Before my 30th year, I was called to be the bishop of an 850-member ward. Two weeks before that call, I, with a partner, had founded a company that hired and was responsible for several new employees. At the same time, my wife and I had three active children ages one to seven. The daunting responsibilities to properly care for my young family, the Saints entrusted to my stewardship, and a growing business seemed impossible. Would I know how to allocate my time when any one of these three important and complex aspects of life threatened to become all-consuming? Was it possible to achieve a balance?
In those days, I often recalled a childhood memory. The Ed Sullivan Show was one of the most popular programs on television in the United States. As a variety show, it featured performers with widely divergent talents. One man appeared regularly. A number of poles, perhaps a dozen or more, were set up on stage, with stacks of dinner plates beside them. This agile individual would spin a plate on top of one of the poles and then move to the next pole and spin a second plate and then a third and a fourth. As he proceeded down the line of poles, the rotation of the plates on the first and second poles would begin to slow, and the dishes would be in danger of falling off and crashing to the floor. Seeing this, the man would quickly run back to those poles and with a gentle spin increase the motion that allowed the plates to keep spinning. The excitement of the act was to witness the ability of the performer to expand the number of rotating plates while not letting any fall.
Invariably, a point would be reached where he was not able to keep up. There was a limit to his ability to increase the number and yet properly care for the plates already in motion. The sight of dishes sliding from their precarious perches and the cacophony as they hit the hard floor vividly proved the point that even the most skilled performer has his limits.
Each of us must decide how many “poles” we are able to manage in our life and what they represent. Some individuals are spinning a single plate with all their effort, ignoring all other poles. Others are attempting to spin so many at the same time that the crashing of plates is often heard.
Leading a balanced life can be difficult for any of us. There is not an exact pattern that works for everyone, and even our own blueprint may change during different phases of life. However, seeking balance—giving adequate time and effort to each of those things that really matter—is vital to success in our mortal probation. There are certain fundamental responsibilities we cannot neglect without serious consequence.
What are the essential poles of our lives? I wish to suggest four: our love for Heavenly Father and His Son, our care of our families, our service to the Lord, and our life’s temporal work.
Love for Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. The scriptures speak powerfully of this sacred duty:
“Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matt. 22:36–37).
“Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ … and a love of God” (2 Ne. 31:20).
Our love of Heavenly Father and His Son is foundational to all else. They are the source of peace (see John 14:26–27). Love for Them is the supreme motivation to keep “in the right way” (Moro. 6:4). It enhances every other aspect of our lives and allows us to love ourselves and others more completely. Answers to our most challenging problems are found only when we love and have faith in Them.
Care of our families. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” states: “Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children. … Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, … to observe the commandments of God.”1
Prophetic counsel has taught us that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home”2 and that “the most important of the Lord’s work you will ever do will be within the walls of your own homes.”3 Our desires and actions toward our families should be as Lehi exemplified when he partook of the sweet fruit of the tree of life and immediately was “desirous that [his] family should partake of it also” (1 Ne. 8:12).
For many, properly caring for the family is the first area of compromise when other demands arise, since the results of neglect are not always immediately apparent. But nurturing the husband-wife relationship and building a spiritual home require men and women of vision and commitment.
Service to the Lord. A natural extension of our love of God is our desire to serve Him. The Lord said, “If thou lovest me thou shalt serve me” (D&C 42:29). The way we serve Him is by serving one another. “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17). Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “Service is an imperative for true followers of Jesus Christ.”4
Our time spent in Church service may vary during different periods of our lives depending on specific callings we receive and our family circumstances. However, our desire to serve should never waver.
Life’s temporal work. Although our careers or occupations may appear to be temporal, they support other, more eternal aspects of life and can provide valuable service to others (see D&C 29:34). Again, “The Family—A Proclamation to the World” gives clear direction: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.”5
Church leaders have strongly encouraged individuals to obtain a quality education that will allow choices in our life’s work, and they have encouraged dedication to an honorable trade or profession that will serve our spiritual life.
These four poles must not be neglected in our lives. Each needs constant care to fulfill its proper role in making us “whole” as righteous followers of Christ (see Mark 2:17).
President Gordon B. Hinckley has taught:
“I think … all of us in this Church … have a fourfold responsibility. One, [members and leaders] have a responsibility to their families, to see that their families have a measure of their time. … None of us can evade that. … That is basic and fundamental.
“If we are employed, we have a responsibility to our employer. We are not at liberty to short-change him. …
“We have a responsibility to the Lord, of course, to do that which is expected of us as a servant in His house.
