Learning to Serve


L. Tom Perry
Gospel knowledge leads us to happiness found only in serving and sharing.

It is no surprise to the membership of the Church that General Authorities spend a great deal of time on airplanes. The Church is now worldwide. Stake centers dot the landscape of many nations.

While traveling, I have had the opportunity of visiting with many airline pilots, and I am always amazed, as I look into the cockpit, at how many switches, lights, displays, and controls are necessary to fly the plane. I entered into a discussion with one pilot regarding what could happen if he deviated from his flight plan. I proposed deviating just one degree from the charted course. His reply astonished me.

He said that for every one-degree variance from the plan, you would miss your charted destination by one mile for every 60 miles you were flying. This means that in a flight from Salt Lake to Denver, you would land in downtown Denver rather than at the airport. On a flight from Salt Lake to Chicago, you would miss the airport and land in Lake Michigan. Going from Salt Lake to New York, you would miss Kennedy Airport and land in the Hudson River. Going to London, you wouldn’t even make England—you would land somewhere in France.

A deviation from a flight plan of several degrees would take you totally off course. The pilot explained to me that, obviously, the faster the error is discovered, the easier it is to return to the flight plan. If the correction is delayed for a long time, it is very difficult to find the way back because of flight traffic, poor weather conditions, decreased visibility, and other limiting factors. The charted course would be so far away that it might be almost impossible to reach the intended destination. My visit with the pilot gave me no comfort, but it did cause me to think of how a flight plan parallels the direction we chart for our life’s experience.

We are here in mortality experiencing a great adventure. We must chart our own course and follow the plan to determine our final destination. With our understanding of the gospel, our ultimate goal should be easy to determine, for the way has been marked for us by the Savior. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior said:

“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

“Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt. 7:13–14).

Repeatedly the scriptures tell us there is only one course to eternal life. The Savior, in the upper room on the evening of the Last Supper, was bidding a tender farewell to his Apostles when he told them:

“In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2–3).

The Apostle Thomas then said, “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?” (John 14:5).

The Savior’s answer was simple and clear: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

How fortunate we are to know the Lord’s plan for us. He has marked the path which will lead us back to his presence. If the path is so clearly marked, why is it that so many deviate from it and do not correct their course, thus making it impossible to reach their hoped-for destination?

The road to exaltation and life with our Heavenly Father is strewn with hazards of various kinds. There are tribulations—some brief and others prolonged. Temptations lie in wait at curves, forks, and intersections. Whether or not we succumb to temptation and stray from our course is determined by how firmly we are committed to reaching our goal.

The Book of Mormon tells us about Lehi’s vision of the tree of life. By holding to a rod of iron, people were able to reach the tree and taste the fruit, which was sweet and most desirable above all other fruit. Lehi then reported:

“I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.

“And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.

“And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost” (1 Ne. 8:26–28).

If we hope to arrive at the destination we seek on our journey through life, we must learn to ignore the jibes and ridicule of so-called friends. We need to turn a deaf ear to suggestions to follow the easier and more pleasant route pointed out by those who profess to know more than the Lord’s apostles and prophets.

As Nephi counseled: “Wherefore, I, Nephi, did exhort them to give heed unto the word of the Lord; yea, I did exhort them with all the energies of my soul, and with all the faculty which I possessed, that they would give heed to the word of God and remember to keep his commandments always in all things” (1 Ne. 15:25).

One marker on the course to eternal life is the challenge displayed at the entrance of Brigham Young University: “Enter to learn. Go forth to serve.” To remain on course, we must first learn all we can about the “strait and narrow way” we must follow. The Lord has revealed the plan of life for his children to his prophets throughout the ages. President Spencer W. Kimball counseled us:

“I am grateful that you and all of us have the gospel of Jesus Christ as a guide, so that we have a framework of understanding into which we can fit the events and circumstances that we will live to see. It is clear from the scriptures that we in this part of our dispensation cannot be promised by our political leaders that there will be ‘peace in our time,’ but we, as church members, are given the means of having a personal peace, of coming to know serenity in our souls—even when there is no peace without!

