The Least and Servant of All

Muhammad Ali was often known to say, “I am the greatest.”  He seemed to lack no confidence and prided himself on his abilities.

As the story goes, one day a plane carrying a number of passengers including Muhammed Ali was going through some rough turbulence. The Captain turned the seatbelt sign on, made an announcement to the passengers to put on their seatbelts and asked the flight attendants to ensure all were buckled in.  Ali however, ignored the request.

One of the flight attendants came and asked him to buckle his seatbelt. To which Ali replied, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.”  To which the flight attendant responded, “Superman don’t need no plane.”

Humility is not an easy virtue to acquire or practice. And it’s even more difficult to apply personally in all of life’s situations. And it’s easy to see how others need humility rather than focus on how we need it. “Humility is the first of the virtues,” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, “for other people.”

At one point in his life, Benjamin Franklin set out to practice and acquire moral virtues.  He wrote, “It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.”

Franklin made a list of 12 areas of attitude and action that needed improvement. The 27-year-old Philadelphian asked a friend to look over his list.

His friend would later tell Franklin something that awakened the need for a 13th virtue. Franklin wrote in his Autobiography, that his friend “kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation.” Humility became the 13th virtue in his project.

Often, we define pride as a feeling of pleasure from one’s own achievements. That definition is simply too narrow. Pride can be best described by thinking of a balance scale that consists of two plates hanging at equal distances from a fulcrum. On one plate we place our will and on the other plate our willingness. Pride occurs when our will outweighs our willingness to learn, be open to the view and feelings of others, and put aside our selfish will in life.

The opposite of pride is humility. “Pride is your greatest enemy. Humility your greatest friend.”[i]  As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

What I have learned most about humility is this:  when we are humble we open our view and ourselves to more learning.  When we are prideful, we close ourselves to such possibilities. In other words, when you are humble, you see better and there is more light in your life. When you are not, things become darker.

And the truth is, that you can’t be what you can’t see. So, living in the light allows us to be drawn to who Heavenly Father wants us to be. Every time you choose to be humble, you choose light.

This concept is taught powerfully in D&C 50 in answer to Joseph Smith’s prayer on how to discern spirits and spiritual things. But the message to us is so much more than discernment. It is a master lesson on how to:

  • Teach with the Spirit
  • Lead and edify others
  • Live in the light rather than darkness

The Servant of All

D&C 50:26 says, “He that is ordained of God and sent forth, the same is appointed to be the greatest, notwithstanding he is the least and the servant of all.”

This virtue—the ability to lead and teach from the position of a servant and the personal view that “I am least of all” without diminishing one’s own confidence, is a rare and powerful characteristic of the best teachers and leaders around us. 

The best teachers literally see differently than others. Their view gives them a different perspective. What is that view? They see themselves as “least.” And this view of their position relative to others informs their teaching style and content. I would rather listen to a plainspoken teacher who sees him or herself as “least” than an eloquent speaker who sees themselves as “above all.”  Why? Because the Spirit, the source of edification, attends the teaching of the servant of all.

If I could go back and repeat my parenting of young children, I would place a figurative sign in front of my mind’s eye that read “I am the least and servant of all.”  So many good things happen when we assume that view in our teaching and leading.

In the course of my doctorate research, my major professor and I focused our research on what we called the “four heavies” of leadership. These four propositions are SO heavy because they are SO frequently used by parents, teachers and leaders in almost all organizations. Like removing weeds from a garden which allows room for productive plants to grow, the removal of these four heavies from our teaching or leading provides room for growth to happen.

However, if the self-interests, mood and agenda of the leader become more important to the leader than the followers themselves, the more likely the leader is to use the four heavies. The four heavies are: manipulation, intimidation, coercion and deceit.

Manipulation includes: getting what you want from others even when the others are not willing to give it to you, getting people to do or act in a way which they might not have freely chosen on their own, presenting reality the way you want others to see it rather than the way it really is, or maintaining control and power over others.

