When I was little, I thought missionaries were basically superheroes. I pictured stalwart, obedient, faithful young men and women going all over the world, guided by the Spirit and teaching the truth in majesty and power, saving souls like a spiritual Superman. But then I went on a mission and learned that you can take a teenager to the temple, endow him with power from on high, set him apart from the world, commission him as a duly ordained minister and representative of Christ, put a name tag on him, and send him out with the Spirit… but a teenager will still be a teenager. Laziness, apathy, rebelliousness, phone addictions, slacking off, hormones, and general stupidity abound in the mission field just as they do at home.
Having worked closely with missionaries both on and off my own mission, I think it’s safe to say that across the board, teenagers just aren’t qualified to be missionaries. In fact, I would dare say no one is qualified to be a missionary. Or an Elders Quorum President. Or a Bishop. Or the Prophet. We are all every one of us supremely unqualified for the job.
We are all unqualified
How? Think of it this way: what is a calling anyway? Whether your calling is the Prophet or nursery worker, the core of your calling is the same: to represent the Lord. Don’t have a calling right now? Even in our capacities as ministering brothers and sisters, we “represent the Lord, the bishop, and [quorum or Relief Society] leaders” (General Handbook). In all of our responsibilities, we represent the Lord. And that is heavy. In one of my all-time favorite General Conference addresses, Pres. Eyring warned us of the gravity of that responsibility, and the damage we can do if we do not magnify our callings:
You are called to represent the Savior… Should you forget who you are, just the way you speak and the way you behave can destroy faith. Your call has eternal consequences for others and for you… If someone rejects the Savior’s invitation because you did not do all you could have done, their sorrow will be yours. You see, there are no small callings to represent the Lord. Your call carries grave responsibility… Eternal lives depend on you.
Then, after helping us realize the seriousness of our callings, Pres. Eyring made 100% clear that we are not enough:
There will be times when you will feel overwhelmed… that you are inadequate. Well, you are inadequate to answer a call to represent God.
So in all our callings, Pres. Eyring is saying we are inadequate to fill the heavy role of representing the Savior. But it’s not just him. King Benjamin taught his people the same thing a few thousand years ago:
I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another– I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.
Yes, we are all supremely unqualified for our responsibilities.
God is able to do His own work
So where’s the hope in all this? It’s in the chapters we just studied for Come Follow Me.
In 2 Nephi 27, we read of a man, “not learned,” who is given a responsibility that he is likewise supremely unqualified for. This uneducated man is commanded by God to read a book that even the wise scholars of his day cannot access. We understand this prophecy to refer to Joseph Smith and the translation of the Book of Mormon.
We love the Prophet Joseph. But let’s take a moment and think about everything wrong with him. If you need some refreshers, check out one of my previous posts, “The restoration was messy (and that’s OK).” Joseph had a lot of prophetic defects. He was a nearly illiterate farmer. He had no schooling. He had no familiarity with ancient cultures and languages. He had never translated anything. He had no theological training. He had no scholastic background. He never even belonged to a Church. He was a teenager when Moroni first appeared to him. In short, he was supremely unqualified for the work he was asked to do.
When we have a proper understanding of the weight of our callings and our inadequacies, we can resonate a little with the anxiety and the strain that Joseph went through. I know I felt that anxiety on my mission. I worried that if I didn’t teach the lesson “right” or knock on the “right” door or talk to people the “right” way, I would jeopardize someone’s chance to hear and be inclined to accept the message of the Restoration in this life. I worried that my weaknesses would negatively impact not just one soul, but perhaps generations yet to come. How in the world, could I represent the Savior? Perhaps you have felt the same way.
Now jump back to the prophecy of Joseph Smith in 2 Nephi 27. Knowing the weakness of His uneducated servant Joseph, the Lord answers:
I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee… I will bring them forth in mine own due time; for I will show unto the children of men that I am able to do mine own work.
Notice the phrase repeated twice: “I am able to do mine own work.” Joseph didn’t translate the Book of Mormon. Joseph didn’t have the first inkling of how to translate the Book of Mormon. God is able to do His own work. But He chooses to let us be the medium through which He works– weaknesses and all.