“By now you are perhaps accustomed to having those of us who are further along the pathway of life describe to you the importance of staying on the ‘strait and narrow’ path. So often we say many of the same things to you again and again, but if you reflect upon why that is so, you will soon discover that the precipices that lie on each side of that narrow path don’t change or become less dangerous; the steepness of that path does not change” (President Kimball Speaks Out [1981], 89).

Without waiting to find out the true meaning of life, many young people jump to conclusions and embark on their life journey unprepared. They follow the traffic without a road map, and not surprisingly, all they find along the way is disappointment. What do we need to learn before we go forth to serve?

Learn First about His Ways

The scriptures tell us that it is impossible for man to be saved in ignorance (see D&C 131:6). This principle is greatly misunderstood. Elder John A. Widtsoe wrote:

“There are of course many kinds of knowledge; some of lesser, some of higher value. When Joseph Smith said that a man cannot be saved in ignorance, he meant naturally ignorance of the laws which all together lead to salvation. Such knowledge is of the highest value. It should be sought after first. Then other kinds of knowledge may be added to support and amplify the more direct knowledge of spiritual law. For example, it is a duty of the Church to preach the gospel to all the world. This however requires the aid of railroads, steamships, printing presses, and a multitude of other things that make up our civilization. A knowledge of the gospel is the missionary’s first need, but the other needs, though lesser, help him perform better the divine injunction to teach the gospel to all people” (Evidences and Reconciliations, arr. G. Homer Durham [1987], 224).

Of course, today some persons require knowledge about passenger jets, computers, satellite communications, and so on, but Elder Widtsoe’s point still holds. What he implied is that there must needs be an order to our learning, the same order indicated by the Savior’s teaching, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). Learning about sacred things should come first, providing a context and need for secular learning. If we want to return to our Heavenly Father’s presence, our first priority should be to learn about his ways and his plan.

The world would want to fool us into believing that there is insufficient time to engage in both spiritual and secular learning. I warn us not to be deceived by these philosophies of men. Our learning about sacred things will facilitate, even accelerate, our secular learning. President John Taylor formulated “The Limitations of Secular Hypothesis,” which states:

“Man, by philosophy and the exercise of his natural intelligence, may gain an understanding, to some extent, of the laws of Nature. But to comprehend God, heavenly wisdom and intelligence are necessary. Earthly and heavenly philosophy are two different things, and it is folly for men to base their arguments upon earthly philosophy in trying to unravel the mysteries of the kingdom of God” (The Gospel Kingdom, sel. G. Homer Durham [1987], 73).

If we provide a spiritual foundation for our secular learning, not only will we better understand the laws of nature, but we can gain a depth of understanding never before imagined possible about art, languages, technology, medicine, law, and human behavior. We can see the world around us and understand it through God’s eyes.

The story of King Solomon teaches us that we can ask the Lord for understanding. When Solomon was in Gibeon, the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Ask what I shall give thee” (1 Kgs. 3:5). Solomon, feeling overwhelmed and underprepared for his new responsibilities as king, told the Lord, “I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in” (1 Kgs. 3:7). Therefore, he asked the Lord for “an understanding heart to judge” the people (1 Kgs. 3:9). The Lord was pleased with Solomon’s request. He answered:

“Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life; neither hast asked riches for thyself, nor hast asked the life of thine enemies; but hast asked for thyself understanding to discern judgment;

“Behold, I have done according to thy words: lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee” (1 Kgs. 3:11–12).

We should not underestimate the Lord’s power and his willingness to bless our lives if we ask with a sincere heart and real intent. He has instructional designs and learning theories that the world’s educational psychologists haven’t even imagined yet.

