Guided by His Exemplary Life


Joseph B. Wirthlin

Guided by His Exemplary Life

It is a humbling experience to study about and then share with others one’s thoughts on the leadership qualities of the Savior. President Spencer W. Kimball said: “There are far more things to be said about the Lord Jesus Christ’s remarkable leadership than any single article or book could possibly cover. … All the ennobling, perfect, and beautiful qualities of maturity, of strength, and of courage are found in this one person” (Ensign, Aug. 1979, pp. 5, 7).

I would hasten to add that there is more to be said about the Savior’s leadership than can possibly be covered here, especially when it is delivered by one who freely acknowledges that he still has much to learn on the subject. But I am pleased to share what I have learned. In doing so I express appreciation to the Lord for the guidance of his Holy Spirit and to those who have taught me so well for so many years.

Speaking to “all those who have desires to bring forth and establish this work” (D&C 12:7), the Lord has said, “And no one can assist in this work except he shall be humble and full of love, having faith, hope, and charity, being temperate in all things, whatsoever shall be entrusted to his care” (D&C 12:8).

And in the revelation on priesthood found in the 107th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord is referring to the presiding quorums of the Church when he gives an impressive, almost overwhelming list of qualifications that surely are attributes that every member of the Church should seek to develop: “righteousness, … holiness, and lowliness of heart, meekness and long suffering, and … faith, and virtue, and knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness and charity;

“Because the promise is, if these things abound in them they shall not be unfruitful in the knowledge of the Lord” (D&C 107:30–31).

Certainly those qualifications are all characteristics of Christ, and our greatest goal should be to be like him. Indeed, the Savior himself admonished us to strive to be “perfect, even as [our] Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). As much as we want to obey that commandment, however, we also understand the difficulty of attaining perfection in this life. To that end I am grateful for the insight of Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who has written:

“In the Greek from which it was translated, the term perfect in Matthew 5:48 [Matt. 5:48] … means ‘fully developed,’ to become ‘finished’ as to our individual potential and to have ‘completed’ the course God has set forth for us to follow. … All of the godly attributes, to the degree developed through our ‘diligence and obedience,’ will actually rise with us in the resurrection, giving us ‘so much the advantage in the world to come’ (D&C 130:19)” (Men and Women of Christ, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991, pp. 21–22).

Perfection is worth striving for even if it is ultimately unattainable in this life. For it is through our struggle to become like the Savior and his Father that we ourselves become perfected. If we follow the pattern that Christ set for us, we will be responding to the scriptural mandate to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him” (Moro. 10:32).

“Behold,” said the Savior to the Nephites, “I am the light; I have set an example for you” (3 Ne. 18:16). He often told his disciples to “follow me” (Matt. 4:19). His was a program of “do what I do” rather than “do what I say.” After he humbly ministered to his Apostles by kneeling before them and washing their feet, he taught them, “I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

Of course, Jesus, who was our perfect model in all things, had his own perfect model. As he himself taught: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise” (John 5:19).

So it is with us who are members of the Church today. We can do nothing of ourselves in his work. But through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can and should do the things our Savior would. He showed us the way to lead and guide one another in at least three significant ways during his mortal ministry.

First, Jesus understood and taught the importance of prayer. But more than that, he lived the concept. He prayed continually to the Father for direction and strength, because his greatest desire was to do the Father’s will.

There are numerous references to Christ’s prayers in the scriptures. Mark tells us that Jesus would get up early in the morning, go out into “a solitary place,” and pray (Mark 1:35). Luke also refers to how the Savior “withdrew himself into the wilderness, and prayed” (Luke 5:16). The transfiguration of Christ occurred after he and three of his disciples “went up into a mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28; see Luke 9:28–36). The scriptures record that he prayed for Peter (see Luke 22:32), for his disciples (see John 17:9), and, on the eve of his awesome atonement, for himself (see Matt. 26:39).

