Small Acts of Service
December 1974

“Small Acts of Service,” Ensign, Dec. 1974, 2

First Presidency Message

Small Acts of Service

In these days of selfishness, what is the most important contribution we can make? Our prophet answers …

When I was stake president in Arizona, I was the highest authority in that immediate area, and consequently, there came to me a never-ending line of people with problems. As I struggled for proper answers to them, I found that by general conference time, I was almost mentally and spiritually exhausted. I felt like a sponge that had been squeezed until it was dry and vacuum-like. Then, we would come to Salt Lake to conference and, after the many sessions here, I would return to Arizona still like the sponge, but one that was heavy with wetness and was dripping.

I have learned that it is by serving that we learn how to serve. When we are engaged in the service of our fellowmen, not only do our deeds assist them, but we put our own problems in a fresher perspective. When we concern ourselves more with others, there is less time to be concerned with ourselves. In the midst of the miracle of serving, there is the promise of Jesus, that by losing ourselves, we find ourselves. (See Matt. 10:39.)

Not only do we “find” ourselves in terms of acknowledging guidance in our lives, but the more we serve our fellowmen in appropriate ways, the more substance there is to our souls. We become more significant individuals as we serve others. We become more substantive as we serve others—indeed, it is easier to “find” ourselves because there is so much more of us to find!

George MacDonald observed that “it is by loving and not by being loved that one can come nearest to the soul of another.” (George MacDonald Anthology, Geoffrey Bles, London, 1970.) Of course, we all need to be loved, but we must be giving and not always receiving if we want to have wholeness in our lives and a reinforced sense of purpose.

Those who serve stand at different points in the process of life. Some here today serve bubbling Beehive girls at one end of the spectrum, while others of you have a stewardship that concerns sisters in the Special Interest program. Some of you here are helping to prepare priests to go on missions; others of you are working with Young Adults who have completed missions and are preparing for temple marriage and families. Wherever we serve and whomever we serve, however, it is important for us to get outside ourselves and to be genuinely interested in those God has given to us as part of our callings.

The challenges vary. Teenagers may sometimes appear bored with gospel discussion, even though they may be listening more than we suppose. A young teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood may feel he has all the time he needs to do everything. But a single Young Special Interest woman may be anxious about the passage of time when life does not seem to yield up the blessings of marriage, through no fault of her own, for she deeply desires to be married to a worthy man in the house of the Lord.

In working with teenagers, the challenges may be to have appropriate activities, but in trying to serve more mature adult members of the Church the challenge may not be solely to provide activities, but to help them change their attitudes toward the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Sometimes the solution is not to change our circumstance, but to change our attitude about that circumstance; difficulties are often opportunities for service. Someone has said that hell “is frozen in self-pity.”

The following story I have used before, but because it seems to fit in this notch, may I repeat it?

“Dear Edgar:

“You told me of an experience you once had with a deer hunting companion in the High Uinta Mountains late one fall in bitter cold and stormy weather. Your companion had become lost, panicky, and exhausted from running over the mountainside. He had finally lain down under a pine tree, and by sheer luck you had come upon him before he froze to death. He was still conscious and could talk to you, but, in his numbed condition, claimed he was not cold at all. No amount of coaxing on your part could persuade him to get up and move around. He begged to be left alone, insisting he was perfectly comfortable and got sore when you dragged him to his feet and made him move. He really cussed you plenty, you said, when you at last in desperation picked up a stick and laid one or two across his back until he moved to get out of the reach of it. You had to drive him more than a mile like that, for every time you got sympathetic and eased up with the stick, he’d lie down again. Finally, however, you got him moving faster and faster to get out of the way of the stick and his blood warmed up and began circulating so when he could think clearly again he thanked you with tears in his eyes time and time again for using the stick and saving his life.

“I have the feeling since our conversation the other day that you, and hundreds of other good men like you, are in the same condition spiritually as your hunting companion was physically. You came home from your mission all enthused and for some reason you have grown cold. (I’ll bet it’s because of inactivity in the Church.) So cold you are numb, and can’t think clearly in spiritual matters.

“More than likely you have gotten sore at your ward teachers because they would not leave you alone, and you’ve probably cussed (to their backs) your quorum president and your bishop because they would not go away and quit bothering you. Am I guessing correctly?”

One of the General Authorities has observed:

“If we are not careful, we can be injured by the frostbite of frustration; we can be frozen in place by the chill of unmet expectations. To avoid this we must—just as we would with arctic coldness—keep moving, keep serving, and keep reaching out, so that our own immobility does not become our chief danger.”

We need to help those we seek to serve to know for themselves that God not only loves them, but he is ever mindful of them and of their needs. Surely God our Father and his Son Jesus Christ, who appeared to an Aaronic Priesthood-age youth, Joseph Smith, to give that lad instructions for all mankind, did not simply make a random appearance to a person on this planet. Rather, the Lord says that this appearance, which was precisely planned, occurred because “… I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments.” (D&C 1:17.)

God does nothing by chance, but always by design as a loving father. You know his purpose. We have purpose also in our lives.

Surely such a loving Father in heaven, who gave commandments to prevent human misery, will not forget the needs of each of his children. William Law observed:

“It is said that the very hairs of your head are all numbered; is it not to teach us that nothing, not the smallest things imaginable, happen to us by chance? But if the smallest things we can conceive of are declared to be under the divine direction, need we, or can we, be more plainly taught that the greatest things of life, such as the manner of our coming into the world, our parents, the time, and other circumstances of our birth and condition, are all according to the eternal purposes, direction, and appointment of divine Providence?” (A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law, Sovereign Grace Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1971.)