Intimidation includes:  threatening to use power or control to get others to do what you want them to do; using stature or position to get others to respect and obey you; keeping others loyal to you by threats of pulling back your support, love, caring, interest, or approval of them; or convincing others that you are the only one’ with enough experience, wisdom, intellect, and insight to give direction.

Coercion is defined as the use of force to restrain, dominate, threat, or bring about a desired means. Coercion uses the threat of position, inclusion, loss of approval or love, the hope for recognition, and other similar actions.

To deceive means to ensnare, to be false, to cause to accept as true or valid what is false or invalid, to give a false impression, or to obscure the truth. It includes any communication with the intent to deceive or mislead another. Deception would also include purposefully leaving out known data in order gain an end.

Why do we use these four heavies?  Because they are very effective in the short term. Think about it…if you want your son to clean the garage and he resists, you can use intimidation or coercion, because it works!  And best of all, he is likely to respond, under threat, and do what he was told to do.

While effective in the short-term, using coercion or any of the four heavies over time erodes trust causing followers to engage in survival strategies, defensiveness and positioning themselves further away from the environment. All of these things prevent love, trust and the Spirit from being present.  Edification is lost.

The Apostle Paul spoke of the last days, “For men shall be lovers of their own selves, … unthankful, unholy, without natural affection.” And  that evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived (2 Tim 3:1-4, 13).

If we are using these four heavies in any degree, how do we change? 

We change our view. We adopt a new view of ourselves relative to others. We realize that whenever we are placed in a position of teacher or parent or leader, we step into a new view.  We stop worrying about our own interests and what others think of us. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

When we see our children, students or team as having immense potential, able to teach us, and of immense value to God; we treat them differently. When we see ourselves accurately as dependent on God and others, still learning and growing, and of potentially lesser value than those around us; we open ourselves to growth and learning. We put on the power of humility.

Richard C. Edgley called the power of humility the empowerment of God. He said, “Humbly submitting our will to the Father brings us the empowerment of God—the power of humility. It is the power to meet life’s adversities, the power of peace, the power of hope, the power of … a testimony of the Savior Jesus Christ, even the power of redemption. To this end, the Savior is our supreme example of the power of humility and submissiveness. After all, His submitting His will to the Father brought about the greatest, and even the most powerful, event in all of history. Perhaps some of the most sacred words in all the scriptures are simply, ‘Not my will, but thine, be done’ (Luke 22:42).”[ii]

To this end, if we want to influence or teach then wouldn’t it serve us well to have the empowerment of God?  That is done by humbly being submissive to his will.

Both are Edified

D&C 50:22 teaches that when the spirit prevails in our teaching, “he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified, and rejoice together.”

One day in a youth class, I wanted to teach the principle of how lingering habits can weigh us down and cripple our life. I brought a huge bag of river rocks and XL duffle bag. I asked Annie to help in my demonstration and she agreed. I asked her to put the bag on her shoulder and then I asked Ben to come forward and begin putting large rocks in her bag.  Each rock weighed her down more and more. At first it was kind of humorous. Ben stopped when he saw Annie was beginning to really strain under the load. I asked him to add one more rock and then another. He almost wouldn’t continue. I told him Satan wouldn’t hesitate to give us another bad habit. So, he added another rock. She began to tremble under the load. Then I asked if another girl would come forward to shoulder the load. Out of compassion, Natalie came forward to take a turn under the burden. She could barely stand and it was obvious it hurt.

In that moment, the students started to teach me and they started to teach each other. They immediately turned the conversation to Jesus Christ. “He carried a much heavier burden for us.” “His load caused Him, the greatest of all to tremble because of pain and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer….”  As they talked about the Lord, you could see the tears swell up in the eyes of these wonderful kids. They understood.

