This is a talk I gave at a missionary reunion in October 2013. I re-post it here because I think it offers an interesting counterpoint to my talk on grace from last week, where I argued that “if our discipleship is causing us overwhelming stress, anxiety, fatigue, and/or burnout, it’s safe to assume that something is amiss.” By contrast, in this talk I argue that “Suffering and hardship . . . are major components of a meaningful life,” going hand-in-hand with discipleship.
In the spring of 1842, just two years before his martyrdom, Joseph Smith wrote that “happiness is the object and design of our existence.”[i] I find this to be a curious statement coming from a man who spent the majority of his life in poverty, driven from city to city by violent mobs, often defeated but always persevering. I must conclude that “happiness” for Joseph meant something quite different than the way our modern culture tends to define it. This begs the question: how do we define happiness?
A recent study from The Journal of Positive Psychology found that there are significant differences between living a happy life and a meaningful one. In this study, happiness is defined as “[a state of life] in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided. . . . Happiness . . . is about feeling good. . . . People who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. . . . The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.”[ii] Moreover, the researchers found that the pursuit of this brand of happiness was also correlated with “a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life.”[iii]
The meaningful life, by contrast, is described as one in which “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self . . . . Leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a ‘giver’ . . . [though it also leads one to] worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety . . . than happy people.”[iv] Suffering and hardship, as it turns out, are major components of a meaningful life.
A study of the scriptures and modern church history seems to corroborate this distinction between happiness and meaning. With few exceptions, God’s people appear to be in a near constant state of tribulation. And yet, the great men and women of the scriptures and our own pioneer heritage seem to find a great sense of purpose and joy in their devotion to God—in living their religion. The evidence leads me to conclude that the meaning of “happiness” in the scriptures, and to the early Saints, is probably closer to what the researchers in this study define as “meaningfulness”—a manner of living not defined by a lack of hardship, but by a fullness of life.
What does this have to do with lessons learned on the mission? I believe that if we pursue the gospel path with an expectation of happiness as defined by 21st-century standards—a life of ease, comfort, low stress, and material abundance—we are likely to be disappointed. That said, however, I firmly believe that we, like our spiritual ancestors in the scriptures, can obtain genuine joy by walking the gospel path—joy that is rooted in the meaningful approach to life. I believe this lesson is learned most clearly on the mission. I doubt any returned missionary would describe their mission experience in terms of being easy, comfortable, or stress free. No missionary escapes without some measure of suffering—our own personal Gethsemanes. And yet, would many returned missionaries deny that those were some of the happiest years, if not “the best two years,” of their lives? The lesson here—the lesson I think God wants all missionaries to learn—is that the gospel path is less about making us feel “at ease in Zion” and more about challenging, stretching, and refining us into godlike beings.[v] In other words, “[fulfilling] the measure of [our] creation”— learning and growing line upon line through the full spectrum of life experience—has more to do with our happiness than a life that rejects and avoids troublesome experiences.[vi] As Mother Eve wisely noted, “it is better for us to pass through sorrow” than to live in (or pursue) an Edenic state of existence all our life.[vii] President Uchtdorf described this beautifully in a recent First Presidency Message:
“I am sure at one time or another we have all thought it would be nice to take up residence in a land filled only with days of picture-perfect seasons and avoid the unpleasant times in between. But this is not possible. Nor is it desirable. As I look over my own life, it is apparent that many of the times of greatest growth have come to me while passing through stormy seasons.”[viii]
I add my testimony to President Uchtdorf’s in stating that it was the challenging, often exhausting nature of the mission that contributed most directly to my growth. I have rarely felt as alive as I did while I served as a missionary; for it was there that I learned most keenly the pain and the joy of pursuing the meaningful life. Another question we might ask at this point is, if “men are that they might have joy”, where is joy to be found in the meaningful life—where is the fruit, described by Alma and Lehi as “sweet above all that is sweet” and “desirable to make one happy”?[ix] Surely life is more than suffering? Here, too, I believe the mission teaches us the answer quite powerfully.
Remember that a meaningful life is one that transcends the self to focus on the needs of others.[x] I believe it is on a mission that we learn most profoundly the fact that people and relationships are the priorities of our existence, and the sources of our eternal joy. As President Monson related in October 2008, “What is most important almost always involves the people around us.”[xi] Where better to partake of the fruit described as “the love of God” than in genuine relationships with our fellowman and with our God?[xii]
If I were to ask the average returned missionary to describe what brought them the most happiness as a missionary, I believe that they would ultimately come back to the relationships they forged: their relationship with God, companions, the overall mission community, members, investigators, new converts, and the wonderful people they went out of their way to talk with every day. These relationships are still the most precious thing I have taken from my mission. Yes, the mission was also full of rejection, discouragement, and some depression, but for me the opportunity to build those relationships made everything else worth it.
It has now been over four years since returning home from my mission in Sendai, Japan, and I still find myself weekly thinking about how I might recapture that meaningful life I once lived as a missionary. This brings me to another question: How can we help ‘hasten the work’ as returned missionaries?
