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Recently in my ward three missionaries have given their farewell talks and departed for destinations around the globe.  It happens that these are all young men who will be serving for two years, and—like all missionaries—they’ve had friends and coworkers ask why they have chosen to set aside their lives for so long.  They’re giving up school, work, dating, family time, movies, sports.  Those unfamiliar with missions see it almost as if these fellows have stepped into a cryogenic chamber to be temporarily frozen. And some newly departing missionaries see it the same way. “I’m giving up my life for two years,” I’ve heard some say.  “I’m putting everything on hold,” is another comment we sometimes hear. They almost paint an image of putting everything aside and falling behind for two years.

And they have it absolutely backwards. Going on a mission is not pressing the pause button on your life.  It’s pressing the fast-forward button.  It’s leaving everyone else in the dust, although you might not want to put it that way to them.  Going on a mission is plugging into the most intensive maturing process; the most spiritually advancing program in the world.  It’s like Miracle Gro for humans.  

People marvel at how these everyday boys come home as amazing men.  Their homecoming talks often leave the congregation stunned at the transformation.  And they aren’t just two years older, the way their friends are.  They are two light years ahead in their understanding of the Savior, their love of fellow man, their ability to organize their lives, their skills at getting along with even the most difficult companions, their appreciation of their families, their determination to serve the Lord and make a difference, their readiness to become true adults—to marry and have children, to be good citizens.  They’ve developed maturity, wisdom, leadership skills, teamwork, and common sense.  Many of them try to reconnect with their peers and find their old peers so backward and immature that they ultimately move on to new, better-fitting relationships.

While missionaries have been learning to sacrifice, pray, submit to the Lord, and work with pure Christlike love, many of their old pals have been hanging out, playing video games, bouncing around in college classes but not entirely sure what to do with their lives.  That period of time between ages 18 and 22 can be one of confusion for young people, when many of them feel lost and make unhappy choices.

I recently heard someone say, “Well, I like everything I hear about Mormonism except that they make their kids leave their families for two years and can’t even talk to them!”  Obviously this person didn’t understand the program at all.  Not only do missionaries communicate by email weekly, they speak and Skype with their families twice a year.  And limiting long, daily conversations with those at home helps the missionary be less distracted and more focused upon his or her work, thus more successful. But the notion that missionaries are “made” to go is nonsense.  

Missionaries are eager and excited, many of them saving all their lives for what is not a grim duty but an exciting opportunity. A properly prepared missionary loves the Lord and wants to help others gain similar testimonies. If people had any idea how much their kids could grow and refine themselves by going on missions, they’d be calling and begging to get their own kids into the program as well.

Once home, a missionary is better able to set goals, choose the path to his or her career, study better in classes, and get better grades. They’re better able to resist the pressure to get sucked into the campus drinking life that seems to exist in every college in the world, except the church ones, should they choose to attend a local school.  Returned missionaries are highly sought by savvy businesses who know these RMs have mad skills, particularly in sales and in dealing with the public.  It’s like finding a Navy Seal to teach an exercise class.  

Going on a mission is merging from the slow lane into the fast lane.  You actually give up nothing and gain so much that you can’t even describe it to one who has not served a mission.  By obeying mission rules exactly you reap miracles.  How can you explain that to someone for whom rules are seen as obstructions, or at best, ideas to be ignored?  By earnestly learning to love the people you work with and teach, you glimpse a view of the Savior’s love and you come home permanently changed with a genuine caring for your fellow man.  And it lasts forever.  You can never again dismiss someone or judge them the way you might have before serving.  Now you see them as God’s children; people who could pray and embrace the truth; someone of eternal value.  You also see your future children in this new light.  Your attitude about marriage and parenting is enriched, and your priorities are elevated.  It doesn’t mean a returned missionary will never again make a mistake, but they’ll have a better shot at avoiding the serious ones, and they’ll know how to solve it if they falter.

Next time you hear someone say what they’re “giving up” to serve a mission, help them realize they are “jumping up” to higher ground.  This is more like a scholarship or a coveted internship than it is a sacrifice. It’s a gift that, if properly priced, would cost more than a four-year degree at the finest university in the land. What an opportunity, what a gift.  And every youth in the world can get baptized, prepare, and go. 

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 in Stake Public Affairs.