While the gift of mortal life offers a relatively brief period of time to learn of God and his ways, we have the eternities to learn of the universe and all the things therein and to accumulate secular knowledge. President Kimball taught us that one of the blessings of exaltation is an infinite amount of time to learn about secular things. He said:

“After death we continue to learn. Exaltation means godhood, creatorship. ‘As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.’ (Eliza R. Snow Smith, Biography of Lorenzo Snow, Salt Lake City: Deseret News Co., 1884, 46.) This is in the future. It is obvious that before one can take of the materials in existence and develop them into a world like our own, he must be master of geology, zoology, physiology, psychology, and all the others. It is obvious, also, that no soul can in his short mortal life acquire all this knowledge and master all these sciences, but he can make a beginning and with the foundation of spiritual life and controls and mastery, and with the authorities and powers received through the gospel of Christ, he is in a position to begin this almost limitless study of the secular” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball, [1982], 53).

So let us never worry about the time it takes to learn of spiritual things. It is time well spent. It provides a foundation for secular learning. Indeed, the Lord will bless us if we trust in him and learn about his eternal plan first. We are talking about a widening, not a narrowing, window of opportunity to learn if we attend to first things first.

President Kimball further stated:

“Now this mortal life is the time to prepare to meet God, which is our first responsibility. Having already obtained our bodies, which become the permanent tabernacles for our spirits through the eternities, now we are to train our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. Preeminent, then, is our using this life to perfect ourselves, to subjugate the flesh, to subject the body to the spirit, to overcome all weaknesses, to govern self so that one may give leadership to others, and to perform all necessary ordinances. …

“After our feet are set firmly on the path to eternal life we can amass more knowledge of the secular things. …

“A highly trained scientist who is also a perfected man may create a world and people in it, but a dissolute, unrepentant, unbelieving one will never be such a creator even in the eternities.

“Secular knowledge, important as it may be, can never save a soul nor open the celestial kingdom nor create a world nor make man a god, but it can be most helpful to that man who, placing first things first, has found the way to eternal life and who can now bring into play all knowledge to be his tool and servant” (President Kimball Speaks Out, 90–92).

A Sense of Incurred Debt to God

After we learn all we can about the course we must follow and have proceeded on the path to gain eternal life, we have an obligation to our Heavenly Father’s other children who need help. Gaining a knowledge of God’s plan leads to many consequences, one of the more profound being an incredible sense of incurred debt to the God of this world, Jesus Christ. The plan of salvation balances on the need for a Redeemer. Jesus Christ performed this role. He atoned for our sins, and in the words of Isaiah and Peter, “with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5; cf. 1 Pet. 2:24).

It is clear that the Apostle Paul felt deeply this sense of incurred debt when he wrote in his letter to the Romans, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1). Paul identified a fundamental aspect of service. We serve out of a sense of gratitude to the Lord for the blessings he has provided us. Moreover, we must remember that the greatest blessing of all is that he suffered, bled, and died to fulfill the great plan of happiness—a plan designed and executed for us, that we might return with him into the presence of the Father. It was an understanding of this pivotal idea that led King Benjamin to say: “If ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21).

How do we serve him who made it possible for us to gain eternal life? Again, King Benjamin provided the answer when he counseled the people: “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17).

The Book of Mormon provides several examples of men who understood the fundamental equality that explains so much of our purpose in life, namely: Service to others equals service to God. King Benjamin, of course, was one of the more profound examples of service to God and man. As he told his people, “Even I, myself, have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you” (Mosiah 2:14). King Benjamin chose to learn the plan of salvation; then he went forth and served.

Perhaps an even more dramatic example of how the spirit of service consumes those who learn and understand God’s plan is the story of Alma the Younger. We know that during Alma’s youth, he and the sons of Mosiah sought to destroy the church of God. His actions were a full 180 degrees off the course he should have been following. Then a remarkable event occurred. An angel appeared to Alma and set him and his brethren straight.

