It’s Service, Not Status, That Counts


Neal A. Maxwell
It’s our willingness to put our shoulder to the wheel that counts, not the expanse of ecclesiastical epaulets we wear on our shoulders.

While it is true that at times we may feel overwhelmed, it is also true that occasionally we may feel underwhelmed. The truth is, however, that nobody is ever really underwhelmed in terms of opportunities for service. As the associate commissioner for seminaries and institutes, Joe J. Christensen, has observed:

“I believe there is no place in God’s service that is not bigger than we are, not greater than the talents we bring to bear on the assignment, whether as a home teacher, a secretary, a clerk, a visiting teacher, a teacher of any kind, a counselor, a bishop, or whatever, if we magnify our calling.”

Yet one of the recurring challenges of life for some, both in and out of the Church, is the feeling that they occasionally have that they have more to offer in the way of talent, skill, or insight than they are permitted to give or than is being used by their fellowmen. Even when the craving for impact is somewhat selfless, it must nevertheless be check-reined by Alma’s important insight:

“O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!

“Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

“But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.” (Alma 29:1–3; italics added.)

It should not surprise us that our competencies will not always conform to the configuration of needs presented by others. We will, at times, actually have more of some skills to contribute than we are given a chance to contribute in formal ways. At other times, however, we will merely think we have more to contribute; exaggerated expectations of self may exacerbate the feeling of being under-used. We should not expect church service, or even life itself, to provide us with a perfect match between our need to help and the need of others for our help. Harsh as this may sound, too many people struggle unnecessarily because the gears of helping don’t always mesh with the gears of accepting help.

Yet we must all have had moments when we might say, in the hymnal words of Philip Paul Bliss, “More used would I be.” (Hymns, no. 114)

Before discussing this challenge, it may be well to identify some of its various manifestations:

1. There is the happy situation where the skills or talents offered match the needs rather precisely.

2. There is the situation where the offered help or skills simply do not match the needs or the readiness of others to accept what is proffered. God has this latter experience with us all of the time.

3. There is the situation where the individual has an exaggerated view of his skills and what he has to offer and, therefore, his skills do not match existing needs.

4. There is the situation where the skills match the needs reasonably well, but the owner of the skills must be patient before the meshing of the two can occur, for the individual must seek to be “more fit for the kingdom” with “more freedom from earth stains” before he can be “more used” by God. (See Hymns, no. 114.)

Plainly, our challenge often is to strike a happy balance between the sincere feeling, “More used would I be,” and the reality given to us by Alma, who also had a sincere desire for an impact on his fellowmen, but who counseled us to be “content with the things which the Lord hath allotted.” (Alma 29:3.)

Since patience is one of the traits of a saint (see Mosiah 3:19), it should not surprise us that we must sometimes learn patience not only by physical suffering, but also by sometimes having something to offer which, for one reason or another, we are prevented from offering, at least on the terms we would like to make the contribution. To trust God enough to accept the reality that he knows perfectly both what we have to offer and what we desire is a special form of trust. After all, when we sing in the hymn, “I’ll go where you want me to go, dear Lord” (Hymns, no. 75), presumably our pledge includes a willingness to stay right where we are, if that is where the Lord wants us.

Sometimes when we think we see what is needed (and feel that we can offer just what is needed), we must still surrender to the sublime wisdom of our Heavenly Father, who “knoweth all things.” (1 Jn. 3:20.) Sometimes we are tested, therefore, not only by the requirement that we place certain things on the altar of sacrifice and service, but also by the trial of circumstances that seem to prevent us from placing a portion of self on the altar.

As already noted, there are other times, frankly, when we are not realistic about what we have to offer when we have an exaggerated evaluation of the contribution we could make. We may feel just as let down in such circumstances, but not justifiably. More often than not, calls come to those who feel unready, but who are actually ready enough in the view of God, rather than to those who feel ready themselves, but who are, in God’s wisdom, unready. Not only is the Lord a perfect personnel manager in getting the right individual at the right time in the right place, but, simultaneously, he is developing each of us if we will follow his direction. This means that at times we need to be held, in a sense, “off the market,” for our own good (and perhaps even for the good of others). There is, after all, a father-child relationship between God and mankind, and this means there is the divine equivalent of a mortal father’s “Not yet,” or “Eat your porridge.” Waiting can give us a clearer view of ourselves and our very real limitations. Elder Marvin J. Ashton has thoughtfully counseled us to learn “to live in harmony with our potentials.” (“Who’s Losing?” Ensign, November 1974, p. 41.)

A sweet, humble, and relevant insight has been given by Elder LeGrand Richards, whose father, George F. Richards, was president of the Council of the Twelve and barely senior to President David O. McKay. Elder LeGrand Richards stated that he believed his father to be just as good a man as President McKay, but he believed the Lord wanted President McKay, who had unusual administrative ability, to preside over the Church. He felt that was the reason why George F. Richards was taken before David O. McKay, who shortly thereafter became President of the Church. Sometimes the rest of us, in our search for status, get confused about the relationship of status to righteousness. It is not the expanse of the ecclesiastical epaulets we wear on our shoulders, but our willingness to put our shoulder to the wheel that counts! Elder Richards’s candid, but warm, comment is a potent reminder regardless of where we serve.

