Family Followership

By Henry B. Eyring

President, Ricks College

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    Oftentimes children teach us great lessons. I realized that again as I was reading my daily journal. The entry for January 28, 1972, concerns my two-year-old son and reads in part:

    “Matthew supplied me a lesson. He cried, I thought without reason, in bed tonight. He asked several times if I’d blow his nose for him or hold the tissue while he blew his nose. After three or four trips, I stalked into his room and asked, ‘Do you want me to spank you?’ He nodded yes. I asked again, this time illustrating with my raised hand. He said, ‘Yes.’ Suddenly, my heart melted as I realized he trusted me so much that if I thought a spanking would help his problem, that’s what he wanted. I rocked him for a while and then realized to my further softening that he had a stuffed nose from a cold that was just beginning. That had been his discomfort. I got some tissues for him, gave them to him in bed, and told him to blow as much as he would like. He said, ‘Thanks.’ I went away a chastened man.”

    Here was a two-year-old giving anew an example of King Benjamin’s discourse:

    “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19.)

    Clearly, Matthew and other children start out as King Benjamin says they must finish: submissive. But we make the mistake, too often, of putting our efforts and concerns as parents into keeping them submissive to us and to our leadership. We forget that King Benjamin phrased the problem for us differently: how do we transfer that natural submissiveness of our children to the Lord Jesus Christ? How do we help our children follow the Savior in submissiveness?

    We can have far more hope of success in leading our families if we see the problem as helping them to fall in line behind us, in a line led by the Savior.

    Why does the once-submissive child stop following? Because he or she loses faith. If the child could see the Master moving at the head of the line or had assurance he was there, it would be sensible to keep following, for the path would surely lead to happiness. Followership is an act of faith, and ceasing to follow is an act proclaiming loss of faith.

    An older Matthew is going to look quizzically at me someday when I say, “Even though all your friends are dressing that way, it’s better that you don’t.” Oh, what a test of faith that will be for him! Will he choose to change clothes then, as he chose the spanking? That depends on some things I can’t control but a few I can. We can’t control the child completely nor all that happens to him. But we can direct our own behavior in three ways that will build faith for followership.

    First, we can introduce our children to the Savior through prayer and the scriptures. They can’t, with their physical eyes, see him leading their family, but they can feel his reality. That means we must do more than teach the mechanics of prayer and more than simply make the scriptures available.

    One purpose of family and private prayer must be to seek spiritual experiences for our children. The nightly prayers by the bedside and the family prayers night and morning meant little for my son Henry until the day he was lost, a six-year-old trying to find home through six miles of strange country. He was running, crying, when in desperation he dashed toward a clump of bushes to pray. As he said afterwards, with wonder in his voice, “Before I even started to pray, two people walked up and asked if they could help.” He was home an hour later.

    It is even possible for a parent to gain spiritual experiences for a child who is no longer submissive. Remember the angel who appeared to the rebellious Alma the younger and said:

    “Behold, the Lord hath heard the prayers of his people, and also the prayers of his servant, Alma, who is thy father; for he has prayed with much faith concerning thee that thou mightest be brought to the knowledge of the truth; therefore, for this purpose have I come to convince thee of the power and authority of God, that the prayers of his servants might be answered according to their faith.” (Mosiah 27:14.)

    We can also share scripture reading with our children in a way that makes it likely they feel spiritual assurances and can feel our acquaintance with the scriptures and the Master. President Marion G. Romney, in an address at Brigham Young University, recounted his experience reading the Book of Mormon with his son.

    President Romney said: “We were each reading aloud alternate paragraphs of those last three marvelous chapters of Second Nephi. I heard his voice break and thought he had a cold, but we went on to the end of the three chapters.

    “As we finished, he said to me, ‘Daddy, do you ever cry when you read the Book of Mormon?’

    “‘Yes, son,’ I answered. ‘Sometimes the Spirit of the Lord so witnesses to my soul that the Book of Mormon is true that I do cry.’

    “‘Well,’ he said, ‘that is what happened to me tonight.’”

    That can happen with our children if we arrange to be alone with them, if we stay with them for the time it would take to read three chapters, and if we can say honestly, “Yes, son, I do cry, too.”

    A second part of our children’s world we can control is the happiness and joy they see us exhibit in the Lord’s service. That matters to the young person deciding whether to submit. Is the Master’s burden really light? Is the service joyful? Those questions will be answered for our children in our faces, voices, and actions, probably late on a long, long Sabbath day or in other times of stress, or tragedy.

    I never heard my father preach about the “peace that passeth understanding,” but I sensed it in his smile as we went to every church meeting together. If he frowned, it was that I was slow getting ready, not that we were going. I suppose I never considered not going, because I never saw it done. And I saw the peace in his face as we left a hospital an hour after my mother died. He left me and walked back into the hospital ward to thank the nurses and doctors, more concerned for them than for himself. He didn’t say so, but I knew the burden was light only because he trusted the Master. Much as Matthew trusted me.

    Elder Mark E. Petersen’s questions suggest the paradox of trying to urge children to a service we do not rejoice in ourselves:

    “If the parents do not know the thrill of a clear conscience, can they teach its joy to their little ones?