All the while, I am seeing Natalie straining under the heavy load. To my mind came the thought that “We each carry with us a bag of rocks and for some the bag is heavier than others. These stones are a collection of the lingering habits and weaknesses that we have acquired through our poor choices and diversions in life. I needed to have compassion on others who are walking under such a load.”

I wanted to teach about habits, but when we were done we had learned so much more. They taught me, they taught each other, and the spirit edified us in specific ways we each needed.

When we stop teaching or leading for ourselves, and do so as a servant; we invite edification—we invite the light that “growth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”

Teaching in the Light

D&C 50:23 states “everything that does not edify is not of God as darkness.” So, when teach or lead to make ourselves seem important, to draw attention to ourselves and satisfy our own desires; the result is darkness rather than light.

There have been many times in my life when I was preparing a church talk and thought about the people that might be listening. And I have been guilty of seeking to say something impressive so I might be well thought of rather than focusing only on what the Spirit would have me say. I wonder what edification was lost because of my weakness. I’ve learned that oftentimes, the things of the spirit are simple and straightforward.  

A patriarch friend of mine, told me the following experience.  One day he had two patriarchal blessings to give in the afternoon. His wife was leaving for work in the morning and it had snowed during the night. As she started the car and tried to back out of the driveway, she was stuck in the snow. He came outside to push the car out.  He got in front of the car, told her to straighten her wheels and push on the gas.  He began to push. But the car would not move.  He pushed again. The car only moved a little. So, he pushed harder, but with no success. 

At that point he was sweating and tired from his pushing and he noticed that the wheels were still turned at an angle. He said to his wife in a bit of a sharp tone, “I thought I told you to straighten your wheels.”  She then straightened her wheels and he pushed again and the car moved easily out of the driveway. After backing up, she drove the car forward passed him without stopping to say goodbye. It was evident by the look on her face she didn’t appreciate his sharp words.  She drove right by him and off to work. 

Later that day, the first person came seeking a patriarchal blessing.  As the patriarch laid his hands on the person’s head and began to speak the words of the blessing, he said “the brightness just wasn’t there” meaning the spirit that enlightens his mind at those times was not there.  After finishing the first blessing, he called his wife on the phone and apologized. She did the same. They expressed their love to each other and ended the call.

A few minutes later the second person arrived for a blessing.  He said the brightness had returned, the spirit was present and spoke to him throughout the blessing.  After finishing with the blessings, he was concerned that he would need to ask the first person back to redo the blessing.  He went back and read the first blessing. As he did, the spirit came and witnessed that the first blessing was correct. The point of his message was that the Spirit is sensitive.  A lack of humility can hinder the Spirit.

“Only through the Holy Ghost can we accomplish the ultimate goal of gospel teaching—to build faith in Jesus Christ and help others become more like Him. The Holy Ghost bears witness of the truth, He testifies of Christ, and He changes hearts. No mortal teacher, no matter how skilled or experienced, can replace the Spirit. But we can be instruments in God’s hands to help His children learn by the Spirit. To do this, we invite the influence of the Spirit into our lives and encourage those we teach to do the same.”[iii]

He that Receiveth Light Continues

D&C 50:24 teaches us how to learn in the spirit. When we leave the dark things that don’t edify behind, we have light in our teaching. When we teach in the light that teaching often leads to more enlightenment. “He that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light, and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”

Years ago, I heard a lecture on the Liahona and how it is a type for scripture reading and study in our day. I returned home and studied and pondered on the topic. During that time, I learned much more than I expected about the power of laying hold on the word of God in our life and how we can best do so. It was like my understanding got a little brighter each day.

The objective of gospel teaching is to bring each other more into the light and further separate the light from the darkness in our thinking and our lives.

God’s first work on this earth was to divide light from darkness. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light…. and God divided the light from the darkness.”

It occurs to me that God’s first work on the earth was to divide light and darkness.  Our call in leading and teaching is to do the same. It also occurs to me that to do so takes time and patience.