In one of the most powerful of all scriptural accounts, we read in 3 Nephi of the resurrected Lord’s prayers among the Nephites: “No tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak; and no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father” (3 Ne. 17:17).

Later in that same account Jesus “took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them” (3 Ne. 17:21), after which there was an incredible spiritual manifestation, with “angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them” (3 Ne. 17:24).

Jesus prayed several times for the Nephites, and he taught them how to pray. And then he made this important point: “Hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do. Behold ye see that I have prayed unto the Father, and ye all have witnessed” (3 Ne. 18:24).

The lesson for us is clear. We need to be prayerful. The importance of prayer was expressed by the prophet Nephi near the end of his ministry: “I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul” (2 Ne. 32:9).

The second hallmark of Jesus Christ’s exemplary leadership is that he knew and understood the scriptures and used them to teach and inspire the people. From the time he was a boy, he must have enjoyed studying and discussing the words of the prophets as contained in the holy scriptures. He often stressed their importance.

“Search the scriptures,” he told his followers in Jerusalem, “for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39). Matthew records that when the Sadducees tried to stump the Savior with a tricky point of doctrine, “Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29).

Do we truly know the scriptures and, therefore, the power of God? Or do we err by trusting in man’s wisdom? It is imperative that we follow Christ’s example and make scripture study an integral part of our daily life. Nephi counseled us wisely to “feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do” (2 Ne. 32:3). Not only will such study strengthen us spiritually and help us to draw closer to the Lord, but it will also make it possible for us to teach as Jesus taught: from the scriptures.

We need to remember that the Lord explained the scriptures and the gospel in plain and simple ways. As the most intelligent of all of Heavenly Father’s children, he certainly would have been able to overwhelm his followers with his great knowledge and understanding. In doing so he probably would have impressed them, but I don’t know how much he would have taught them. So instead he spoke to them on the level of their own experience and comprehension. Rather than speaking of abstract concepts and ideas, he used the commonplace—the lamb and the shepherd, the fisherman’s net, the mustard seed, salt, candles, master, servant—to make his point.

That he was successful in doing so, there can be no doubt. Just look at Peter, a plain and simple fisherman when Christ first invited him to “Follow me” (Matt. 4:19). Under the divine tutelage of the Master Teacher, Peter grew from a humble follower to the loving disciple with weak faith to the powerful presiding Apostle. Note the spiritual insight of this great leader, who wrote:

“But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:

“Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9–10).

Did Peter pick up that kind of information while patching nets or trolling for fish? I suspect not. More likely he gleaned information, bit by bit, during three years of traveling with Christ and hearing him open the meaning of the scriptures to his listeners and during the ensuing years of inspired direction from the Savior. He passed on that understanding to those who looked to him for leadership. Similarly, we too should be prepared to share with others the treasures we find through our study of the scriptures and through the witness of the Holy Spirit.

A third attribute of Christ’s leadership pertains to obedience, worthiness, and personal righteousness. Jesus is the perfect model of personal righteousness. He is the physical embodiment of every virtue and godly attribute one could ever aspire to. I would like to focus on some of those marvelous character traits.

One trait is loyalty, particularly loyalty to God. There was never any doubt of Christ’s priorities. Said he: “I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me” (John 5:30). We must learn to follow Jesus and his magnificent example as he followed his Father in Heaven.

President Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor in the First Presidency, once gave an excellent illustration of the importance of remaining loyal to the Savior and his instructions to us as given through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. There is a large portrait of the Savior on the wall of President Monson’s office. President Monson said that whenever he is confronted by a difficult challenge he looks at the picture and asks himself, “What would the Savior do?”

Another important character trait of leadership exemplified by Christ is courage. While he was always tactful and compassionate, the Master never backed away from saying or doing whatever needed to be said or done. He boldly confronted the merchants who were turning the temple into “a den of thieves” (Matt. 21:13). He did not hesitate to chastise when he felt it was necessary to point out unrighteousness and hypocrisy.

