“If You Would Serve Them, Love Them,” Ensign, Mar. 1986, 28
The schoolroom in the basement of the converted church looked large and bare, even though a long table and some chairs were set up in the center. A quick glance took in pale green walls, long parallel fluorescent lights running the length of the ceiling, and a wheezing radiator in the corner. The room was not cold, but shivers of worry and tension made me feel as though I were still outside in the snow.
The situation was not in itself frightening: I was to teach a group of refugees, driven from their homes on the other side of the world, to speak English. I had taught English in much more sophisticated settings, but I had never felt then the apprehension that now nagged at the back of my mind.
I was not frightened of the refugees, for they were the kindest and most willing of students. I was frightened of my own inability to help people who had suffered the terrors of war and been driven out of their familiar patterns of life into a world almost completely alien to them. I wanted so much to help them, in many more ways than by teaching them English. But my store of experiences seemed pitifully small beside the suffering that had torn apart the fabric of their lives, and the magnitude of their needs made my efforts to help seem so inadequate as to be useless.
I had this same feeling several years later when I sat in another room—this one the living room of a small apartment—while the snow swirled outside. I was being introduced to a young girl who, through the auspices of a community organization, was to become my special friend. I was to spend time with her every week, being an example, teaching and guiding, and providing her with opportunities that her family situation did not allow her to have. I loved her from the moment I saw her, but was anxious and uncertain. My efforts seemed so small beside the many influences in her environment drawing her away from the kind of life I envisioned for her.
This fear of my own inadequacy and inability to help has come over me whenever I have realized the complex depth and variety of other people’s needs. I felt it when a door opened to reveal the sullen and resentful face of a woman who didn’t want visiting teachers, but whose unhappy life cried out for the healing power of the gospel. I felt it when my neighbor had trouble finding the peace of righteous living because his family members had obscured the path of righteousness. I felt it when a family member suffered with prolonged physical pain.
The anxiety and fear that have often accompanied and impeded my efforts to serve have gone away only as I have recognized three important principles: (1) I cannot solve another person’s problem for her. (2) Loving another person unconditionally is the most powerful way I can serve her. (3) I must depend on Christ, the only source of unconditional love, if I am to bless others.
God’s gift of free agency to each of his children is one of the principles upon which our earth life is based. We are each to be tried, in a great variety of ways, and allowed to choose for ourselves how we will react to those trials. Each person is ultimately responsible for his or her own life.
Lehi taught his children this principle when he said, “And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon. …
“Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil.” (2 Ne. 2:26–27.)
Parents and Church leaders have been commanded by God to teach and train those in their stewardship. But many of us, in our well-meaning efforts to serve, try to take too much responsibility for the lives of others. We feel that we must solve all of the problems that bring sorrow to the people around us. This feeling often leads to anxiety over circumstances we cannot control or to trying to push another person into a solution that she has not chosen.
When I analyzed my uncertainties in working with the refugees, I found that they stemmed from trying to change things I could not change. I could not change the war that had driven them from their homes. I could not change the fact that they would now have to spend many years rebuilding their lives and overcoming emotional scars. I could not give them everything they needed to be happy and comfortable here.
As elementary as these realizations seem, they were difficult for me to accept. I wanted to believe that I could make these people happier. And I could, as I later realized, but not by solving their problems for them.
My first insights into how I could truly be of service to others came as I grew closer to the Lord and analyzed the ways he helps me. He gives me direction when I ask, for he knows my feelings and circumstances completely and is the perfect source of counsel. But much more often, he blesses me with a sense of his love that fills my soul with peace and hope. He encourages me by assuring me again and again that he loves me and accepts me as I am. Despite my many imperfections, I know that he has a vision of my potential that is far above my own, and that he will help me reach it.
This realization of God’s love, at times overwhelming and always sustaining, has been the single greatest blessing of my life. Yet as I analyzed my efforts to help others, I found that this most important aspect of God’s relationship with me was far down on my list of ways I could help others. I had not considered that my efforts should be focused on strengthening the person by loving her unconditionally, instead of trying to solve her problems for her.