In Luke 8:15, the Lord concludes his parable of the sower by describing the ground that is good for seeds, “But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.” 

The Lord admonished us to “bring forth fruit with patience” because he knew that some things, some behaviors, some changes take time. They require a little more light each day. We may not be able to put together a great family home evening the first time we try. But with patience, we can learn how to do it. 

Elder Maxwell said, “My brothers and sisters, the longer I examine the gospel of Jesus Christ, the more I understand that the Lord’s commitment to free agency is very, very deep! So much deeper than is our own. The more I live, the more I also sense how exquisite is his perfect love for us! It is, in fact, the very interplay of God’s everlasting commitment to free agency and his everlasting and perfect love for us which inevitably places a high premium upon the virtue of patience. There is simply no other way for true growth to occur.”[iv]

Teachers Don’t Judge

In John 12:46-47, the Lord said: “I am come a light unto the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness. And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.”  

In leading, we can adopt the same attitude. We have been given families and children not to judge them, but to help them. Why waste our time on judging or condemning?  It’s not our job. Our job is to save, to build up, to strengthen, to affirm, to help, to teach, and to spread the joy that comes from living in the light.

Our children have so much difficulty in their lives already. Satan is trying every way to move them from their valiant station as one of Heavenly Father’s chosen ones. They face the struggles and temptations of the world, a warped view of the world through the eyes of modern-day media, the pressures of school, difficulties in friendships and relationships, and hosts of other challenges.  Home should be a refuge, a place of peace where they can live in the light rather than darkness.

Joseph Smith said, “But while one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men, causes ‘His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.’ He holds the reins of judgment in His hands; He is a wise Lawgiver, and will judge all men, not according to the narrow, contracted notions of men, but, according to the deeds done in the body whether they be good or evil….”[v]

Luke 10:38-42 says: “Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.  But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone?  Bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:  But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

The Lord was teaching Martha a very important and loving lesson.  It was if he were saying, “Martha, you care so much and worry over many things—that is wonderful, remember also not to judge or be critical of another who doesn’t have that talent.”  

Teaching With the Spirit

When teaching, I have found two skills that invite the participation of the Spirit.  The first is to follow impressions. The primary way the Holy Ghost works is to impress things upon your soul in a way that you eventually come to know them. 

James E. Faust said, “The Holy Ghost bears witness of the truth and impresses upon the soul the reality of God the Father and the Son Jesus Christ so deeply that no earthly power or authority can separate him from that knowledge.”[vi]

I find it interesting that Elder Faust used the word “impress” to describe how we obtain a testimony. Remember that the Holy Ghost impresses not dramatically displays. The definition of impress is to make a mark. “To affect especially forcibly or deep, to produce an impression.”

My wife told me the following story, “Last December, I was pondering my testimony of Jesus Christ. I often worry or feel that I haven’t had a dramatic revelation of the reality of Jesus Christ. I wonder if my testimony of Him is strong enough.

I was in Church and the bishopric counselor invited everyone to come to Choir practice. I felt impressed that I should participate in choir. I hadn’t sung in choir for a while. It wasn’t some dramatic thing, just a small pressing on my heart. So, I went to choir practice.

We sang Oh Holy Night. When I sang the words, ‘He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger. Behold your King, before Him lowly bend.’ I felt the Spirit witness to me of the divinity of Christ. It was an overwhelming feeling of peace, love and humility. I was so grateful for this special gift. I learned a good lesson. Follow those impressions, the witness will follow.”

Elder Bednar said, “The Holy Ghost communicates with us in ways that are quiet, delicate and subtle. As we become ever more immersed in the Spirit of the Lord, we should strive to recognize impressions when they come and influences or events that cause us to withdraw ourselves from the Holy Ghost.”[vii]

An impression is a slight nudge, a pressing, a leaning. In teaching, those impressions will come softly. Follow them. Sometimes they lead to something important. 

