Admit it. When you run into some characters in scripture, who don’t act the way you know they should, you think that you would have done so much better had you been there.
Take the story of Naaman, the captain of the host of the king of Syria who was also a leper. When a maid who waited on his wife said there was a prophet in Israel who could cure him, he gathered up considerable wealth to pay for a healing miracle, and headed for Israel, eventually ending up before the door of the prophet, Elisha.
There he cut a powerful presence, with all his authority, in his snappy chariot, but Elisha didn’t come out to see Naaman himself. Instead, he sent a messenger with a sort of homely set of instructions. If Naaman would go wash himself seven times in the River Jordan, his flesh would become clean.
You can almost hear Naaman’s whole soul reeling at the little chore. This man of authority, who had been used to people jumping at his word, who had probably never been met only by somebody’s lackey, had had a different vision of how things would come down.
Naaman said, “I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper” (2 Kings 2:11).
After all, the rivers of Damascus were mightier than this puny, uninspiring Jordan. Not only did he not wash, he “went away in a rage” (2 Kings 5:12).
It took a lowly servant to tell him the truth. “If the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? How much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?” (2 Kings 5:13).
You read this story and you may find yourself responding in a teenager’s words. “Well, duh, Naaman.” If you get a message from the Lord to do anything, however small for such enormous blessings, of course you’d do it. So what if the nature of the task is not your favorite, or somehow beneath you, or doesn’t quite fit your vision of things, can’t you bend a little to simply do what you are asked?
Still right in the midst of feeling superior to Naaman, I thought of a sign I saw in a gift shop in Idaho that said, “If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to serve as a terrible warning.”
Maybe we have more of Naaman in us than we’d like to admit. It seems that if the Lord asked us to do some big thing, we could do it. Ask me to walk to Missouri, I’ll start packing my bags and head out of my driveway. Ask me to be brave in times of crisis, and I might be able to pull it off.
What is really hard is doing all the every day, undramatic, steady things that are required to be a true disciple of Christ. As one leader said, “With the Lord’s help, we could find many people who would be qualified to serve as bishop of the ward. It’s good home teachers that are hard to find.”
When I asked my Sunday School class what Naaman’s problem was, they all said immediately that it was his pride. Certainly the big calling in the Church, the measurable achievement at work, the child we raise who everyone can point to as a prize-winner are impressive. Other people know that we must have it all together by such outward standards.
More to the point, however, is that if our lives yield certain opportunities and possibilities, we are more impressed with ourselves. How much more meaningful and exciting it is when we arise each morning to work on a big project, a compelling creation, something that we can see and mark as a product of excellence than to get up to a set of everyday, silent and unsung chores.
Among those everyday chores, are many things that the Lord asks of us to live as covenant people. So many, many things. Read your scriptures. Say your prayers. Write in your journal. Go to the temple. Master the new Familysearch. Write a thank you note. Call your neighbor. Visit or home teach people who don’t care if you come.
Hold your tongue. Keep smiling when your heart is breaking. Hold on to your faith when you are scared to death. Live with courage.
Day in, day out—so many things. Remember who might need your cheering word. Remember your brother’s birthday. Live with order. Live with power. Don’t give up. Hold on to hope even when your world collapses. Pray again. Pray some more. Pray when you don’t feel like you are being heard.
Struggle against an army of unseen forces who seek to bring you down. Don’t get down. Catch your breath.
My own heart yearns to do missionary work. I am surrounded by people I love who don’t have the gospel. One of those is a neighbor whose family is LDS, who was baptized at the age of 8, who drifted away in high school, and now attends the Methodist Church with her family.
Where she is concerned and with so many others, I can identify with Alma when he says, “Oh that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!” (Alma 29:1).
This is my dream. I am talking with her and suddenly I am filled with the Spirit and she is totally receptive, and I am able to bear my testimony like Alma—perhaps with the eloquence and power portrayed in Alma 5. “And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your heart?” (Alma 5:14).
And then she knows, and she, with her family joins us back at church, and we rejoice together.
This is what really happens—at least for now. We are tending her cats this week while she is on vacation. We will go over morning and night to feed them. We will bring in the mail. We will turn on the lights at night. We will pet the cats and make them content.
