Discussing Spiritual Differences- Missionary Work

Ten years ago I served a mission, seeking to share the gospel of Jesus Christ to any who would hear. Some people were genuinely relieved to have us turn up on their doorstep. Some of them were disinterested, but turned us away kindly. Some of them quickly shut off the television and pretended that no one was home. Some, however, felt deeply offended that we had come calling at their house, and before we could say a thing shouted at us until we left.

And, to be fair, I get why people don’t like to talk to missionaries. First there is the matter of repetition. Many religious sects will frequently change the missionaries that they have in an area. Thus you can tell the first set “no, thank you,” but then a next pair arrives and they don’t know that you’ve already expressed your disinterest. You keep having to say “no, thank you” over and over, and eventually the “thank you” gets replaced with stronger verbiage.

Another reason is that some missionaries are simply insufferable. Obviously every one of them should be driven by a genuine love for those they teach. Their great, motivating desire should be to help all people however they can. But I have been a missionary, and I can attest that this is not true for all of them. Many of them truly do have sincere and good intentions, but there are also those that you can practically feel the holier-than-thou dripping off of.

And the last reason that comes to mind is that each of us have areas of life that we know we can improve on. We feel guilty, but many of us are in denial of that guilt. In this case even a heartfelt, loving invitation to a better life might feel like a judgment of how sinful we are right now. A salesman might come and point out dirt on our house and try to sell us a cleaning solution. We might be disinterested in the product, but not offended. But a missionary reminding us of the dirt in our soul? That is a much more touchy matter.

Thus I see work to be done on both sides so that proselyting efforts can be given with care and can be received with the same spirit by which it was given. In a perfect world missionaries would all establish a caring relationship first, then seek to share their light as a friend instead of a stranger. And in a perfect world each of us would be honest to ourselves about our own guilt and would be open to those who can help us become the sons and daughters we were born to be.

Optimism in a Falling World- Alma 17:12-14

And it came to pass that the hearts of the sons of Mosiah, and also those who were with them, took courage to go forth unto the Lamanites to declare unto them the word of God.
And it came to pass when they had arrived in the borders of the land of the Lamanites, that they separated themselves and departed one from another, trusting in the Lord that they should meet again at the close of their harvest; for they supposed that great was the work which they had undertaken.
And assuredly it was great, for they had undertaken to preach the word of God to a wild and a hardened and a ferocious people; a people who delighted in murdering the Nephites, and robbing and plundering them; and their hearts were set upon riches, or upon gold and silver, and precious stones; yet they sought to obtain these things by murdering and plundering, that they might not labor for them with their own hands.

COMMENTARY

The sons of Mosiah took courage to go forth unto the Lamanites to declare unto them the word of God.
And they had undertaken to preach the word to a wild and a hardened and ferocious people; who delighted in murdering and robbing and plundering.

It is remarkable to me what sort of people it was the sons of Mosiah chose to take their missionary efforts to. One would think they would look for a people that were already mostly in harmony with the gospel and preach to them, that way they would expect to have greater success, let alone a greater chance of survival!
But no, they went to the most corrupted people that they could, the people who hated them, the people that were furthest away from God. Of course Jesus’s disciples did much the same when they carried the gospel to the gentile nations, even to the same country that had carried out the execution of their master! They walked straight into the lion’s den, somehow expecting to accomplish good there.
And, remarkably, both the Nephites and early Christian missionaries absolutely did accomplish some good. Though they had trials, they also had great success. Because, as those early missionaries seemed to have understood, the people who are furthest from God are also the people who need God the most!

Influence and Persuasion- Alma 17:8, 19, 21-22, 25; 18:21-22

And thus they departed into the wilderness with their numbers which they had selected, to go up to the land of Nephi, to preach the word of God unto the Lamanites.
And Ammon went to the land of Ishmael, the land being called after the sons of Ishmael, who also became Lamanites.
And thus Ammon was carried before the king who was over the land of Ishmael; and his name was Lamoni; and he was a descendant of Ishmael.
And the king inquired of Ammon if it were his desire to dwell in the land among the Lamanites, or among his people.
But Ammon said unto him: Nay, but I will be thy servant. Therefore Ammon became a servant to king Lamoni. And it came to pass that he was set among other servants to watch the flocks of Lamoni, according to the custom of the Lamanites.

And now, if thou wilt tell me concerning these things, whatsoever thou desirest I will give unto thee; and if it were needed, I would guard thee with my armies; but I know that thou art more powerful than all they; nevertheless, whatsoever thou desirest of me I will grant it unto thee.
Now Ammon being wise, yet harmless, he said unto Lamoni: Wilt thou hearken unto my words, if I tell thee by what power I do these things? And this is the thing that I desire of thee.

COMMENTARY

Nay, but I will be thy servant. Therefore Ammon became a servant to king Lamoni.
I previously shared an example from the Book of Mormon where a missionary named Ammon defended himself a king and later his brother taught the gospel to him. There is a somewhat similar story just a few chapters before, where that same Ammon taught another king and I find his approach very interesting.
When he first has an audience with the king he does not immediately launch into proselyting. Rather he asks to be commissioned as a servant and to care for the king’s domain. He is put over the sheep and he faithfully watches over them. Shortly thereafter a band of thieves comes to steal the sheep, and Ammon manages to protect both the flock and the other servants against great odds. The fame of this battle is soon brought before the king.

