What is this thing you call "success?"

Once they were “the very vilest of sinners,” but a visit from an angel and a long time of anguished repentance transformed the sons of Mosiah into righteous missionaries:

They were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish…

They had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God…

They had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.

All the sons of Mosiah were righteous and faithful. And when they left on their mission to the Lamanites, they all received a divine promise of success and the “salvation of many souls.”

And yet they had very different mission experiences at first.

Ammon, the missionary poster child

Let’s start by recapping how Ammon’s mission started. He arrived in the land of Ishmael, impressed King Lamoni, turned down the offer to marry his daughter, and took up the dangerous job watching Lamoni’s flock. We know what happened next: he disarmed and killed some robbers who threatened the king’s flock. His coworkers dragged the “evidence” to the king and the king started receiving the missionary lessons.

Usually, the Book of Mormon isn’t too exact in the timing of when things happen. Things tend to get compressed and make it look a lot more fast-paced than it was (that’s why the best part of the Book of Mormon is so short). But in this instance, we know exactly how long this part of Ammon’s mission took:

It was 3 days. Yep, 72 hours into his first area, the greenie Ammon was teaching the head honcho of the entire land. Another 72 hours later, King Lamoni and his household were converted to the Lord. The first branch of the church was officially established among the Lamanites and it spread through that land like fire.

Not bad for a first week in the mission field.

What about the rest of them?

Let’s check up on the other missionaries– Aaron, Omner, Himni, Muloki, and the rest. What were their first weeks or months of missionary experience? Well, not too long after Lamoni’s conversion, Ammon’s mission president (President Jesus Christ) called him and asked him to kindly go free the rest of his district from prison. Things were not going as well for them as they were for Ammon:

they were naked, and their skins were worn exceedingly because of being bound with strong cords. And they also had suffered hunger, thirst, and all kinds of afflictions…

[The people] would not hearken unto their words, and they had cast them out, and had smitten them, and had driven them from house to house, and from place to place…

They were taken and cast into prison, and bound with strong cords, and kept in prison for many days.

Why did these righteous sons of Mosiah experience nothing but rejection and persecution while Ammon was blessed with immediate, unimaginable success? I have a few thoughts.

Less productive areas

The account of the sons of Mosiah reminds me of one particular area I served in on my mission.

My companion and I were struggling to find anyone to teach. This area covered about 20% of the ward. Half of that 20% was suburbs while the other half was a spacious gated community filled with 7,000 square foot mansions– the homes of Colorado’s football players, CEOs, and movie stars– none of whom answer the door.

The members of the ward were nice, but in general, were the least missionary-minded members I’d ever met. On the other hand, our ward mission leader was extremely overbearing. The APs warned us not to put addresses or phone numbers of our investigators on our progress records because our ward mission leader had a habit of calling our investigators and berating them. We invited him to a lesson with a less-active and he derailed the lesson to try and pitch a multi-level marketing scheme at her. Members were too busy to visit with us and often just left cash on their doorstep instead of our scheduled dinner appointment. This was by far, the most difficult area I’d ever served in, but we went to work. We knocked on every single house in that area at least 3 times during my 4-5 months there. “Hey, I know you weren’t interested 3 weeks ago but how about now?”

I was a District Leader during all this, which meant I was required to go on exchanges with a Zone Leader once per transfer. On one of those exchanges, this particular Zone Leader asked me why this area was not reporting higher numbers. I started explaining the difficulties we faced– this was a less-productive area, but we were doing our best and starting to see a little progress.

I guess it sounded like I was just making excuses because he turned to me and said, “Elder Watkins, there’s no such thing as a less-productive area– just less-productive missionaries.” He then went on to do what Zone Leaders do best: preach about obedience to the mission rules and promise that if we were 100% obedient, we would see the windows of heaven open and shower us with so much success that we wouldn’t even have time to let our clothing dry between the baptisms.

Does success always follow effort?