And when the band of men and officers came to take him prisoner and, ultimately, to his death, he faced them resolutely, asking, “Whom seek ye?” The men answered that they sought Jesus of Nazareth.

“I am he,” Jesus answered with such courage and power that many in the multitude moved back and fell to the ground.

Then a second time Jesus asked them, “Whom seek ye?” And when they named him, he said, “I have told you that I am he: if therefore ye seek me, let these [his disciples] go their way” (see John 18:1–8).

This is the kind of courageous leader we would be willing to follow anywhere, anytime.

Another characteristic of the Savior was his ability to delegate. He gave his disciples specific, important things to do. We are all aware of leaders who have sought to be so omni-competent that they try to do everything themselves, which produces little growth in others. Jesus trusted his followers enough to share his work—even his very glory—with them so that they could grow.

It is much more difficult to teach a child how to make a bed than it is to make the bed yourself. But if the child isn’t given that privilege, he’ll never learn how to make a bed. Similarly, Jesus knows that this life is fraught with meaning and purpose, and that we have been placed on this planet to perform and to grow. Throughout his eternal existence he has facilitated growth by delegating meaningful assignments to others since the premortal war in heaven to the current leaders of his church today.

Of course, it should be noted that such growth happens best when assignments are clearly understood, with the area of responsibility clearly defined. Individuals should be free to act and complete the assignment, with accountability to the one who has done the delegating. This accountability is a critical part of the growth process for everyone involved. When it takes place in a personal interview, it can be a time for open and constructive communication, for offering and receiving help and assistance, and for praise and reproof in a spirit of love.

The Savior encouraged brotherhood. He was not a long-distance leader. He walked and worked with those whom he led. He was not afraid of close friendships. He spent many hours with his disciples, and his relationships with them were intimate. Said Jesus:

“Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.

“Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you” (John 15:14–15).

He called his modern-day servants his friends also: “And again I say unto you, my friends, for from henceforth I shall call you friends, it is expedient that I give unto you this commandment, that ye become even as my friends in days when I was with them, traveling to preach the gospel in my power” (D&C 84:77).

The Savior’s love extends to everyone—the weak and the strong, the courageous and the fearful, the sinner and the righteous. Because Jesus loved his followers and because they knew he loved them, he was able to speak openly and honestly with them. He reproved Peter at times because he loved him, and he wanted to help him become all that he was capable of becoming. And because Peter knew that the Lord loved him, he was able to accept the reproof and grow from it.

We need to pray for the gift of love so that those whom we serve will feel our love. Just as Christ’s followers were bound one to another by his love, so too should the members in each ward and branch be “knit together in love” (Col. 2:2).

Jesus was meek, humble, and selfless. As far as he was concerned, “Glory be to the Father” (D&C 19:19). He claimed no credit for himself. He said, “I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38).

Though he often ministered to huge crowds of people, he never forgot the importance of his mission to “the one.” The same Christ who fashioned “worlds without number” (Moses 1:33) also took the time to fashion a little clay from dirt and spittle to restore the sight of a blind man (see John 9:6–7).

I am touched by the story of the woman who came upon Jesus in the midst of a throng. She had been sick for twelve years and had spent all that she had in trying to get well. But her condition became worse.

When she heard of Jesus, she immediately believed. And even though she didn’t think there was any way she would be able to speak to him, she sensed that it would be enough if she could just touch his robe. She did so and was healed immediately.

That would be a great story even if it ended there. But I love what happened next. Even though he was surrounded by dozens of people who were pressing on him from all sides, Jesus immediately sensed that someone had drawn strength from him. He turned and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:30.)

The disciples with him were probably stunned. Here were dozens of people crowding around him, and Jesus wanted to know who had touched him? The woman came forward and told all that had happened. Jesus responded: “Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague” (Mark 5:34; see Mark 5:25–34).