President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., likewise noted that it is not where we serve, but how. Dostoevsky observed that some people are willing to serve their fellowmen if they can do some grand act quickly, only once, and with much applause.

Sometimes we prefer serving in those stations where there is more visibility; it isn’t that we are not called to serve, but where we are called to serve that troubles us. If this latter reason is why we feel un-called or under-used, we should make allowance for the possibility that God may have chosen to teach us certain lessons.

Having said all of this, we need to remember, too, that while the doctrines of the kingdom are perfect, its people are imperfect. In fact, we can unintentionally transmit some of our defects to the environment in the part of the kingdom in which we serve. Part of maturing (so that we do not have exaggerated expectations about life in the Church—for things are not done perfectly and with mathematical precision) is simply to realize each of us is a part of it all!

God’s basic purposes roll forward. He is mindful of our every act and every thought, and he is never surprised. How we handle challenges is a real key to our character. President Spencer W. Kimball has said that sometimes when we can’t change circumstances, the wise thing to do is to change our attitude about those circumstances.

Several of the General Authorities have counseled us over the years that getting certain tasks done is far more important than who gets the credit. To have quietly assisted in an achievement even when there is no recognition is good for the soul. Most of us tend to draw upon our storehouse of recognition too constantly; consequently, we do not have much in reserve. We have our reward already. On the other hand, those who serve quietly and nobly store up a special reserve for themselves.

It should be clear to us with regard to various callings and assignments that just as soon as we are sustained and set apart the clock begins running toward the moment of our release. How vital it is to manage our time and talents wisely from the moment a task begins! Later, when we have devotedly invested much of ourselves in a particular calling or assignment (and especially when it has been satisfying and we have made a real difference), we may feel the release when it comes, but that, too, is part of our schooling as disciples. Being released gives us experience in patience and humility, as well as a fresh reminder of our non-essentiality.

Finally, we are to be measured both in relation to the talents we have and to what we brought to bear on an assignment. The gross size of our talent inventories is less important than the net use of our talents. Just as the widow with her mite gave all that she had, so those with limited talents may give all they have. Others who are highly endowed may not give fully all of their talents, but hold back a portion of that which they have.

Here are some simple things we can and should always do:

1. Put our shoulder to the wheel, rather than stepping back and yelling for someone to provide us a tow truck.

2. Beware of pride. The Lord says in the fourth section of the Doctrine and Covenants, “if you have desires to serve God ye are called to the work.” (D&C 4:3.) But he means righteous desires, not desires for status.

The Lord also notes therein that charity qualifies one for the work, but there is no mention that a craving for causality qualifies one for the work. When some are given a chance to do a task, they bring their own agendum and, unfortunately, seek to do their will, not God’s.

3. Beware of self-pity. When we seem tempted to call ourselves to the Lord’s attention by answering when uncalled, “Lord, here I am,” we instead ought to ask of our present assignment, “Lord, am I doing enough?” When failure seems foretold, we ought to ask with genuine concern, as the earlier disciples asked, “Lord, is it I?”

4. Beware of making comparisons. Perhaps when the Lord asks us to put our hand to the plow and not look back, he is also suggesting that we ought not to look around for comparative purposes, either.

5. Develop a personal sense of historical and scriptural perspective. We need to remember that God sees things more clearly than we do. What we see that is going on in our lives, therefore, is not necessarily all that is really going on from an eternal perspective.

6. Accept the potential in each learning experience. We must learn to serve in tasks that require thrust and initiative, but also in roles that focus on maintenance. The one produces the thrills of a beachhead landing in enemy territory, while in jobs involving “minding the store” one must often serve quietly.

7. Count our blessings. Whatever our current calling in a branch or ward, a district or a stake, we also have continuing and significant callings in our families and callings to be good neighbors—callings from which we can never be released.

8. Develop multiple sources of satisfaction through wise and multiple services to mankind. Elder Bruce R. McConkie has said that “service is essential to salvation.” (“Only an Elder,” Ensign, June 1975, p. 68.) Service can be given in so many ways, and when thus pursued, if one opportunity for service dries up, we are not left unfulfilled.

9. Search our souls to see if it is possible that in our present tasks we may be giving of our time, talents, and money without really giving fully of ourselves. It is possible to withhold self while still doing much. It has been noted how some prefer to give presents rather than presence! (Dorothy Briggs, Your Child’s Self-Esteem: The Key to His Life, p. 66.)

Finally, this should sober us with sweetness: God does not begin by asking us about our ability, but only about our availability, and if we then prove our dependability, he will increase our capability!

[photo] Photography by Royce Bair