What Is True Greatness?


Howard W. Hunter

Many Latter-day Saints are happy and enjoying the opportunities life offers. Yet I am concerned that some among us are unhappy because we feel we are not reaching our ideals. I have particular concern for those who have lived righteously but think—because they haven’t achieved in the world or in the Church what others have achieved—that they have failed.

Each of us desires to achieve a measure of greatness in this life. And why shouldn’t we? As someone once noted, there is within each of us a giant struggling with celestial homesickness. But the difficulty arises when the definitions of the world influence us.

What is true greatness? What is it that makes a person great?

The World’s Heroes

We live in a world that worships its own kind of greatness and produces its own kind of heroes. A recent survey of young people ages eighteen through twenty-four revealed that many of today’s heroes are the tough, the rich, and the glamorous—including movie stars and other entertainers. The world’s heroes are constantly before us—on television and in magazines. We hear almost daily of athletes breaking records, scientists inventing marvelous new devices, and doctors saving lives in new ways. We see exceptionally gifted musicians, artists, and architects. We see people with perfect teeth and flawless features, wearing stylish clothes and doing whatever it is that “successful” people do.

Because we are being constantly exposed to the world’s definition of greatness, it is understandable that we might make comparisons between what we are and what others are—or seem to be—and also between what we have and what others have. We often allow unfair and improper comparisons to make us to feel unfulfilled or inadequate or unsuccessful. These feelings can lead us to dwell on our failures while ignoring aspects of our lives that may contain elements of true greatness.

In 1905, President Joseph F. Smith made this most profound statement about true greatness:

“Those things which we call extraordinary, remarkable, or unusual may make history, but they do not make real life.

“After all, to do well those things which God ordained to be the common lot of all mankind, is the truest greatness. To be a successful father or a successful mother is greater than to be a successful general or a successful statesman.” (Juvenile Instructor, 15 Dec. 1905, p. 752.)

No Such Thing as “Instant Greatness”

This statement raises a query: What are the things God has ordained to be “the common lot of all mankind”? Surely they include the things we must do in order to be a good father or a good mother, a good son or a good daughter, a good student or a good neighbor.

Pablo Casals, the great cellist, spent the morning on the day he died—at the age of ninety-five—practicing scales on his cello. There is no such thing as instant greatness. Becoming great is a long-term process involving occasional setbacks. It requires consistent effort in the little things in day-to-day life. Specifically, it is the thousands of little deeds and tasks of service and sacrifice that constitute the giving, or losing, of one’s life for others and for the Lord. This includes gaining a knowledge of our Father in Heaven and the gospel. It also includes bringing others into the faith and fellowship of his kingdom. These things do not usually receive the attention or the adulation of the world.

Joseph Smith—an “Everyday Christian

Joseph Smith is not generally remembered as a general, mayor, architect, editor, or presidential candidate. We remember him as the prophet of the Restoration, a man committed to the love of God and the furthering of His work. The Prophet Joseph was an everyday Christian. He was concerned about the small things, the daily tasks of service and caring for others. As a thirteen-year-old boy, Lyman O. Littlefield accompanied the camp of Zion, which went up to Missouri. He later narrated this incident of a small yet personally significant act of service in the life of the Prophet:

“The journey was extremely toilsome for all, and the physical suffering, coupled with the knowledge of the persecutions endured by our brethren whom we were traveling to succor, caused me to lapse one day into a state of melancholy. As the camp was making ready to depart I sat tired and brooding by the roadside. The Prophet was the busiest man of the camp; and yet when he saw me, he turned from the great press of other duties to say a word of comfort to a child. Placing his hand upon my head, he said, ‘Is there no place for you, my boy? If not, we must make one.’ This circumstance made an impression upon my mind which long lapse of time and cares of [later] years have not effaced.” (In George Q. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1986, p. 344.)

On another occasion, Sheriff Thomas King of Adams County and several others were sent as a posse to arrest the Prophet and deliver him to the emissaries of Governor Boggs of Missouri. Sheriff King became deathly ill, and the Prophet took the sheriff to his home in Nauvoo and nursed him like a brother for four days. (Cannon, p. 372.) Small, kind, and yet significant acts of service were not occasional for the Prophet.

Writing about the opening of the store in Nauvoo, Elder George Q. Cannon recorded:

“The Prophet himself did not hesitate to engage in mercantile and industrial pursuits; the gospel which he preached was one of temporal salvation as well as spiritual exaltation; and he was willing to perform his share of the practical labor. This he did with no thought of personal gain.” (Cannon, p. 385.)

And in a letter, the Prophet wrote:

“The store has been filled to overflowing and I have stood behind the counter all day, distributing goods as steadily as any clerk you ever saw, to oblige those who were compelled to go without their Christmas and New Year’s dinners for the want of a little sugar, molasses, raisins, etc.; and to please myself also, for I love to wait upon the Saints and to be a servant to all, hoping that I may be exalted in the due time of the Lord.” (Cannon, p. 386.)

To be a successful elders quorum secretary or Relief Society teacher or loving neighbor or listening friend is much of what true greatness is all about. To do one’s best in the face of the commonplace struggles of life—and possibly in the face of failure—and to continue to persevere in the ongoing difficulties of life in order to contribute to others’ progress and happiness and one’s own eternal salvation—this is true greatness.

Unnoticed Heroes

I am confident that there are many great, unnoticed, and forgotten heroes among us. I am speaking of those of you who quietly and consistently do the things you ought to do. I am talking about those who are always there and always willing. I am referring to the mother who, hour after hour, day and night, cares for a sick child. I am including those who volunteer to give blood or to work with the elderly. I am thinking about those of you who faithfully fulfill your priesthood and church responsibilities. I am referring to those who are honest and kind and hardworking in their daily tasks, but who are also servants of the Master and shepherds of his sheep.

Now, I do not mean to discount the great accomplishments of the world that have given us so many opportunities and that provide beauty and culture and order in our lives. I am merely suggesting that we focus more clearly on the things in life that will be of greatest worth. It was the Savior who said, “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matt. 23:11.)

Greatness within the Grasp of All

As we evaluate our lives, it is important that we look not only at our accomplishments, but also at the conditions under which we have labored. We are each different and unique; we have each had different starting points in the race of life; we each have a unique mixture of talents and skills; we each have our own set of challenges and constraints with which to contend.

But it appears to me that the kind of greatness our Father in Heaven would have us pursue is within the grasp of all who are within the gospel net. It is the commonplace tasks we perform that have the greatest positive effect on the lives of others, as compared with the things that the world so often relates to greatness. We all have an unlimited number of opportunities to do the many simple things that ultimately have the greatest effect on others.

The small things are significant. We remember not the amount offered by the Pharisee but the widow’s mite, not the power and strength of the Philistine army but the courage and conviction of David.

To those who are furthering the work of the Lord in so many quiet but significant ways, to those who are the salt of the earth and the strength of the world and the backbone of each nation—to you we would simply express our admiration. If you endure to the end, and if you are valiant in the testimony of Jesus, you will achieve true greatness and will one day live in the presence of our Father in Heaven.

As President Joseph F. Smith has said, “Let us not be trying to substitute an artificial life for the true one.” (Juvenile Instructor, 15 December 1905, p. 753.) Let us remember that doing the things that have been ordained by God to be important and necessary—even though the world may view them as unimportant and insignificant—will eventually lead to true greatness.

[photos] Photography by Steve Bunderson