What impresses me about that story is how the Lord could find a way to bless the life of one individual despite the demands of the crowd around him. And it reminds me of how often we all find ourselves in similar situations. Do we care enough about each one of Heavenly Father’s children that we can take time for the one despite the demands that may be placed upon us?

The Savior was selfless. He viewed himself and his own needs as secondary, and he ministered to others tirelessly, lovingly, effectively. Nephi wrote: “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation” (2 Ne. 26:24).

So many of the problems in the world today spring from selfishness. Selfish people focus on their own needs and not on the needs of others. To illustrate, President Heber J. Grant used to say that he would never make an assignment to anyone to do a job that he would not be prepared to do himself. Certainly Jesus is a wonderful example of that quality. He willingly gave the greatest sacrifice of all, his life, for the benefit of all mankind. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

While none of us will ever be asked to suffer in the same way that Jesus Christ suffered for us, we will still be asked to sacrifice in our own way. But there is really no sacrifice in serving the Lord and our brothers and sisters. Rather, it is a blessing and privilege to give what little we have to offer in terms of time and talent to the work of the kingdom. When you look at it that way, the greatest challenge in the concept of sacrifice is the realization that every time you try to give of yourself you receive more in return.

Above all, the Savior’s leadership was built upon a foundation of love and service. Practically everything he said or did illustrates this point. Said he:

“The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (Matt. 20:28).

“He that is greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matt. 23:11).

“Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).

I was taught a great lesson in loving service many years ago on Temple Square. I was on my way to a session of general conference when someone came up behind me and took me by the elbow. It was President David O. McKay, whom I had come to know through my father’s relationship with him.

“Come with me, Joseph,” President McKay said. “I’ll help you find a good seat.”

For those few moments as we walked to conference, President McKay seemed to focus his entire attention on me. He spoke reverently of his love for the Lord and his love for the members of the Church. He looked me straight in the eye as he firmly shared his testimony with me.

“I want you to know, Joseph,” he said, “that the President of the Lord’s church does receive revelation from our Lord, Jesus Christ.” At that moment the Spirit whispered to my heart that President David O. McKay was telling me the truth. That testimony has remained with me all my life, filling me with reverence and respect for the office our President holds.

They were just little things: President McKay calling me by name, strolling with me to the Tabernacle, finding a place for me to sit, and sharing his testimony with me. But I felt his love and was enriched by his humble act of service during those few minutes together. And I don’t think that I was ever quite the same after that.

How wonderful it would be if our small acts of service could have that kind of impact on the lives of those around us! I believe with all my heart that if we can abound in the virtues of effective leadership exemplified by the Savior, he will make us equal to the challenge.

President Kimball said: “We will find it very difficult to be significant leaders unless we recognize the reality of the perfect leader, Jesus Christ, and let him be the light by which we see the way!” (Ensign, Aug. 1979, p. 7.)

Let us remember to pray often, to feast upon the words of Christ and teach them in a simple and direct way, and to attain and perfect the perfect attributes of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us be loyal, courageous, and humble. Let us teach each other through delegation, enhance and build brotherhood, and willingly sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom. And let us be full of love and service toward all of mankind.

The words from the third verse of the beautiful, sacred hymn “More Holiness Give Me” state lofty ideals for those who would follow the Savior and lead others:

More purity give me, More strength to o’ercome,
More freedom from earthstains, More longing for home.
More fit for the kingdom, More used would I be,
More blessed and holy—More, Savior, like thee.

(Hymns, 1985, no. 131)

Following the Savior’s perfect life and divine leadership qualities will bring us tremendous success in our responsibilities as parents, in our callings in the Church, and in our duties as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

[illustration] Jesus Kneeling in Prayer and Meditation, by Michael J. Nelson

[illustration] Jesus in the Synagogue at Nazareth, by Greg K. Olsen

[illustration] Judas Betrays Christ, by Ted Henninger

[illustration] Mount of Beatitudes, by Gary Smith