If thou wilt tell me concerning these things, whatsoever thou desirest I will give unto thee.
Wilt thou hearken unto my words? This is the thing that I desire of thee.

And so the king calls Ammon to him and inquires how he possessed the power to stand against so many assailants. He even asks Ammon whether he is a god himself!
At this point the king is coming to Ammon of his own volition and asking to know more. Ammon’s audience is ready now, even actively seeking. And so it is here that Ammon finally delivers the gospel message that he has come to give.
I believe there is a great wisdom in this approach. On my mission I learned that most people really didn’t care about what I had to share…until they first knew that I cared about them and would sincerely serve them. In my experience, cutting overgrown grass, repairing fences, and erecting houses were better than sermons.

Influence and Persuasion- Personal Example #3

When I was nineteen I served a mission for my church, proselyting the gospel in the Caribbean. There was a great diversity of religious opinion where I served. Hinduism was most prevalent, but Christianity and Islam were not far behind. A healthy dose of Rastafari as well, and numerous smaller theologies sprinkled on top, to say nothing of the many different sects within each larger religion-umbrella.

Because of the nature of my work there, I entered into many theological discussions with members of other churches, some of them positive and some of them not. I met more than one person who was angry at me for “being wrong,” and who would seek very aggressively to convince me of that wrongness.

And while those experiences left a strong distaste in my mouth, I have actually come to agree with some of the points they made, but many years after and not because of their hostile approach. For example, only recently I came to the realization that I misunderstood grace. I said I believed in it, but I was still trying to win my own salvation. This was something that others were able to see amiss in me, but their antagonistic methods only delayed my willingness to see the truth of the matter. I wasn’t convinced until much later, when I met others who genuinely cared for me, and as a friend helped me to see more clearly.

I’m glad to say that I also had very positive experiences with members of different faiths on my mission. In particular I remember a long conversation with a Hindu Pujari (temple priest) in his home, where he patiently explained all the concepts of their religion that I had questions about. He helped me to see the misunderstanding I had on concepts like reincarnation, nirvana, and karma.

Now I did not convert to Hinduism, but I did open myself to seeing the very real good that this religion and culture has to offer the world. For example, the emphasis that it gives to connecting with one’s physical self and caring for it; this is something that many of us Christians have a lot to learn about. I have even added the practice of yoga into my life because of the good I have seen it bring me.

Indeed, whenever I meet a soul that is intent upon being a friend, and not merely a corrector, I have found something to learn from them. No matter their religion, philosophy, or personal beliefs, no matter how many other things they think that I disagree with, there is always still something for a friend to teach.

Influence and Persuasion- Alma 20:20-22, 23; 22:5, 15

And he stretched forth his hand to slay Ammon. But Ammon withstood his blows, and also smote his arm that he could not use it.
Now when the king saw that Ammon could slay him, he began to plead with Ammon that he would spare his life.
Now the king, fearing he should lose his life, said: If thou wilt spare me I will grant unto thee whatsoever thou wilt ask, even to half of the kingdom.

Now the king said unto them: What is this that ye have said concerning the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, this is the thing which doth trouble me.
And it came to pass that after Aaron had expounded these things unto him, the king said: What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day? Behold, said he, I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy.

COMMENTARY

Now the king, fearing he should lose his life, said: If thou wilt spare me I will grant unto thee half of the kingdom
My wife pointed out to me how a story in the Book of Mormon applies very well to this topic of study. In it, a king is hostile towards a missionary and tries to kill him. But when the missionary gains the upper hand and the king sees that his own life is in danger, he immediately tries to bargain. As we see in this verse, he is motivated by that fear to give up an entire half of his kingdom, which would make his assailant as powerful as he is. Fear is a powerful way to pressure people into doing things.

And after Aaron had expounded these things the king said: What shall I do that I may have this eternal life? I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy.
Of course the missionary does not kill the king, which catches the king by surprise. Later, when the king meets the brother of that missionary, he requests to be taught. For the first time the king hears the gospel message, and at this point he is filled with hope, not fear. Now he makes another offer, this time for his entire kingdom, which would leave himself powerless, if only he can have the goodness that his heart desires.
This story is a wonderful example of how fear is a powerful motivation, but hope is even greater. People that are inspired by hope will always be able to do more than those who are driven by fear.

Service to Others- Luke 10:30-33

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him.

COMMENTARY

And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

I’d like to share a personal story. Nearly a decade ago I served a mission for my church in South America. One day my companion and I were biking to an appointment when we passed by one of the brothers from our local branch. He was an older man, in a wheelchair, and dragging himself down the road by his feet because his arms didn’t have the strength to push the wheels. We smiled and waved at him as we cheerily sped along our way, and then two blocks later came to a screeching halt and asked ourselves what we were doing!
We rushed back to help that brother, but found that in our absence another man had already done so. That man had a bad limp, but by leaning heavily on the wheelchair handles for support the two cripples were successfully steering towards our brother’s home. From the way they were speaking it seemed evident that they did not know one another. It was a stranger, then, who had taken the opportunity to help another.
I felt terrible. Later that day I thought of the Good Samaritan and realized I had played the worst part in a modern re-enactment of it! My companion and I were the priest and the Levite, the two men that were called to serve, but were too busy to do so. That stranger with a limp was the Samaritan who couldn’t view a fellow wanderer in need without rendering service. None of us has a calling, unless it is a calling to serve.
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven (Matthew 7:21).