While serving as a mission president, I often received inspiration enabling me to give appropriate counsel to the missionaries I supervised. During these special moments, images, experiences, and scriptures often leaped into my mind, giving me an understanding not only of the answer to a particular problem, but also of insights into uncommunicated aspects of the problem itself. My relationship with Elder Merrill (not his real name) exemplifies this process.
Once a month, a few days before new missionaries arrived in the field and as those who had finished their time of service were to return home, I met with my two missionary assistants to plan the transfers for that month. After kneeling together to ask for the Lord’s help in making these critical decisions, the three of us worked together to appoint new leaders and senior companions and to form new companionships. Most months the procedures went smoothly, although they consumed the better part of the day. Occasionally, however, transfer days progressed to a certain point, then we would find ourselves suddenly confronted with a stupor of thought.
On one such day, the papers on my desk lay in a state of confusion matching the feelings that ran through my mind. Again I reviewed the pictures of the 140 elders and 32 sisters lining the office wall. They seemed to stare back at me in anticipation of the decisions that would affect their lives. However, for the moment the Spirit was not confirming the actions we had planned. After counseling with my assistants, I had to make the final decisions myself. I had asked to be left alone. I analyzed each proposed change, but I could not find peace. Something was wrong.
Suddenly, a knock on my open door dissipated the clouds of my concern, and my eyes focused immediately on the furrowed brow and tightened lips of one of “my” elders. He wore a dark business suit, a white shirt, a conservative tie, and a pair of highly polished but slightly used shoes. At first glance, the attire appeared to be the same as that worn by thousands of others of those chosen to serve in their youth. But I knew this elder was different from most. His suit was not made of the usual polyester fiber, but was woven of costly combed wool. His tie was monogrammed, and his shirt had a matching initial on the pocket. From personal interviews, weekly letters to the president, and other encounters, I knew him quite well.
Usually two or three months is sufficient for adjustment to mission life and foreign culture, but this elder had passed this time without becoming acclimated. Nevertheless, he possessed a youthful testimony and a desire to serve the Lord. His parents—wanting only the best for their only child—had recently written to me of their apprehensions about his happiness, his progress, and his current companion. They had always given him everything he needed and wanted. Now he was in someone else’s charge.
I felt a smile widen my face as I greeted him enthusiastically.
“Hello, Elder Merrill.”
Even at a distance, his swallow was almost audible.
“President, may I talk with you?”
I rose from my chair and came around my desk, extending my hand.
“Of course. Come in and sit down.”
He took a seat at the round table in the corner of my office, and I closed the door. As I sat down beside him, I noticed that his normally radiant blue eyes were clouded, as if a veil had been drawn, and there was a trace of redness from tears or lack of sleep.
“President, I’m not happy.”
I waited again while he twisted his ruby ring two full turns around his finger.
“President, I’ve tried everything. I’ve fasted. I’ve prayed. It just won’t work. I don’t love the people. They laugh at my Spanish and slam the door in my face. I don’t love my companion. He tells me all the things I do wrong. I’m tired of trying. I wonder if I should go home.”
I paused a moment, then suggested, “Before discussing such a difficult subject, let’s invite the Lord into our conversation.”
As we knelt together, he offered a prayer of hope and searching, mixed with doubts. During his prayer, I prayed in my heart for the ability to understand him and for the help of the Spirit to guide me.
After the prayer we exchanged brief testimonies, as was our mission custom. His testimony was strong. I knew it would bring him through this crisis. He only needed direction, and I needed to know what to tell him.
“Elder,” I began, “tell me about the people.”
As he vented the negative feelings built up inside him, I felt the Spirit filling the vacuum in my mind. I probed deeper. “Why doesn’t your companion understand you?”
As he spoke, I heard more than the substance of his words and began to understand that in this new world of a mission, he was unsure of himself. In a secure LDS family and Church environment, he had always achieved and received, but he had never learned to give.
By the time his flood of frustrations was reduced to a trickle, the counsel he needed to receive had organized itself in my mind.
He raised his head and brought his tear-filled eyes up to meet mine. “President,” he pleaded, “I don’t want to go home. Please, President, teach me how to love!”
His lower lip began to quiver, and the tears streamed down his cheeks.
Despite the emotion of the moment, I rejoiced inside. He was humble, teachable, willing to serve. My heart went out to him as it had before to so many of these remarkable young elders and sisters. They wanted to be righteous and obedient, yet they struggled with personal weaknesses and challenges. I often thought of the scripture in Ether 12:27 and how it applied to missionaries in particular: “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble.” They had come to serve the Lord in His mission field, and there He would show them their weakness to make them humble. I had seen it happen over and over—elders and sisters brought to their knees through personal trials, their testimonies strengthened by the Lord, and eventually their success as missionaries significantly increased.
I looked at Elder Merrill. He was a candidate for such success. The clay had been kneaded and prepared. Now the Potter’s Hand was beginning to mold another vessel. As an instrument, called and representing that Power, I paused as he regained his composure. Then I began.
“Elder Merrill, your desires are commendable, for to truly love is the greatest of all attributes. To love unconditionally is to love as our Heavenly Father and His Son love us. The prophet Mormon understood this when he said that the pure love of Christ—which he called charity—is the greatest of all, for all other things must end, but charity endures forever. Charity requires interaction with others—sincere caring and concern, giving of ourselves for the benefit of someone else. Paul talked of this in 1 Corinthians 13:4–8: Charity ‘is kind … thinketh no evil … rejoiceth in the truth … beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth.’ [1 Cor. 13:4–8] Elder Merrill, let’s read these scriptures together.”