I only offer one suggestion here; something I think we did instinctively as missionaries, but often neglect to do as “average” members: take initiative, be anxiously engaged, and be a contributor to the church—not merely a consumer of it. One of my personal heroes within Mormonism, Eugene England, articulated both the challenge and the blessing of being an active contributor rather than a passive consumer of religion:
“In the life of the true Church, as in a good marriage, there are constant opportunities for all to serve, especially to learn to serve people we would not normally choose to serve – or possibly even associate with – and thus there are opportunities to learn to love unconditionally (which, after all, is the most important thing to learn in the gospel). There is constant encouragement, even pressure, to be ‘active’: To have a ‘calling’ and thus to have to grapple with relationships and management, with other people’s ideas and wishes, their feelings and failures. To attend classes and meetings and to have to listen to other people’s sometimes misinformed or prejudiced notions and to have to make some constructive response. To be subject to leaders and occasionally to be hurt by their weakness and blindness, even unrighteous dominion – and then to be called to a leadership position and find that we, too, with all the best intentions, can be weak and blind and unrighteous. . . . If we constantly ask, ‘What has the Church done for me?’ we will not think to ask the much more important question, ‘What am I doing with the opportunities for service and self-challenge with which the Church provides me?’ If we constantly approach the Church as consumers, we will never partake of its sweet and filling fruit. Only if we can lose our lives there will we find ourselves.”[xiii]
Everything I learned about how to be an active contributor and the joy associated therewith I learned on my mission. To share one anecdote, when Elder Smith and I “whitewashed” into the city of Morioka in the fall of 2008, it didn’t take long for me to determine that Morioka was probably the most spiritually deficient branch I had ever served in. Relationships between many members were toxic; in fact, I recall one “fast and testimony” meeting where a formerly estranged member of the branch bore testimony against the other branch members, condemning them for partaking of the sacrament unworthily. Enthusiasm for missionary work was low, reinforced by the branch mission leader who jilted us once and who was generally pessimistic during correlation meetings. Furthermore, the teaching pool was non-existent despite Morioka being a relatively large area. And yet, anyone who knows me well knows that Morioka was my favorite area to serve in.
Despite the discouraging problems we faced, as my companions and I took initiative to actively contribute to and improve the area, I came to love the city and the people. By the time we left the area in the spring of 2009, there were noticeable signs of improvement; indeed, I could see specific ways in which God had used us as instruments to further his work there. The months of service had so moved me that, for the first and last time on my mission, I shed tears as our bus departed. My life was forever changed by my choice to contribute rather than be discouraged with the status quo.
I bring up these experiences not to criticize the members of the Morioka Branch, who I have a great love for, but rather to emphasize that our ability to find happiness and meaning at church should not be dependent on the current state of the congregation. I wonder how many of us find ourselves in a Morioka-like situation in our current church community? Perhaps the circumstances of our congregation are not as ideal as we would hope. Perhaps our personal testimony is not as luminous as it once was when we served as a missionary. If that is the case, I believe we can both “hasten the work” and make our church experience more meaningful by contributing—by diving in.
There is a quote by Herman Melville, author of the classic American novel Moby Dick, which one of my brothers shared with me early in my mission and I have always remembered: “I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down . . . five miles or more.”[xiv] Let us dive into our church communities, as we once did as missionaries, and work to improve the programs, build the people, and foster genuine relationships. In the process of wrestling with the challenges therein, we will build the Kingdom of God, and we will find meaning. I know this to be true, because that was my experience, time and time again, as a missionary in Sendai, Japan.
[i] Joseph Smith to Nancy Rigdon, April 11, 1842, in Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Rev. ed. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 537-539.
[ii] Esfahani Smith, E. (2013, January 13). There’s More to Life Than Being Happy. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-than-being-happy/266805/
[v] 2 Nephi 28:21, 24
[vi] D&C 88:17-20
[vii] LDS Temple Endowment
[viii] Uchtdorf, D. (2013, September). Saints for All Seasons. Retrieved from http://www.lds.org/ensign/2013/09/saints-for-all-seasons?lang=eng
[ix] 2 Nephi 2:25; Alma 32:42; 1 Nephi 8:10
[x] Esfahani Smith, E. (2013, January 13). There’s More to Life Than Being Happy. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-than-being-happy/266805/
[xi] Monson, T. (2008, October). Finding Joy in the Journey. Retrieved from http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/10/finding-joy-in-the-journey?lang=eng
[xii] 1 Nephi 11:8-11, 21-23
[xiii] England, E. (1986). Why The Church Is As True As The Gospel. Sunstone, 10(10), 30-36.
[xiv] Herman Melville to Evert A. Duyckinck, March 3, 1849, in Correspondence, vol. 14, The Writings of Herman Melville: The Northwestern-Newberry Edition, ed. Harrison Hayford and others (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1968-), 121.