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The following is an excerpt of the book, ‘Side by Side: Supporting a Spouse in Church Service‘ by JeaNette Goates Smith. 

Do you know children who believe that moms never get sick? They think it’s against “The Plan” for mothers to get sick! Many mothers work hard to live up to this “plan.” Moms, it seems, can’t afford to get sick. “If I got sick,” one mom defends herself, “then who would take care of the kids, the house, the homework, the laundry . . . ?”

Moms who don’t often get sick are not just lucky. They take great care not to get sick. They are religious about getting enough sleep. They wash their hands assiduously so they don’t contract germs. They close their eyes and turn their heads when someone sneezes so they don’t catch a cold (cold germs enter the eyes as frequently as the nose or the mouth). The virus-resistant mom is not trying to be rude, but she truly can’t afford to be sick. She feels obligated to take care of herself. She must stay well so she can attend to all her many responsibilities! You may be one of these health-blessed mothers with the same sense of obligation. Were you to get sick, who would assume all your responsibilities?

As a servant of the Lord, staying physically healthy is not your only obligation. In addition to staying physically healthy, you must stay spiritually healthy and emotionally healthy. It’s obvious that you can’t serve effectively if you are sick in bed. It’s easy to see that you can’t bear to others a very strong testimony if your testimony is weak.

Equally vital is the necessity of maintaining your emotional health. How can you be a resource to others if you are not emotionally healthy yourself? How can you encourage the discouraged, or uplift the downtrodden, if you are dragging your chin on the concrete? In order to effectively serve in the Lord’s kingdom, you need to be physically, spiritually, and emotionally healthy. Those who are willing to serve will want to stay healthy so they are able to serve.

Keeping Your Own House in Order

In my practice I used to work with a Latter-day Saint family who prided themselves in assisting others. The wife could spot trouble a mile away, and she was always the first one on the scene to assist the troubled and downtrodden. One time this helpful family fellowshipped a single sister in their ward who, along with her three children, was in danger of being evicted from her unsanitary apartment. The helpful wife spent two days scrubbing and scraping until the apartment was clean enough to pass inspection. In the meantime dirty laundry piled up in her own home, chicken bones collected under her own kitchen table (literally!), and her four elementary-aged schoolchildren were left to watch over themselves. This dear sister was “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Her attempt to assist others left her own family bereft and suffering.

You can make the greatest contribution to the Church and to your community when, first and foremost, you make sure your own house is in order. Once you are certain your own home is in relatively good order, and you still have resources to give or to share, it is appropriate, even mandatory, that you offer service to your fellowman.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell has said, “When, for the moment, we ourselves are not being stretched on a particular cross, we ought to be at the foot of someone else’s” (“Endure It Well,” Ensign, May 1990, 34). We all crave opportunities to serve, but we can’t give when we are stretched on our own crosses. We must have the capacity to serve.

This does not mean your own home needs to be perfect before you give. None of us is perfect, and no home stays in perfect order for very long. You only need relative calm in your own life in order to have the capacity to reach out to others. Should your life be filled with storms, or as Elder Maxwell says, should you be stretched out on your own cross, your priority should be to put your own house in order.

The principle of service is a true principle. But so is the principle of self-reliance. You must take care of your own health—spiritual, physical, and emotional—to have the capacity to attend to someone else’s health. In the event of the loss of an airplane’s cabin pressure, adults are encouraged to place an oxygen mask on their own face before placing a mask on the face of a child. Similarly, you must make sure you are healthy first in order to have the resources to help others.

There is a sequel to the story of the helpful sister who cleaned the unsanitary apartment. Eventually the family with the unsanitary apartment was evicted from that apartment, and they found themselves temporarily homeless. (My helpful client had provided fish instead of teaching the family to fish.) In light of the homelessness of this messy family, my client invited the family of four to come live with her family in their home. For three weeks a  house that was built to hold six people held ten people. The homeless family brought their untidy habits to their temporary abode and imposed on my client until she began to tear her hair out—literally. She came into therapy an emotional wreck. It took twice as long to get her back on track as it would have before the homeless family derailed her.

Many of us have been confused by the expression, “Go the extra mile.” Many feel that it’s not good enough to simply prepare a thoughtful lesson—they must prepare a thoughtful lesson with visual aids and handouts and centerpieces and multi-media. This concept, that we must “go the extra mile,” can cause much needless stress.

The misnomer that we are not giving enough unless we “go the extra mile” likely occurred due to the wording of the King James Version of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:41 reads, “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” This implies that merely responding to a call to serve is insufficient. This implies that one must do more than is asked.

In the Joseph Smith translation of Matthew the same verse reads, “And whosever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him a mile; and whosoever shall compel thee to go with him twain, thou shalt go with him twain” (Holy Scriptures [Independence, Mo.: Herald Publishing House, 1991], 890; italics added). The inspired translation does not encourage us to travel a shorter distance. We are still encouraged to travel two miles when called upon; however, it instructs us to respond directly to the call to serve without feeling compelled to invent additional ways to be someone’s hero.

The Sermon on the Mount contains a wealth of valuable and inspired doctrine. The counsel to walk a mile, when called upon to walk a mile, and walk two when called upon to walk two, is consistent with the next verse in the sermon, “Give to him that asketh of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” In these verses our Savior was not teaching us to give more than is required. He was teaching us to give as much as is required. We are asked to give 10 percent of our income as tithing, not 12 percent, not 20 percent. The scripture instructs us to respond to the call as it is issued.

Giving more than is required of us can jeopardize our emotional health. Trying to do more than is asked, and more than is appropriate, can lead to discouragement and burnout. Those of us who diligently walk all the miles that we are asked to walk will still have iron calves! We need not walk until we become emaciated.