring blessings. Just not always the ones we’re expecting to see or wish we might see. Still, there’s definitely something to be said for our own personal accountability for our salvation.
The fact is that when we will be judged, we’ll be judged according to our own personalized grading rubric, and not our neighbors. God knows what we are capable of. He knows the trials we went through. Who helped us. Who didn’t. Whose offers we accepted. Whose offers we spurned. At times this world seems like a competition, but it’s only a test. A test where the passing grade for one person is a failing grade for another. You can’t tell how you’re doing by looking at your neighbor’s answers. You don’t smoke? Congratulations. Maybe smoking was never really a test for you. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life, but something tells me I won’t be able to use that as grounds for admittance to the Celestial Kingdom. I’ve never wanted to smoke a cigarette.
The only person who can decide if you’re not doing enough is you. The only person who can decide if you’re doing too much is also you. That stinks, doesn’t it? It means there are people out there who are doing far too much. Spreading themselves far too thin. They need to circle the wagons and cool down a bit. There are others out there who are doing far too little. They’re capable of much more. They need to push themselves further.
The trick is, we can’t tell who is who. Well, maybe if we’ve been given stewardship over a certain group, then we might be able to, mainly through revelation from God. But if one person’s driving a Corvette and the other one’s driving a Camry, comparing how fast they can go from 0 to 60 isn’t quite fair, is it? In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis compares two different people, one a mean tempered Christian, the other a very pleasant atheist. “Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question is what Miss Bates’s tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one . . . To judge the management of a factory, you must consider not only the output but the plant. Considering the plant at Factory A it may be a wonder that it turns out anything at all; considering the first-class outfit at Factory B its output, though high, may be a great deal lower than it ought to be. No doubt the good manager at Factory A is going to put in new machinery as soon as he can, but that takes time. In the meantime low output does not prove that he is a failure”
Lewis goes on to say, “If you are a nice person-if virtue comes easily to you beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.
But if you are a poor creature-poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies . . .-nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends-do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all-not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school.”
So what’s the solution? I’ve driven all around the block in this talk now. It’s time to actual come to a destination. We’re supposed to help others, we’re supposed to help ourselves. To use Lewis’s terminology, each factory has a limited output, and we need to decide—with God’s help—how that output should be allotted.
As I think about it, it seems to me that we each have been blessed with a certain measure of all manner of things. Take my wife and me, for example. I think she’d be the first to agree that I’m better at computer repair and typing speed, whereas she has me beaten hands down at bread baking and gardening. If the computer needs repairing, I’m the one who steps in to handle it. When bread needs baking, Denisa takes over. Then again, there are going to be times when the computer can’t get repaired right away, or the bread just has to wait. I can see this so easily in my daily life—I just have trouble reminding myself of it when it comes to my church responsibilities. The missionaries are calling to find someone to go with them to an appointment, I have my home teaching to do, a quorum activity to plan, presidency meeting to prepare, the lesson to read for Sunday, and then someone calls me to ask me to give a talk. Oh yeah, and stake conference and a trip to Bangor are in the mix, too.
We’re instructed not to run faster than we have strength, and I think that applies to the church sphere as much as it does to our personal lives.
Maybe one of the best comparisons I thought of while I was working on this talk was likening it to fast offerings. Once a month, we’re to go without food for two meals. We then donate the money that would have been spent on that food, and we’re encouraged to give more, if possible. By sacrificing something, we have something to give. The same goes for church callings. We’re asked to sacrifice something finite—something concrete. Often our time or our talents. It’s up to us to find a way to fit our lives into the time remaining to us.
As we pray and ask God for help, we’ll be shown ways to get the things done which must be done, and we’ll also be able to know what needs doing now and what can wait until later—or not be done at all. There are going to be times someone asks me to do something, and I need to say no. The more I live the Gospel, the more I begin to think knowing when to say no is just as important as knowing when to say yes. Know your capabilities. Share the excess you have with others when you can. And remember—what you can give will be different from what someone else can give. Ours is not to judge the output of everyone else. Just keep doing your best.
And that’s a solution I can live with.