Who are your heroes? Who are the people you know who embody everything that is admirable and good? Who are the people who have most blessed your life with kindness, generosity, and warmth?
Heroes and holiness
My heroes include Rhea Bailey, my fifth grade teacher who was so encouraging; Phil Ellis, the superintendent when I was a teacher who consistently saw good in my imperfect efforts; my wife Nancy, who is unfailingly kind and unselfish; Abraham Lincoln, who saw a better world in spite of his own demons; and Jesus, the ultimate in selfless service.
I hope you have heroes in your life, both the ultimate ones who make holiness desirable and the proximate ones who make goodness real and available.
A presumptuous project
When Nancy and I married, I worried that she did not appreciate herself enough. She did not see herself as remarkable. In fact, she did not like to talk about herself. When I tried to celebrate her, she changed the subject. So, as an earnest education student at BYU, I set out to build her self-regard. I even wrote a class paper about my project.
Thirty-three years have passed. Nancy has not changed. She still doesn’t see herself as remarkable. She is uncomfortable when I praise her. She doesn’t like to talk about herself. I often discover her good deeds accidentally when neighbors or ward members thank me for something “we” did for them.
I don’t seem to have increased Nancy’s self-regard one iota. But something has changed. Now, rather than trying to increase her self-celebration, I yearn to be more like her. I want to think less about myself and more about others. Nancy is now my mortal role model.
Chafing against God
In that same era when I was trying to elevate Nancy’s self-regard, I was also chafing against King Benjamin’s gloomy message.
“If ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.” “Can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth.” “The natural man is an enemy to God.” “. . .viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth.” “Your own nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state.” “I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures.” “Are we not all beggars?”
King Benjamin bothered me. While I believed in the Book of Mormon in theory, I re-wrote King Benjamin’s message to suit my modern humanism. I figured he just didn’t know any better.
In the years since that youthful presumption, several things have changed. I got tired—and discouraged—of trying to make myself perfect—or even decent. In spite of consistent effort, I continued to fall short of my spiritual aspirations.
My understanding of the growth process changed. I cannot say just when it happened. Over the years a combination of spiritual desperation, scriptural discovery, and sacred experience introduced me to a whole new view of my mortal purpose. My youthful self-assurance was replaced with heavenly reassurance. In a way that is hard to explain to any who have not experienced it, that change was wonderfully liberating. Those who have felt that mighty change of focus know what I mean. I stopped seeing Wally Goddard as the savior of anyone, including himself. I was then freed to celebrate the Savior of all the world.
One of my greatest spiritual discoveries came when my stake president called me to be bishop. He said: “The Lord would like you to serve as bishop of the ward. Will you accept the call?” I responded with words that taught me, “No. I cannot. I am not wise enough, good enough, inspired enough, holy enough, or unselfish enough. But if He will act through me, I will accept the call to be His messenger.”
In the sweet and sacred experiences with which God entrusted me, I came to see myself not as the message but the messenger, not as redeemer but as testifier, not as change agent but one to be changed. I saw myself as a deliveryman. The very best times during that ministry as bishop were when God allowed me to deliver packages for Him. For a ward member in spiritual desperation, He gave me words of encouragement and specific counsel to deliver. For a person seeking understanding, He gave me refreshing testimony to deliver. To an ex-convict who was in trouble financially, God authorized me to deliver consecrated funds. Those were sacred experiences. They were not due to any wisdom or goodness on my part. They came from God. I was only the humble—and happy—deliveryman.
I thank Him for letting one as imperfect as I be His messenger.
A new way of thinking
With this new way of seeing myself, scripture took on new meaning. When I feel weak, flawed, and imperfect, I know to whom I must turn.
“. . . yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the Atonement of Christ the Lord . . . .”
“There shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord omnipotent.”
Celestials are “they who are just men made perfect through Jesus.”
I began to understand that all that is good comes from God. He is the source.
The new doctrine settled in with serenity. The new sense of dependence on God was not remotely similar to Calvin’s fundamental depravity. (We are children of God.) Nor was it akin to the modern presumption of humanism that we are gods in our own right, needing no higher form of divinity than our own genius.
It felt wonderfully liberating to be His messenger. My job is to be humble enough to do His bidding. His job is to be light, life, and truth.
And I began to notice that the people I most admire are those who think least about themselves. They do not celebrate themselves. They do not hate themselves. Many of them hardly think about themselves. Rather they humbly deliver packages for Him. Self-forgetfulness is infinitely better than either self-celebration or self-hate.
Is it true that I must love myself before I can love anyone else? No. Jesus teaches me by precept and example that I must lose myself in order to find myself.
Suddenly I understand why Alma can go from being the vilest of sinners to being in the presence of God within a few hours—he got desperate enough to get out of God’s way. He threw himself unreservedly on the merits, mercy, and grace of Him who is mighty to save.
I understand why we must “consider [ourselves] fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility.”
I understand why God requires a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
I am renewed by Nephi’s psalm in which he turns from despair in his own limitations to rejoicing in God’s goodness—all hinging on “nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.”
I understand Paul’s glorying in his own weakness, since it allows the goodness of God to be seen all the more clearly.
All of scripture seems to swell in newly heard harmony captured in Lehi’s benedictory: “But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.”
Relating to others
While we do well to forget ourselves, Jesus commands us to love each other. In fact He holds up the impossible standard to love one another as He has loved us. The only way we can love in this way is to be filled with Him. We can let Him love through us. This sacred gift is called charity. Even in this vital task we are messengers for Him.
In the process of losing ourselves in love for God and His children, we discover ourselves and our true meaning. When we reverse that process and try to love ourselves in preparation for loving others, we remain lost and troubled. For all of us who are lost, lonely, injured, or desperate, He is the remedy. He is the cure for all latter-day sicknesses including pride, presumption, and selfishness.
The sweet irony of self-forgetfulness is that those who forget themselves seem serene, peaceful, and self-assured. I began to understand that feeling as, on occasion, I felt “my confidence wax strong in the presence of God.” It always feels good—much more reassuring than self-confidence. Ultimately I am not able to do much. But even when I am imperfect or narrow, He is perfect and eternal. He is able to do His work—which, thankfully, is to teach us, cleanse us, and exalt us.
So my job is to make myself a useful messenger. Humble. Unassuming. Willing. I can also be anxiously engaged. I can use any gifts He has given me to improve the quality of my delivery. But the message is still Him. I know with certain assurance that the best things I ever did or said did not come from me.
“And whosoever will lose his life in this world, for my sake, shall find it in the world to come” (JST Matt. 16:27–29).