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Getting a serious diagnosis, such as for breast cancer, is not something you can truly imagine until it happens to you. Like having a baby or losing a loved one, you can’t just squint your brain and imagine what it would be like.

Everyone reacts differently to serious news. Many retreat in quiet. Others become angry. Some stay in denial for a long time. For this piece of recent news, my first coping mechanism was humor, and much of that is contained in my most recent blog post.

Then I became pragmatic and began to say, “It’s all about usefulness. If God can use me more on this side of the veil, then I’ll stay. If he needs me more on the other side, I’ll go. It’s really all up to him.”

And it was my wise daughter, Nicole (again—so wise! Where did she get this old soul?) who said, “Mom, life is not about usefulness.”

And I was thunderstruck. Sure it is, I thought. We need to be useful servants to God. Temple work, Family History, Callings, Missionary Work, Ministering—right? I am a task-driven list maker, a checker-offer, a disciplined Do-Bee (a Do-Bee, by the way, is a holdover from TV’s Romper Room, which urged children to do good things, obey the rules, and work hard.) When a guy in Hawaii once commented on how pale I was, I smiled, “That’s a sign of productivity.”

“It’s about becoming more God-like,” Nicole said.

And my brain popped open for the first time in quite a while. What was this new information? It sounded familiar, but in an unfamiliar way. I felt goosebumps as I realized I was hearing inspired counsel.

“We chose to come here for a higher purpose,” she said. “He doesn’t see us as useful tools, but as children learning who they are.”

Wait. What?

She explained. We aren’t just little workers dashing around to do things God needs to have done. Let’s face it, he can do whatever he wants. When we say we are God’s hands serving someone else, it isn’t because he’s overwhelmed and needs an army of go-fers. It’s that those tasks enrich us and teach us charity, making us more like him.

She reminded me of someone in our stake who served his mission in the very country, the very town, from which he was adopted as a baby. He found his birth mother there and she joined the church. However, God didn’t need that specific young man to find her; God could have placed someone else there to baptize her. But the young man and his mother needed to grow through finding each other. It wasn’t about usefulness.

“He expects personal development, not task accomplishment,” Nicole said.

And I thought about Western Culture, maybe specifically the U.S., where we judge success by our completed duties. We revere the hard-working business owner, and we sometimes see power as an exchange: Commodities for services. We are, perhaps, too far on the works side of “faith vs. works.” But God is not a businessman. He is not hoping we’ll just be busy little employees.

For God it boils down to soul stretching. Angels who are “silent notes taking” are not writing down the stuff we did, but whom we are becoming. At a BYU Devotional, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once said, “God doesn’t care nearly as much about where you have been as He does about where you are and, with His help, where you are willing to go.”

And so much of this learning and growing has to happen here in mortality, where we have the challenges of earthly life, and physical bodies. This life is where we develop by choosing righteousness in the midst of opposition. Our choices aren’t “useful” to God; they’re choices that refine us. When He said his work and his glory is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39) it wasn’t about having man check off boxes for Him.

This principle is taught clearly in the short Presidency Message about tithing, by President Henry B. Eyring in the June 2011 Ensign Magazine. “… paying a full tithe in this life prepares us to feel what we need to feel to receive the gift of eternal life.”

When we learn to forgive someone, it isn’t for that person. It’s so we will feel more like God feels, and see his children more the way he does. He wants us to acquire all his attributes, not just a pile of accomplishments.

As Brad Wilcox said in a BYU Devotional address, “The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can go home but that—miraculously—we can feel at home there.” (“His Grace is Sufficient”) As he puts it, we need to be learning heaven. And we don’t scurry around trying to “pay the debt”; Christ has already paid it in full. Our task is to learn and grow.

This is why Jesus described the inadequacy of people who merely check the boxes and accumulate outward appearances when he said, “Ye never knew me.” (Matt. 7:21-23, JST) Elder David A. Bednar explained this in a beautiful General Conference address in October of 2016 (“If Ye Had Known Me”) wherein he emphasizes the importance of whom we are becoming, not just what we are doing.

If you look up “God” on you will find this paragraph: “Although God created all things and is the ruler of the universe, being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent (through His Spirit), mankind has a special relationship to Him that differentiates man from all other created things: man is literally God’s offspring, made in His image, whereas all other things are but the work of His hands (Acts 17:28–29).” The whole point is for us to progress and become, not just to fulfill robotic assignments.

So if I am to truly fulfill my earthly mission, I need to look way beyond usefulness. Will I become more like God with a physical body, choosing him here in this world of opposition, separated from his presence, or as a spirit in his presence? Does he need me to stay in this laboratory of learning to develop the traits I’m going to need?

We sing a Sacrament hymn that answers this perfectly. You’ll recognize the third and fourth verses of With Humble Heart:

  1. To be like thee! I lift my eyes

From earth below toward heav’n above,

That I may learn from vaulted skies

How I my worthiness can prove.

  1. As I walk daily here on earth,

Give me thy Spirit as I seek

A change of heart, another birth,

And grow, dear Lord, to be like thee.

I’m optimistic. I know this diagnosis is a serious one, but I feel a certainty of purpose here, if only because I have so much more to learn! And, unless you are reading this through the veil, you are in this same school with me as we try to become just a bit more. Every one of us has challenges and if we’re smart, we look at the lessons they can teach us, and we use them in this refining process. I’m also excited to remember that our accomplishments are good things, but they’re even better things if they make us more like our Father in Heaven.

Hilton’s new LDS novel, Golden, is available in paperback and on Kindle. All her books and YouTubeMom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.