But wouldn’t it be more effective to not involve mortals? If He lets error-prone people get involved, won’t that muddy the waters and get in the way? Of course. As the adage goes, “If you want something done right you gotta do it yourself.” This is especially true for God and His work. And yet, God prefers to work through mortals because that’s what makes the work a “marvelous work and a wonder.”
Remember the army of Gideon sent to protect Israel in Judges 7? God kept telling Gideon that his army was too large and to keep sending soldiers home. Eventually, the army was reduced from 32,000 strong to a measly force of only 300. Why in the world would He do that? Because God wanted the Israelites to be hopelessly outnumbered by the forces Midianite hordes. And then when God would save them without a single drop of their own blood being spilled, they would not be able to case that their success was their own but would have to acknowledge the Lord’s divine intervention.
I believe God did the same thing with Joseph Smith. I believe God does the same thing in calling us today. He appeared to what may well be one of the least qualified farm boys in the entire US in 1830 and called him to be the Prophet. Then He used that uneducated farm boy to bring forth “531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity” that continues to baffle scholars today. And He still works by ordinary, unimpressive men and women today to accomplish His great works. There’s a joke that says “If the Church weren’t true, the missionaries would have destroyed it years ago.” I wholeheartedly believe that is the case. God doesn’t just intervene “after all we can do,” but often “despite all we can do” so the entire world is bound to eventually acknowledge that there is far more at play in the rise and progress of the Gospel than just the efforts of the mortal members of this Church. We may be supremely unqualified, but the Lord is qualified to do His own work, and “whom the Lord calls, He qualifies.”
But what about when we really mess up?
OK, so Joseph was supremely unqualified and so are we. But what about those times that someone really messes up? What about when leaders use their authority in unrighteousness? Or when we slack off in our callings? Or when we offend someone? Surely God can work around our weaknesses, but what about when we really mess up His work?
Well, remember the 116 pages? Joseph disobeyed the Lord, and Moroni had to confiscate both the plates and the seer stones he used for translation and revelation. Joseph was the instrument God used to open the heavens, and now they were shut again. Joseph, already supremely unqualified, had messed up. Joseph thought he had ruined the work of God and lost his own soul. After leaving Joseph to squirm for a while, the Lord sent Moroni back with the seer stones. Looking into the stones, Joseph received another revelation– this time, a stinging rebuke to him from the Lord Himself about losing the pages. But along with this rebuke, the Lord reminded Joseph about his own limits:
The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught… Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men.
Yes, Joseph had lost hundreds of years of scripture and they would not be retranslated. We may never know in this life exactly what was on those pages. But Joseph had not ruined God’s plan. Neither Joseph nor Martin nor any other mortal could “stop the work from progressing.” God put our mess-ups into perspective in D&C section 121:
What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven.
Joseph did not stop the restoration. He couldn’t have stopped it even if he’d tried to. After putting that into perspective for the Prophet, Christ spoke these reassuring words:
But remember, God is merciful; therefore, repent of that which thou hast done which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen, and art again called to the work.
The Lord’s words to Joseph are the Lord’s words to us. Yes, we’re inadequate, and yes we mess up. But remember, we are not the only force the Lord has in play on the field. I admit cheated earlier– I stopped Pres. Eyring in the middle of his sentence about us being inadequate. Let me fill in the rest of what he said:
There will be times when you will feel overwhelmed. One of the ways you will be attacked is with the feeling that you are inadequate. Well, you are inadequate to answer a call to represent God with only your own powers. But you have access to more than your natural capacities, and you do not work alone. The Lord will magnify what you say and what you do in the eyes of the people you serve.
This brings me such comfort when I think of my shortcomings and mistakes both on my mission and in my various callings since then. If the Lord wanted His work done right, He would have done it Himself. But He asks us to do it, even though we are all supremely unqualified. And that’s a testimony builder. Our job is to take our responsibilities seriously, and when we stumble, to get up, dust ourselves off, seek forgiveness from God, from others, and from ourselves, and keep moving forward. In the words of Elder Klebingat: “Acknowledge and face your weaknesses, but don’t be immobilized by them.” God has already worked around all our messes and He is able to do His own work.
And that should give us comfort indeed.