Speaking at BYU Women’s Conference, Elder Bednar described this as dripping water onto a soil at very low rates in contrast to flooding or spraying large quantities of water.

He said, “The steady drips of water sink deep into the ground and provide a high moisture level in the soil wherein plants can flourish.  In like manner, if you and I are focused and frequent in receiving consistent drops of spiritual nourishment, then gospel roots can sink deep into our soul, can become fairly established and grounded and produce extraordinary and delicious fruit.”[viii] 

I call this the power of accumulation. You see we often overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate the amount we can get done by consistently chipping away at something day after day. The same is true with impressions of the Spirit and spiritual change.

The second skill is to use appropriate questions.

When I was younger, I was invited to apply for a job in the training department at the MTC.  My job interview was to train on how to teach with the spirit through appropriate questions. I had five minutes and needed to involve missionaries in my teaching demonstration.

As I pondered on the topic, inspiration of sorts came to my mind and here is what I did. I had two missionaries sit facing each other. One the teacher and the other the investigator. I had an additional missionary stand behind the investigator.

I then told the missionary standing that his job was like that of the Holy Ghost. He could confirm truth. He could teach, but his primary role was to testify. And for that day, he could only testify by saying “that’s right.” And he could only say “That’s right” when he knew or heard the investigator (not the teacher) speak a truth. Why?  Because he was confirming to the heart of the investigator.

With the rules established I asked the teacher to teach the concept of God. She started to teach and teach impressively. She described God, his role and her feelings for him. However, the standing missionary never said “That’s right” because the investigator never spoke. All of this great teaching was going on, but the confirming voice was not involved.

So, I stopped the missionaries and had them repeat the teaching. But this time I said to the teacher, “you cannot say anything unless it is in the form of a question.”  We started. The sister missionary was amazing. She said, “Do you believe in God?”  The investigator said yes. The confirming missionary (like the Holy Ghost) said, “That’s right.”

The sister teacher asked “Do you believe he is aware of you and loves you?” The investigator said, “Yes.” The confirming voice said “That’s right.”

This continued for several minutes. Over and over again, the Holy Ghost missionary had a chance to testify simply because of the use of good questions. I believe this is a true principle in actual teaching and life.  The more we have a dialogue, the more the Holy Ghost attends.

Questions involve listeners, require thinking, guide perspective, encourage further thinking, invoke pondering and so much more.

This applies to us as well. We can ask ourselves questions during our personal study. This prompts more involvement from the Spirit. The Holy Ghost can witness to you as you talk to yourself just as easily as he can when you listen or dialogue with others.  For example, when we say to ourselves expressions of gratitude: “I am thankful for my family, I am grateful for what I learned in church yesterday, or I am grateful for my health;” the Holy Ghost can and often does confirm those utterances.

The Holy Ghost will guide, confirm and witness our inner dialogue when we ask and answer questions. So, just try to do this a little more. Remember it is the slow drip, the consistent trying, the daily practice, that immerses us in the spirit.

Let’s review a few of the lessons learned from D&C 50. Be humble. When leading or teaching place yourself as least and servant of all. Avoid the four heavies in leadership. When you do, you will teach in the light, and with that light both you and the student will be edified. Follow impressions and ask questions.


[i] John R.W. Stott, as quoted in The Divine Gift of Forgiveness, p. 124.

[ii] Richard C. Edgley, The Empowerment of Humility,Ensign Nov. 2003, 99)

[iii] Teach by the Spirit, Handbook 2: Administering in the Church, 5.5.4.

[iv] Neal A. Maxwell, Patience, October Conference, 1980.

[v] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 218.

[vi] James E Faust, Holy Ghost Reveals Truth, April Conference, 1989.

[vii] David A. Bednar, How to Always Have the Spirit to Be With Us, April Conference, 2006.

[viii] David A. Bednar, Steadfast and Immovable, Always Abounding in Good Works, New Era, Jan 2008.