That Zone Leader believed that effort and obedience always results in timely success. If there is no success, there must have been no effort or obedience. And look, I get where he was coming from. I struggled with the numbers game that we played on my mission precisely because of the reasoning this Zone Leader used. My first mission president had printed out copies of the numbers he wanted to see from his missionaries each week:

  • 20 lessons per week with a member present
  • 15 new progressing investigators each week
  • 10 investigators at each Sacrament Meeting
  • 2 baptisms per week

At the beginning of my mission, I took that sheet of paper as a divine promise that if I gave each area my best– my very, absolute best, then I would see those numbers.

Then, I put forth my 100% efforts for months on end and didn’t see those miracles. I was discouraged. One of three things must be true:

  1. The Lord wasn’t able to follow through on His promise
  2. Or I wasn’t giving my best or being 100% obedient
  3. Or those numbers weren’t a promise from the Lord

#1 was obviously out; what about #2? Was this Zone Leader right? Was I holding back in my obedience? If you ask any missionary who knew me, they’d laugh at your face for suggesting that.

Most companions and missionaries in my districts resented me for being such a stickler about the rules. I did things by the book. I would even wander the streets for the last few minutes of the night just in case there is someone out walking a dog or something. After my mission, my mission president told me that he and the other mission leaders nicknamed me “Mr. Obedient.” Transfer planning with the assistants would always include the question, “Now where should we put Mr. Obedient?” During my exit interview, he told me I was so focused on obedience that I sometimes let it get in the way of my ability to love others where they are. That is my biggest regret from my mission.

So #2 was also out. That meant that the numbers set by my first mission president must not represent a promise from God for every week in every area. The idea that you can infer effort from success is a false notion that needs to die. Some of the most effective missionaries I knew on my mission were also the ones who took the rules the least seriously. And some missionaries labor their entire missions faithfully, obediently, and zealously striving to bring people to Christ, yet never see a single baptism.

The sons of Mosiah who weren’t Ammon are a perfect example of this. They were just as righteous as Ammon was. They were just as zealous and obedient and faithful and hard-working. So, what was a big reason they did not see the success Ammon did at the time? Mormon tells us:

As it happened, it was their lot to have fallen into the hands of a more hardened and a more stiffnecked people; therefore they would not hearken unto their words.

In other words, they just happened to be assigned to a less-productive area.

Effort is success

Eventually, I learned (as I hope all missionaries eventually do), that the numbers of baptisms or lessons or referrals don’t matter. Not in measuring your mission, anyway. The only number that actually matters is 100– as in 100% effort. If you gave it your all– if you did everything the Lord asked you to do– your mission was a success regardless of the perceived results. The Lord doesn’t care whether you labor in Ishmael or Middoni. The Lord doesn’t care if you are lauded like an angel or reviled or thrown into jail. The Lord doesn’t care if your coworker gets baptized or gets offended. We don’t succeed when others accept the Gospel– we succeed because we invited them.

This principle extends far beyond full-time or member missionary work.

Parenting: “As it happened it was Lehi’s lot to have raised a more hardened and stiffnecked elder sons; therefore they would not hearken unto his words.”

Callings: “As it happened it was this Bishop’s lot to have been assigned a more hardened and stiffnecked ward; therefore they would not hearken unto his words.”

None of this is to discount the eternal law of the harvest. We can’t make excuses for putting forth minimal effort or obedience. But if you are struggling with feelings of guilt, feelings of inadequacy, feelings of discouragement because others will not use their agency to change in the way you are inviting them, please remember the lesson of the sons of Mosiah. As far as our salvation is concerned, success is in our efforts. And regardless of whether others listen or not, the promise is that we will hear the pleasing voice of God, saying:

If they [do not obey] it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore, thy garments shall be made clean. And because thou hast seen thy weakness thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father.

So take heart.

PS:

  1. There is a lot more I had planned to say about comparing Ammon’s early missionary efforts with that of his brothers, but I’ll have to save that for another post.
  2. For more great resources on member missionary work and the fact that the success is in the invitation, check out the late Elder Christensen’s great book, The Power of Everyday Missionaries.
  3. For more resources on how we shouldn’t judge ourselves based on unrealistic ideals of immediate perfection of others’ use of agency, check out Dr. Lund’s lecture, The Myth We Call Perfection.

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