Mother Teresa is a Yugoslavian nun who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work among the very poor of India. She knows the healing and strengthening power of love in the lives of people with severe problems of many kinds. Helping people by sharing the love of God with them is her prime dedication, for she feels that this is the best way to serve them. In describing her philosophy of service, she said:
“Be kind and merciful. Let no one ever come to you without coming away better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting. In the slums we are the light of God’s kindness to the poor. To children, to the poor, to all who suffer and are lonely, give always a happy smile—Give them not only your care, but also your heart.”
She and her helpers work with people who are unusually sick and discouraged, many of whom have little will to live. She said of her purpose in working with them: “First of all we want to make them feel that they are wanted, we want them to know that there are people who really love them, who really want them, at least for the few hours that they have to live, to know human and divine love. That they too may know that they are the children of God, and that they are not forgotten and that they are loved and cared about.” (Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1977, pp. 50, 68.)
Christ taught that unconditional, unmeasured love is an important characteristic of a disciple. He said, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35.) The kind of love that distinguishes a disciple is given freely and completely; it is not altered by circumstance or disappointment.
As I began to think of the people in my life as people to love, rather than as people to help, my anxiety over them left me and I found new energy and joy in their service. What is more, it quickly became evident that I was doing more good than I had done before.
When I started loving the refugees more and worrying less about solving their problems, I found that they were much the same as I, even though their experiences had been different from mine. I found that they liked to laugh a lot, which shouldn’t have surprised me, I guess. I had thought people with big problems were sad all the time. They developed confidence in me and soon began asking for help in doing things they were not able to do for themselves. Gradually I found that there were many things I could do to help them, but these opportunities would not have come if the refugees had not first learned that I loved them.
With the young girl who was to be my special friend, I stopped focusing on using good communication techniques or doing things that I felt would be good for her. These methods had kept her problems uppermost in my mind and often made me feel anxious around her. I started doing things with her that we both loved to do, concentrating on having fun and helping her know that I loved her. I knew my efforts were paying off when one day she rather worriedly asked me if we ever had to stop being special friends. When I told her we were going to be friends for as long as she wanted, she grinned happily and looked more contented than I had seen her for a long time. The knowledge that someone loves her completely and faithfully will be worth more than anything else I can give her.
I had the same kinds of experiences with the lady to whom I was assigned to be a visiting teacher, who eventually felt comfortable enough to accompany me to Church; and with the neighbor who had a bad family life, who soon enjoyed being with me and my friends so much that he has been able to begin resisting the negative influences of his family.
My efforts to love others as the Savior loved have not been always successful, however. I am not strong enough alone to withstand the pressures and frustrations of my own and others’ imperfections. In a story by Robert Browning, a man named Paracelsus says:
“There is an answer to the passionate longings of the heart for fulness, and I knew it. And the answer is this: Live in all things outside yourself by love and you will have joy. That is the life of God; it ought to be our life. In him it is accomplished and perfect; but in all created things, it is a lesson learned slowly and against difficulty.” (From Paracelsus, as quoted in David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals, Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1953, p. 134.)
Truly, in God, love is “accomplished and perfect,” but, for me at least, it is “a lesson learned slowly and against difficulty.” We cannot bless others if we rely solely upon our own strength, or even if we ask God to help us use our own strength. We must allow the love of Christ to fill our souls so that we become instruments of a power stronger and higher than anything we can become on our own.
“Abide in me,” the Savior taught, “and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.
“I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” (John 15:4–5.)
When I read this passage, I like to imagine a branch being broken off of a grapevine. The branch quickly withers and dies, being no more able to bear fruit, for it cannot live without the life-sustaining vine. In the same way, if we do not take our life from Christ, even though we may not see anything happen immediately, we are dying spiritually as surely as the branch died physically. We are not able to bring forth the fruit of service, “for without me ye can do nothing.” But if we do abide in Christ and allow his life-giving love and strength to fill our souls, we have a great promise. Christ continued:
“If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
“Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.
“As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.
“If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love.” (John 15:7–10.)
I have found that if I come humbly and faithfully before God each morning and ask him to fill my soul with his love, I am blessed abundantly. I can care more for others, serve them with less fear of my inadequacy, and bless them in ways that would be impossible for me without his help. In a small way, I have learned to “abide in his love.”
The realization that the best way to help others is to love them unconditionally has brought new joy and energy into my efforts to serve. As I rely more completely upon the Savior for the love that can bless others, I feel more a part of his great work of salvation and rejoice in the goodness I now see more clearly in all of his children.