Can you imagine Alma’s astonishment? He had devoted his life to destroying the Lord’s church and the faith of the people, and then an angel appeared to tell him, “The Lord hath said: This is my church, and I will establish it; and nothing shall overthrow it, save it is the transgression of my people” (Mosiah 27:13).

Alma’s shock was so great that, literally, he was left speechless, and he could not move his hands. He was taken by those who were with him and laid before his father, Alma, the chief high priest. The priests assembled themselves, fasted, and prayed for Alma for two days and nights so that his mouth might be opened and he might regain his strength. Their supplication to the Lord was finally answered when Alma the Younger stood before them a changed man and spoke to them, saying:

“My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more.

“I rejected my Redeemer, and denied that which had been spoken of by our fathers; but now that they may foresee that he will come, and that he remembereth every creature of his creating, he will make himself manifest unto all” (Mosiah 27:29–30).

It had been a painful course correction for Alma. He had suffered untold pain and eternal torment, but he was back on track. What the scriptures record next is most interesting.

“And now it came to pass that Alma began from this time forward to teach the people, and those who were with Alma at the time the angel appeared unto them, traveling round about through all the land, publishing to all the people the things which they had heard and seen, and preaching the word of God in much tribulation, being greatly persecuted by those who were unbelievers, being smitten by many of them. …

“And they traveled throughout all the land of Zarahemla, and among all the people who were under the reign of king Mosiah, zealously striving to repair all the injuries which they had done to the church, confessing all their sins, and publishing all the things which they had seen, and explaining the prophecies and the scriptures to all who desired to hear them.

“And thus they were instruments in the hands of God in bringing many to the knowledge of the truth, yea, to the knowledge of their Redeemer” (Mosiah 27:32, 35–36).

After conversion comes the responsibility and obligation to share the knowledge received with our Father in Heaven’s other children. Alma’s life was changed, and he became one of the greatest missionaries who ever lived. He taught with power and firsthand knowledge of the plan of redemption. He had learned at the feet of an angel; then he went forth and served.

We realize the extent of Alma’s conversion to the truth and his resulting desire to serve all God’s children when he wrote near the end of his ministry:

“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” (Alma 29:1–2).

Alma had come to the point in his understanding of the plan of salvation and service to the Lord where he felt restrained by the limits of his physical body. Although he realized his request was unreasonable, he wanted to do more. He wanted to proclaim the gospel with the voice of the angel who had proclaimed it to him. Feeling in a profound way his debt to the Lord, he wanted to sacrifice more than even all he had to the Lord’s service.

Some among us preach the doctrine of “me-ism.” They declare that we should think of ourselves first and foremost and above all else. History, however, has taught that selfishness has never brought happiness. An important part of life is serving and sharing. Certainly the soul-satisfying joy of life is leaving a legacy of love and service for others to emulate and enjoy. Bryant S. Hinckley has said this about service:

“Service is the virtue that distinguished the great of all times and which they will be remembered by. It places a mark of nobility upon its disciples. It is the dividing line which separates the two great groups of the world—those who help and those who hinder, those who lift and those who lean, those who contribute and those who only consume. How much better it is to give than to receive. Service in any form is comely and beautiful. To give encouragement, to impart sympathy, to show interest, to banish fear, to build self-confidence and awaken hope in the hearts of others—in short, to love them and to show it—is to render the most precious service” (in Steven R. Covey et al, First Things First [1994], 306; punctuation modified).

Entering this earth life to learn and then going forth to serve represent the purpose of our mortal existence. If our actions deviate from that purpose, let us make a quick course correction and return to the proper path. Let us commit to spending time each day, each week, each year to make sure that the course we are on is the one charted by the Lord himself, the “strait and narrow” path leading to the only destination that will give us lasting peace and joy—that of eternal life.

[illustration] Jesus Speaking in the Treasury, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

[photos] Photography by Steve Bunderson