God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs. Therefore, it is vital that we serve each other in the kingdom. The people of the Church need each other’s strength, support, and leadership in a community of believers as an enclave of disciples. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read about how important it is to “… succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.” (D&C 81:5.) So often, our acts of service consist of simple encouragement or of giving mundane help with mundane tasks, but what glorious consequences can flow from mundane acts and from small but deliberate deeds!

As the contrasts between the ways of the world and the ways of God become sharpened by circumstance, the faith of the members of the Church will be tried even more severely. One of the most vital things we can do is to express our testimonies through service, which will, in turn, produce spiritual growth, greater commitment, and a greater capacity to keep the commandments.

President Stephen L Richards said nearly 25 years ago something that I find challenging. He said:

“In spite of the prosaic and commonplace aspects of this subject, I have long been convinced, my brethren and sisters, that the most challenging, dramatic, and vital thing in our lives is this ‘keeping the commandments.’ It tests every fiber of our beings. It is at once a demonstration of our intelligence, our knowledge, our character, and our wisdom.” (Conference Report, October 1950.)

There is great security in spirituality, and we cannot have spirituality without service!

So often, however, what we need by way of encouragement to keep the commandments and to serve others is to simply be stirred in our memory by the Spirit concerning the things we already know, rather than receiving new inspiration and revelation. It has been said that “memory is the stomach of the soul,” in that it receives, digests, and nourishes us. (Donne’s Prebend Sermons, Harvard University Press, 1971.) The Holy Ghost stirs our memory as well as our understanding. We must then do what we already know is right—the simple things, the straightforward things, and the specific things. This is one of the reasons why we, as Latter-day Saints, must live in a worthy manner so that we can have the influence of the Holy Ghost and have his constant companionship to guide us, to direct us. His guidance is far more important than the learning of techniques, although these can be helpful.

If you and I would be good leaders, we should reflect periodically on the qualities of those who have served, led, and taught us. If you were to select just two or three individuals in your life who have been most influential, what specifically did they do that was helpful to you at critical or important times in your life?

On reflecting for a few moments, you are apt to conclude that such a person really cared for you, that he or she took time for you, or that he or she taught you something you needed to know. Reflect now upon your performance, as I do on my own, as to whether or not we now embody in our own ministry those same basic attributes. It is less likely in stirring through one’s memories that someone will be remembered because that individual was particularly influential because of a technique. Most often someone has served and helped us by giving us love and understanding, by taking time to assist us, and by showing us the way through the light of their own example. I cannot stress enough, therefore, the importance of our doing these same things for those who now depend upon us, just as we have depended upon others to serve us in the past by special leadership and special teaching.

If we focus on simple principles and simple acts of service, we will see that organizational lines soon lose some of their significance. Too often in the past, organizational lines in the Church have become walls that have kept us from reaching out to individuals as completely as we should. We will also find as we become less concerned with getting organizational or individual credit that we will become more concerned with serving the one whom we are charged to reach. We will also find ourselves becoming less concerned with our organizational identity and more concerned with our true and ultimate identity as a son or daughter of our Father in heaven and helping others to achieve the same sense of belonging.

In this connection, we must never lose sight of Jesus Christ as our grand example. Jesus said in his instructions to the Nephite disciples:

“Therefore, 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. …”(3 Ne. 18:24.)

In that same instruction, Jesus noted how he sought to draw men to him and how he permitted the Nephite multitude to touch and see his resurrected body. In a much less sacred sense, though still in a significant and firsthand way, the devoted, orthodox leader can permit those whom she or he seeks to serve to touch and see the power and authenticity of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is interesting to note that since Jesus is the “light” which we want to hold up, how many reminders of him have been placed appropriately before us: the name of the Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the blessings on the sacrament; the baptismal prayer; and the manner in which one prays, “In the name of Jesus Christ.” Because his name is so sacred, we need to be prudent and careful in the manner in which we use that name and make reference to it, but we should ever hold up our Elder Brother as the grand example, for this is his church and it bears his name and is also built upon his gospel.

Thus, we have gathered together from out of a selfish world to speak of service. Some observers might wonder why we concern ourselves with such simple things in a world surrounded by such dramatic problems. Yet, one of the advantages of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it gives us perspective about the people on this planet, including ourselves, so that we can see the things that truly matter and avoid getting caught up in the multiplicity of lesser causes that vie for the attention of mankind.

There is, moreover, not only a striking simplicity about the theme of this conference; there is an urgency about it as well.

We are told that society in the last days would display some of the social symptoms that existed in the time of Noah. We have very few adjectives that describe Noah’s contemporaries, but his neighbors were apparently very “disobedient” to the commandments of God, and the earth was “corrupt” and, significantly, society was then “filled with violence.” (See Gen. 6:11.) Violence and corruption usually occur because of selfishness. In a time like this, how fitting it is that our theme should focus on service to our fellowmen!

In our day, those who keep the commandments will be set apart from the world, just as surely as Noah was by his seemingly strange act of building an ark even before the floods came. As we strive to serve by doing simple, mundane things, and as we strive to keep the commandments of God in our day, we will no doubt meet some of the same kind of ridicule that came to Noah and his party of eight before it began to rain and kept on raining.

Noah’s neighbors simply could not understand the urgency of the task Noah had undertaken. Neither should we expect many others to understand our sense of urgency about simple things like family, chastity, and doing missionary work!

Photography by Royce A. Bair and Frank Gale