“And … we have a responsibility to ourselves to take some time to do a little meditating, to do a little exercise. …
“… How do you balance them? I don’t think that is difficult. I served in many capacities in this Church. I am the father of five children, who were young and growing up when I was serving in those various capacities. … We enjoyed life. … We just did what the Church expected us to do.”6
As sincere followers of Christ, we must constantly evaluate what is most important. Are we so intensively focused on one pole that the plates atop the others are in danger of falling because of our neglect? Or are we spinning too many poles? Do we need to simplify our lives to keep all that truly matters in proper motion?
How can each of us know if our life is out of balance? Well, most of us just know. We simply need to admit it and exercise the discipline to change, substituting higher values and better habits for those we have been living. We need to follow the counsel of our prophets to do it now before any further damage is caused by our lack of attention to other indispensable parts of life.
For some people, however, the recognition of imbalance in life may not be so clear. While serving as a stake president, I saw a member of our stake become prominent in the business community. He had a growing family and held positions of responsibility in the Church. All appeared to be in order. Then it became evident that he was paying too high a price for his temporal success. The first indication was his request to be released from all Church callings because of their time conflict with his work-related obligations. Even more alarming, through a series of behavioral problems with his children, priesthood leaders became acutely aware that basic family duties were being neglected. Communication with his wife and children had deteriorated because they seldom saw him. When they did, he was usually preoccupied by professional demands or simply too tired for family activities or even meaningful conversation. Only through tragic and agonizing events was this man brought to a realization of the consequences of his actions on his own spiritual health and that of his family.
Regular self-evaluation is critical to seeking a balanced life. There are three valuable sources of help to show us things “as they really are, and … as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13) in our lives.
Promptings of the Spirit. Through consistent righteous actions that invite the Holy Ghost into our lives, we “may know the truth of all things” (Moro. 10:5). In our own spheres of activity, we may be able to say, “By the power of the Spirit our eyes were opened and our understandings were enlightened” (D&C 76:12). Consistent and sincere prayer, along with daily pondering of our love for the Lord and our desire to serve Him, will allow the Spirit more access to our minds and our hearts (see D&C 8:2–3).
Scriptures and the words of living prophets. The scriptural teachings of the Lord will help us if we “liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Ne. 19:23). Following the direction of living prophets, who understand our current world, provides safety, for “even as many … who [believe] in the words of the holy prophets … [shall] have eternal life” (D&C 20:26). Through consistent study of ancient and modern scripture and the words of today’s prophets, we are constantly reminded of those things that have everlasting value.
Regular communication with a trusted friend. Our spouse or, if not married, a trusted friend with shared values, can be a vital channel for honest reflection. However, this will only happen when we are listening and our spirit is sufficiently humble to accept constructive feedback (see Alma 7:23). Planning time with our companion and children or other family members and trusted friends is crucial for constructive communication. Many families find it effective to discuss the calendar during family home evening, specifically scheduling time for husband-wife and family activities.
The answer I found as a young bishop, which has served me well in the ensuing years, was simply that we must thoroughly understand the guiding doctrine and then do our best each day. We organize, prioritize, and live worthy of the spiritual guidance required when making difficult decisions. Often we seek counsel from those closest to us. From time to time, we may be out of balance for a brief period as the immediate needs of one portion of our life take temporary precedence. When this occurs, we knowingly work through the issue and seek to stabilize ourselves as soon as possible, before the short-term solution becomes a long-term trait.
When we are out of balance, we have a choice. We can delay making changes and experience the tragedy of a failing family or the sorrow of losing our own spirituality; or we can be attentive and continually nudged by the whisperings of the Holy Spirit to make necessary adjustments. Seeking balance among the essential responsibilities of life is preparatory to salvation.
We must “see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.” However, to encourage our constant effort, we are counseled, “It is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize” (Mosiah 4:27). It is my witness that it can be done and the prize is “eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (D&C 14:7).
“Not long ago, one of my children said, ‘Dad, sometimes I wonder if I will ever make it.’ The answer I gave to her is the same as I would give to you if you have had similar feelings. Just do the very best you can each day. Do the basic things and, before you realize it, your life will be full of spiritual understanding that will confirm to you that your Heavenly Father loves you. When a person knows this, then life will be full of purpose and meaning, making balance easier to maintain.”
Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Keeping Life’s Demands in Balance,” Ensign, May 1987, 16.
Ask a family member to stand on one leg with eyes closed. How long and why could he or she do this? What might cause a person to lose balance in life? Discuss the three guides for maintaining spiritual balance. Share an experience when one of these guides helped you (see Mosiah 4:27).
What are “the essential poles of our lives”? Discuss how family members spent their time during the past week. Applying the suggestions in this article, discuss how family members would like to spend their time the next week.