It is not fiery or exciting. It’s not what I dream about. It does not impress me as a moment to remember, but I know it is important. It is our way of saying we love her.
Life is just full of homely tasks like that, and, every day, more of them than I can count. Some of them, we just don’t feel like doing. We hoped for more. We are good for more. Our best and brightest talents sometimes sit unused.
Yet, if we are to follow Christ, we will have to exercise self-discipline in small, undramatic things day after day after day. It should not surprise us that the root of self-discipline is disciple.
A Self-Absorbed Society
Yet here is the rub. We live in a time that teaches us that what we “feel” like doing should be our general guide. Our will, our inclinations, our preferences are everything. Our emotions rule. Self-expression is the highest virtue of the day. We are taught that our feelings are the most authentic expression of our identity.
Society tells us that if we don’t want to do something we shouldn’t. If we are not excited about something we should abandon it. We become accustomed to regularly taking our emotional temperature to see how we are feeling about everything, and then using that as a gauge to determine our course.
We are liberated, our secular society teaches us, when we can do whatever we want to, whenever we want to. We are oppressed if ever we are expected to arise to a standard that we didn’t choose.
Here in modern-day Babylon, it is self-absorption over moral duty that is celebrated, passion over reason. Do what you want. Do what you feel. Do what excites and thrills you.
Of course, doing our small and unnoticed duty does not always excite and thrill us. Or to say it plainly, we don’t always want to do what we are supposed to do. We’d rather go to the movie than go home teaching. We’d rather sleep in than help our neighbor or play on the Internet instead of read our scriptures.
What’s more, even if we feel like doing all these good things sometimes—like after feeling the Spirit during a Sunday meeting—that motivation may have left us by Tuesday morning when we have to make the choice.
Character is about doing the things we are supposed to do long after the inclination to do them has passed. Long after the blush of inspiration has faded, those with character and self-discipline will still make the sometimes homely and unacclaimed choice to do their duty—even if they no longer are moved to.
If we are dependent on our emotions to compel us to do the right thing, we cannot be trusted. We cannot be steady. Dependent on our emotional leanings which can change hour by hour, we will be as fickle as water.
God is asking us to be something more than that. He is asking us to become someone who can be counted on even when we don’t feel like it, even when what he asks doesn’t feel exciting to us.
A Steady One
President Wilford Woodruff was one of the steady ones in this life. He kept a journal religiously, avidly, not missing when he was too tired, or too burdened as the leader of the Church, and the result is 63 years of journaling that comprised 31 handwritten volumes.
He said, “I seldom ever heard the Prophet Joseph of Brigham Young, or the Apostles teach, preach, or prophesy or perform any official act but what I have recorded in my journals unless some other persons were recording the same, and I could not feel easy until I had accomplished it.”
He continued, “I have written more sacred history of the teaching of the prophets and Apostles and official acts of the Latter-day Saints than would make several testaments as large as the one handed down to us by the ancient Apostles. I have kept a journal of almost every day of my life since I have been a member of this Church.” (i)
He acknowledged, “A great portion of the Church history has been compiled from my journals, and some of the most glorious gospel sermons, truths, and revelations that ere given from God to this people…could not be found upon the earth on record only in my journals.” (ii)
Gary Lee Price has created a compelling sculpture about a sculptor. The subject has a chisel in his hand and he is meticulously working on sculpting his own leg, his face in intense concentration. The sculptor has clearly sculpted every piece of himself in similar fashion with the same concentration, stroke by deft stroke.
Stroke by stroke we too create ourselves. Those strokes may include a few dramatic and compelling moments, callings that excite, experiences that compel, but mostly they will be the little things, the small choices that hardly present themselves as choices, when we simply do our duty, instead of giving in to our momentary whims.
More power resides in doing these than we ever suppose. It may very well be that greatness itself is lodged in the accumulation of many, inconvenient things, well done, instead of doing a few flashy things that impress ourselves and others.
The question really is not whether we feel like doing something, but Who asked.
i. As quoted in Jessee, Dean C., “Wilford Woodruff: A Man of Record,” Ensign, July 1993.