“Can you see from these scriptures that learning to love in the way our Father in Heaven wants us to love is a very important but very complex task?”
“Then we must find a way to begin—a way to take the first step toward acquiring the pure love of Christ. If you properly apply this principle of charity in your life each day, I promise that with the help of the Lord, you will learn to love as you desire.” I opened my Bible. “The key is found in 2 Corinthians, chapter 2, verse 2, where Paul says, ‘For if I make you sorry, who is he then that maketh me glad, but the same which is made sorry by me.’ [2 Cor. 2:2]
“Now, since his words may seem difficult to understand, I’m writing a translation in today’s terminology here on this paper. Will you please read it?”
Elder Merrill took the page from me and read: “If I don’t reinforce the good in you, who will reinforce the good in me?”
“Do you understand how positive reinforcement works?” I asked.
He nodded. “It means to tell others of their good qualities.”
“Exactly. By using positive reinforcement, two things happen. The first is obvious: We make others feel important and capable. But the second is a miracle. By reinforcing the good in others, we learn to love them because we begin to see their glorious potential. Just as the old adage says, ‘To have a friend, you must be a friend.’ We must realize that giving comes before receiving. We cannot sit and wait for love to grow. We must do the planting, watering, and tending. Elder Merrill, there are two things you must do to take the first step toward charity.” I handed him a pen so he could write them on the page below the words about reinforcement. “One: look for positive actions, attitudes, and abilities in others. Two: Compliment others sincerely and honestly.”
When he had finished writing, I asked, “Do you have any questions about these two keys?”
He glanced at his writing and gave a slow shake of his head.
“Can you apply them in your daily life, Elder?”
His reply was guarded. “I think so, President.”
“Elder Merrill, I know that you can. Let me give you some examples. If love does not exist between you and your companion, then let it begin with you. Use the keys. Look for his positive traits. Openly and sincerely compliment him. Very soon you will love him because of all the good you have found in him. And when he realizes that he is important and capable in your eyes, he will love you.
“These keys of positive reinforcement can also be used with the people you teach as a missionary. Although we may have difficulty with some of the actions and attitudes of those we meet, the gospel we teach will help them change if we can only create an atmosphere that will allow us to present our message in love.
“For example, upon entering the home of someone of a different faith and observing the presence of religious objects, we might have a tendency to attack those objects and the beliefs they represent. By doing so, however, we force the other person to defend his own importance and capability. This does not create a receptive atmosphere. Instead of criticizing, we must look for positive traits that person has and then reinforce them.
“Let’s say you enter the home of Senhor Garcia. You might say: “‘Senhor Garcia, I’m happy to see that you have a belief in our Savior and are active in that belief. Tell me, what does this religious object mean to you?’
“As Senhor Garcia talks, listen for the positive points of his faith that match the message you want to teach. Then relay these ideas back to him with sincere praise. As you do so, you will find that you understand him and recognize his worth. He in turn will realize that he is important. In this way, you create an atmosphere of love and respect that will lead you easily into your discussion:
“‘Senhor Garcia, I’m glad your faith has brought you to this point because now, more than at any other time in your life, you are ready to understand an even greater message that God has prepared for you. In the year 1820, a young boy of fourteen was searching for the truth …’
“Remember, criticism reinforces the negative and destroys feelings of importance and capability. Criticism is not charitable. Trying to teach in an atmosphere of criticism will not nurture love; positive reinforcement will.
“Now, Elder, let me ask again. Can you apply these keys?”
He was silent a moment before I saw the dawning of a smile. “Yes, President,” he said firmly. “I can.”
We quickly established a follow-up system to measure his progress by using his weekly report to me and occasional personal interviews. He stood up and extended his hand. His handshake was strong, his smile enthusiastic. He left the office with an air of determination.
In contrast with his forcefulness, I closed the door gently to avoid any sudden movement that might destroy the fragile feeling of warmth in the room. After a brief moment of thanks to Him who had provided me with words and direction, I returned to my desk and the transfer board.
The pictures on the wall looked back at me again, and my heart surged as the Spirit confirmed what needed to be done. Elder Merrill was the answer. He had been scheduled for a transfer, but he could not be transferred now. He couldn’t leave his current companion until he had learned to love him.
Then, as if a high-speed movie were running through my mind, I envisioned the rest of his mission. In accordance with his righteous growth, he would next be called to serve as companion to an elder laboring as a branch president in a new area. Through application of the principles we had discussed, he would learn to love his companions, the members, and the investigators; he would lift and inspire them. He was blessed with the ability to lead his peers, and I knew he would serve where his special brand of love could best be used. He would labor among new members and finish his mission as a branch president.
The months passed. Once again Elder Merrill sat beside me—this time for the final interview of his mission. The costly wool suit was now shiny with wear, and the inside lining sagged from many cleanings. Although the shoes were recently shined, the heels were almost gone, and open cracks in the leather witnessed the many hours he had spent tracting. Branch President Merrill, now a seasoned priesthood leader, had finished his call.
The sparkling blue of his confident eyes seemed even more penetrating, but once again they rimmed with tears. This time, however, his words and feelings were different.
“Tomorrow night I’ll be with my parents. I’m excited to see them again. I love them very much. But President, how can I leave this work and these people, whom I also love very much?”
As we both struggled to control our emotions, I gave silent thanks for the gift of inspiration. Through it, the Potter’s Hand can mold the clay of our lives into one of His own vessels.