Thursday, April 11, 2013

Works Without Faith Is Dead

No, you didn't read the post title incorrectly. This was actually said to me many years ago, and a  discussion over at Times and Seasons this morning has brought if forcefully back to me today.

Some context.

I had been a missionary for six months, but I had not seen anyone get baptized yet. Nor had anyone been baptized that I had taught. I had met lots of remarkable people, been in lots of powerful teaching situations and even extended invitations to be baptized. I felt like I was growing personally and that my experience was valuable, but in a culture that (sometimes unfortunately) favors counting converts, I was beginning to feel like a bit of a failure. Even as my reputation for hard work and gifted teaching grew, I questioned my purpose. 

Overlaid with these feelings were other things. I was training a remarkably faithful companion and worried that I was failing her. It was hot and our area was very hilly. We rode bikes daily and I never stopped sweating. My lovely companion's English was not proficient enough to converse easily (and I never learned more than "Called to Serve" in Japanese), and I would some times go hours on end without speaking to anyone. We tracted up to 8 hours a day. I was so stressed on every level that hadn't menstruated in seven months. I felt deep, depressing sorrow for the unwillingness of people to change or even acknowledge the existence of God.

In the midst of all this we held yet another Zone Development Meeting. My feelings about these types of meetings were mixed. Occasionally I would feel the Spirit in a really great discourse, but too often they were merely pep talks for unmotivated missionaries and usually carried an unhealthy obsession with numbers. Elder Wilson, our boyish and smirky ZL spoke from James about how faith without works was dead.

I felt . . . 


I was working. I was working so hard that my feet and back ached all the time. I was working so hard that college seemed like a distant vacation. I was desperate and depressed and didn't know how to do anything but work. My homesickness came back in spades as my mind often wandered to the budding romance I'd been involved in the year previously.

I had been told so many times that hard work was the key to success in missionary work, and yet there I was, working as hard as I knew how to work and having no outward sign of what counted for success in missionary work. I tuned out the talk, not listening for any message it, of the ZL might have to teach. No doubt my mind drifted to new places we might still have to tract, or streets we could re-tract or members we might bother about their friends.

At the close of the meeting, the ZL asked if he and his companion could come work in our area the following day. This is kind of a weird mission practice that will probably fade away as more sisters have opportunity for leadership positions. The way this worked in our mission is that leaders would come and visit for the day. They studied with us in the morning and then we would tract together, but nobody was ever quite sure how this was meant to work. This particular leader had us all walk together on one side of the street but three of us would go to the door at a time, to be less intimidating than four of us, I suppose. I really hated it; it made me feel like a Jehovah's Witness or something. Anyway, Elder Wilson and his companion came the next day, a thing I never looked forward to. (Probably because the first time he came he asked why we didn't make them pancakes like the other sisters always used to. I told him that we were too busy doing missionary work to worry about whether or not he'd had breakfast.)

While we were at one of our weird polygamy (one elder, two sisters) door knocks, Elder Wilson told me that he knew the ZDM the day before had been worthless to me. He said that he felt stupid standing up there telling me to work harder when I knew how to work harder than any elder he'd ever met. Then he said this, "But Sister, works without faith is also dead. So I have to ask you. How is your faith?"

I burst into tears.

After I had reinforced to him every stereotype he held about sister missionaries I calmed down enough to tell him that I wasn't even sure what the question meant. That I didn't really even know what faith was. To me, faith meant working and working and working. 

He told me that I had done enough.

I told him that we must not have, because why weren't we seeing more blessings?

He then explained something to me that I have never forgotten. Or at least the essence of it; no doubt the lesson he taught me that day has been colored by my own experience over the years. He told me that by always believing I needed to do more and more, I was putting all the responsibility for conversion squarely on my own shoulders. I needed instead to get on my knees and tell the Lord that we had done all He had asked and now we expected the blessings.

His phrase "expect the blessings," sort of terrified me. I was raised with a deep hatred of any form of entitlement and to my 21 year old self, this "expecting the blessings' is exactly what that looked like. But something about his earnestness, and his insight into my problem, deeply impressed me, and so I tried it.

I got on my knees that night and with many more tears told the Lord I had done all I could and that we expected Him to bless us. 

In the following weeks, everything changed. It wasn't just that there were some baptisms, though there were, by I changed too. I felt more deep and genuine love for the people. I felt excited to get out of bed each morning. I worked as hard as ever, but that weighing weariness wasn't ever-present. I turned more of my sorrow for the sins of the world over to Christ. That spring I sang The Spirit of God with the Saints as we gathered one Sunday. The third verse where it says, "That we through our faith may begin to inherit/the visions and blessings and glories of God" was impossible for me to sing through the deep emotions that filled very part of me. I had caught the barest vision of what faith was. 

You see, I had begun to understand that when my works were performed with the wrong motivation, I didn't allow the Lord to bless me. I had been motivated by some very good things--a heavy sense of responsibility to the Lord for my blessings, a desire to keep my covenants and do my duty, a genuine desire to bring the gospel to others, cultural obligations, etc. etc. But I somehow had it all wrong. The Lord wants to bless us and to give us that peace that passeth all understanding, but He wants us to love Him and to stop trying so hard to do everything ourselves. I still believe that faith VERSUS works is a false dichotomy; and I said as much at Times and Seasons today, but what motivates our work is very important.

Plantboy has been reminding me of this again lately. I am fearful as Jedi Knight prepares for middle school in a few months. I am afraid that we live in the wrong ward . . . or the wrong neighborhood. That we are going to the wrong schools. Etc. Etc. But Plantboy talks instead about having faith and says that we are doing everything we can to keep our covenants, to follow our callings, to show the compassion for others the Lords wants so much, and to truly love the Lord. He looked me in the eye the other night and was blunt, "The Lord doesn't want the boys to fail any more than we do. We must expect Him to bless us."  He is right. I must keep my covenants because I love the Lord and then I must count on Him to take care of the details.


Anonymous said...

Do you know why I love reading your blog? Because you are one of the most sincerely and straightforwardly faithful people I've ever met. I don't consider myself LDS right now, but I do feel the need to believe in a loving Heavenly Father. Sometimes what I read on your blog is just what I need to see just when I need to see it.

Dickey Berry Photography said...

Love this. Thanks for sharing I needed this today.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the details of this story. It is one of the most touching stories for my own feelings right now - especially since we are going through yet another job lay off. I shared it for family night tonight, to remind myself and my family that we are doing all we can, and we can expect the Lord to bless us. Thanks, Nan. And great advice, Jeff!

Brooke said...

I share so many of your fears, and I'm grateful for your words.