Called to Invite Rather than Condemn
A few years ago missionaries invited me to join them in meeting with an investigator. She had invited them to talk with her when they knocked on her door. She had agreed to continue meeting with them. But she never followed through on any of their requests to read the Book of Mormon. And every time they visited with her she aggressively challenged them with questions and did not allow the teaching process to move forward. The missionaries told me that if no progress was achieved during this visit, on which I accompanied them, they were going to stop teaching her and move on.
When we arrived she began pelting us with negative questions. I could see the look of discouragement on the faces of the missionaries. I thought to myself that they were right-she had no real interest in learning about the gospel and their time would be better spent elsewhere. Then I realized I was judging her heart without any genuine understanding. I offered a silent prayer for Heavenly Father to guide me. Did He have a purpose for us being there with her?
At that point I told her I would like to ask her a question. I asked her, “When the missionaries first came to your door, why did you let them in? Why were you interested in hearing what they had to share with you?”
The expression on her face entirely changed. She began telling me her story. Her husband had left her. She had significant financial problems. Her grown children were making poor life decisions. Her mother was ill and required constant care from her. “One day I was just so discouraged and weary. I thought to myself, either there is no God or He has completely forgotten about me. Just then there was a knock on my door and these two young men told me they had a message for me from Jesus Christ. When I heard that, I thought maybe, just maybe, God is trying to tell me He hasn’t forgotten me.” Tears ran down her face.
Then we knew why we were there. We knew the message we were to deliver that would be meaningful to her based on her needs. When we finished she asked if she could offer the closing prayer. Her prayer was humble and touching. She thanked God for sending us to her. At that point it was my turn to have tears running down my face.
Ultimately she was not ready to explore the gospel right then. But in spite of that, God had a mission for us that day. He wanted to reach out through us to one of His downtrodden daughters. We were so busy judging whether or not she was worth our time and fit our agenda that we almost missed the opportunity. I frequently think of that day and the tremendous experience I was given of sensing the love Heavenly Father has for His children. Often God wants us to help Him bless His children in ways we never supposed.
Seeking the Elect
A mission leader was training young missionaries and told them that we are to seek out “the elect”. He said the job of an effective full-time or member missionary is to find and teach those who are “chosen sons and daughters of God”-and that is not going to be everyone. He made the claim that if we share the gospel with individuals and they fail to receive it and move forward then they must not be the elect. They are “hard hearted”. He suggested that missionaries and members should not continue to waste their time on these “non-elect” individuals.
But this interpretation involves a number of assumptions on our part that may not be true. It assumes that our attempts to connect with and teach investigators are flawless so they have a perfect opportunity to feel the Spirit and understand truth. It assumes that everyone has a speedy decision process such that they feel comfortable committing to action on our timeline. Those who have been raised in faith-filled families with a lifetime of teaching moments may not be aware of the impact of that advantage and assume it is easy for everyone to grasp the truth of the gospel in only a few initial discussions. And it disregards very real obstacles that investigators potentially wrestle with as the gospel is revealed to them-doubts, resistance from family and friends, significant life changes, leaving behind their former church community, etc.
Sometimes we don’t ask enough questions to truly understand where investigators are in the process of absorbing our message. One recent convert told me, “While I was investigating, everyone kept telling me they knew I had a testimony. It bothered me that they kept telling me what I was feeling without asking me. What I was really feeling during much of that time was fear and confusion. I wish they had let me share what I was experiencing.”
It also assumes that we have the right and the authority to speak for God in judging what someone is worth in His eyes based on our own human agendas. Yet the scriptures are full of direction that we are not to judge others-because we do it so poorly. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) His judgments are different from ours and His timetable is often different from ours.
In the face of all these assumptions we tend to make, we should consider counsel offered by Elder Franklin D. Richards:
The Lord said that the “elect” hear my voice and harden not their hearts. Our job is presumably not to bring every nonmember into the Church-just the elect! And how do you know who the elect are? He says the elect will hear his voice-they’ll listen and do something about it. Even though a person may not be “elect” today, or even a year from now, due to something in his life, his whole attitude might change-and he might become one of the elect. That’s why we continually, throughout our lives, give people many opportunities to hear the Lord’s voice. Can we do anything less? Has not the Lord given all of us plenty of chances in our own lives? (Franklin D. Richards, “My Suggestions on How to Be a Successful Member Missionary”, Liahona, November 1977, emphasis added)
Evaluating Where Someone is in the Teaching Process
Certainly we have a need to evaluate where someone is in the teaching process. If people are not interested in hearing our message, it would be both ineffective and inappropriate for us to force it upon them.
If investigators are willing to be taught, but are then unwilling to act upon messages they have received we first need to gain a better understanding of their thoughts. Have we misunderstood their level of comprehension or acceptance of what we have shared? Do we understand their decision process? Some people need more time to reflect and gain assurance before making commitments. Do they have concerns we haven’t explored? If we understood those concerns we might be able to assist in resolving them. We need to ask questions to gain insight. We must build an atmosphere of trust so they feel they can be fully open with us. Sometimes we must be very patient in order to earn that trust.
If we have attempted to gain further understanding and the individual is unwilling to be open, continues to resist moving forward, or is disrespectful of our beliefs, we may need to suspend the teaching process. However, we back away without a judgmental attitude. We do not suggest to ourselves or anyone else that they are not one of God’s chosen sons or daughters. We leave the door open for further discussions in the future. We continue to model God’s love for them-His relentless redemptiveness.
The Lord’s Agenda
There is one other consideration. By allowing ourselves to judge someone based upon our own agenda, we may miss God’s agenda for us and for those we are serving and teaching.
When the teaching process with an investigator is not productively moving forward, we should prayerfully evaluate whether or not it makes sense to continue. It may be best to suspend teaching. But we are not called to judge or label others as we preach the gospel. We invite. We testify. We rejoice.
Most of us have had times when we resisted listening to or acting upon the Lord’s voice. Most of us have hoped for Him to give us more opportunities to learn and apply gospel truths. We should not suggest we know how many opportunities He gives others to hear His voice. We leave it to our loving and redemptive Father to prepare His elect. We cheerfully do all that we are able. We actively seek to understand and support the decision process of the people we serve. Then we leave the result in God’s hands. Some seeds will sprout this season; some may lay dormant for years. Yet God will harvest all who are willing.