    “If parents have never known the satisfaction which comes through the payment of an honest tithe, can they plant the seeds of obedience to this law in the hearts of their children?

    “If parents have never discovered the true value of keeping holy the Sabbath Day, can they teach their children to honor it?

    “If parents have never caught the vision of the clean life, can they picture it to the members of their families?

    “If parents have never been in the temple, can they teach their children the great advantages of temple marriage?

    “If father and mother have given no thought to the meaning of a mission, can they develop in the hearts of their sons and daughters a desire to perform one?

    “If parents themselves are not fully converted to the Gospel, can they effectively convert their own children?” (A Faith to Live By [Bookcraft, 1959], pp. 112–13.)

    A third experience we can control is giving assignments to our children that will build their faith that Christ does lead human beings who submit to him. With that faith, it will be far easier to believe that dad could be right when he gives an apparently unreasonable direction, after seeking divine help. Father Lehi set the great example for us in his training of Nephi. Nephi says in the first chapter of the Book of Mormon that he was “born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in the learning of my father. …” (1 Ne. 1:1.) But Father Lehi did far more than that. He gave Nephi the chance to know that God guides submissive men and women, in detail and in the midst of danger and difficulty. Lehi sent his sons back to Jerusalem for the plates of Laban. Only Nephi gained the great advantage from that dangerous mission of learning for himself that the Master leads. He said:

    “And it was by night; and I caused that they [his brothers] should hide themselves without the walls. And after they had hid themselves, I, Nephi, crept into the city and went forth towards the house of Laban.

    “And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.” (1 Ne. 4:5–6.)

    He got the plates and returned safely with his brothers to their father and mother. Beyond the great blessing of the plates as scripture for his posterity, Lehi gained an invaluable experience for his son Nephi. Nephi would have faith in following a “visionary man,” for he knew that the Master really leads.

    We see the fruits of that experience coming back to bless Lehi in the leadership of his family. As they struggled in the wilderness, he had great difficulty in maintaining the faith of his children in his leadership. At one low point Nephi had broken his bow, and the fear of starvation raised again the feelings of rebellion in some of Lehi’s family. Nephi made a bow with his own hands; then, instead of simply going out to hunt for food, he turned to his father and said, “Whither shall I go to obtain food?” Then Nephi records, “And it came to pass that he did inquire of the Lord. …” (1 Ne. 16:23–24.)

    Nephi was submissive to his father, at least partly because of experiences that had assured him that God does answer prayers even in minute concerns of men and families. Lehi had wisely provided experiences where Nephi could find that out for himself. A child can be given responsibilities in settings that make it likely he will turn to God for guidance. With those experiences, he can far more easily feel confident and safe in following a father who also seeks this help.

    One father, after seeking the help of the Lord, gathered his family together before deciding to accept a job in another city. He asked the family their advice on the desirability of the move and gave them the opportunity to go to the Lord and receive an answer for themselves as to what they should do. After they had prayed, they felt inspired, as the father did, that they should make the move. Thus, because he gave them the opportunity to get the spiritual answer that he had also received, they were able to believe and follow his counsel.

    As difficult as it is to make it possible for our children to follow us, it may be at least as hard to help our wives follow our lead. Many of us have wives of great abilities, great faith, and great forcefulness, and yet, in the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord seems to suggest that both the Prophet’s wife, Emma, and our own wives should be submissive. He says, “Continue in the spirit of meekness, and beware of pride. Let thy soul delight in thy husband, and the glory which shall come upon him.” (D&C 25:14.)

    How can a strong woman accept that? The Doctrine and Covenants seems to be answering that question specifically:

    “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” (D&C 121:41–42.)

    It would be hard to find a better marriage manual. Certainly the ablest, the most faithful, and the most forceful woman could feel confident in following a leader who, with love unfeigned, uses persuasion, kindness, and long-suffering.

    And again, we are told that if we exercise our priesthood righteously, “… then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.

    “The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” (D&C 121:45–46.)

    Winning the faith of children and wives will require not only a change of heart for many of us, but also the courage to endure. Even great fathers sometimes lose the faith of some of their families. Father Lehi endured through that disappointment. He even had warnings that this disappointment would come. In a dream he beckoned his family to follow him to the sweet fruit of the gospel, but Laman and Lemuel would not. For most of us, such a dream would be enough to embitter us and stop us from trying to lead. That is not the way Lehi reacted. At the end of his life Lehi was still teaching all of his family, urging them to follow Jesus Christ. In what he must have known was nearly his last words to his family, he said, “Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness. Shake off the chains with which ye are bound, and come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust.” (2 Ne. 1:23.)

    The hope of the father that his sons would follow might seem tragic if you look only at the few years of Lehi’s life and Laman and Lemuel’s rebellion. But his hope must now seem realized in the great blessings poured out upon his seed, the Lamanites in our day. By enduring, by never stopping his beckoning to follow the Savior, Lehi still reaches out to his family today. And thousands embrace the gospel, and raise righteous posterity—Lehi’s posterity.

    We cannot assure perfect obedience of all our children, but we can nurture faith in our families that Christ lives, that his service is joyful, and that he speaks to those who would follow him. The submissive child will hear his voice and follow us as we follow the Master.