Unless I’m teaching, most church lessons stick in my head only until I’m exiting the room after class. Some prompt me to make an electronic note of a thought I want to remember or something I should do; I will at least see these notes again someday, and maybe they’ll do someone some good. Once in a while, a lesson sticks with me for years — like this one from Lorenzo Snow.
A few years ago, we were studying the teachings of the late Lorenzo Snow, fifth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The title of that week’s chapter was “Church Leadership and Selfless Service.” Our curriculum for those classes is different now, but when we studied teachings of past presidents of the Church, the idea was that we’d read and study the chapter in the week before our Sunday discussion, so we’d be prepared to discuss the material and our own insights. Sometimes I actually did that. More often, I read the chapter in class, during the boring moments which can sometimes be had among Mormons.
That’s what I was doing this time, near the end of the hour. If there had been time, I’d have raised my hand and shared what I was reading, though the discussion was focused elsewhere in the chapter. Our classes are informal enough that such things are usually welcome — or at least endured with patience.
The other bit of background you need to know is that I’ve spent most of my adult life in one local church leadership position or another. The temptations described hereafter are quite familiar to me — which is probably why this one stuck.
From the Lesson
In the early 1840s Elder Snow was in London, leading the Church in that part of England and instructing local leaders in person and by letter. Near the end of his service there, in a letter to a pair of those leaders, he wrote of another leader he had met in the area. I am not aware that he mentioned the latter by name.
Here is a long excerpt from that lesson. (The emphasis is mine.)
Elder Snow described this leader as having “no external faults.” The man was “ambitious in promoting the cause” and had the ability to ensure “that everyone [was] in his place, and doing his duty.” He was diligent, “labour[ing] in the work himself more industriously than they all.” But despite this man’s outward appearances of faithfulness, the branch consistently had problems that seemed to center on him. Elder Snow tried for some time to identify the source of the problems, and he gently rebuked the branch members for not supporting their leader. Then he began to wonder if the leader “may possibly possess some secret, internal working spirit that he [was] not aware of, that [did] not manifest itself openly” but that led somehow to the difficulties in the branch. Elder Snow recounted:
“I accordingly prayed that the Lord would give me a spirit of discernment in the case. My prayer was answered; I found the brother possessed of a kind of half-hidden, concealed spirit of self-exaltation which was directing him in many of his movements. He would send out a brother to fill an appointment but had a suppressed wish to have the honor of it himself; if the appointment was not attended to, he would chasten the delinquent, not because the work of the Lord was in any degree frustrated or that the brother lost a blessing, but because [he] himself was so despised in being disobeyed. In [a] case where a number were baptized by a brother, his heart rejoiced not so much because the persons were brought into the covenant but because it was done under his superintendency, secretly wishing no person under his charge to obtain much honor unless his own name were brought into connection.”
Elder Snow observed that if a member of the branch succeeded in a task but did not follow the leader’s counsel in every particular, the leader had “a spirit of envy … lurking underneath of an expressed approbation.” He continued: “This spirit was concealed; its fruits were not openly manifest, but would be if not checked; it was an inherent working evil that would eventually destroy his usefulness. It brought upon him unnecessary trouble in conducting the affairs of his charge; it likewise originated a source of continued unpleasantness in his own mind. Anxious to promote the cause of God, but always in such a way that his own hand might be plainly seen in all things. Ambitious to give good instructions but careful to put his whole name in full length at the bottom of them.”
Elder Snow did not write this letter to condemn the local leader. His purpose in writing was to help other leaders—that the prideful spirit he described “may be seen, known, and avoided” among them. He warned that many people “who sincerely believe themselves entirely devoid of this spirit of exaltation, would on close examination of their motives which inspire them in their conduct, discover to their surprise that this spirit was urging them forward to perform many of their movements.”
Having shared this warning, he counseled: “To become as God would wish us, we must accustom our minds to rejoice in seeing others prospered as ourselves; rejoice in seeing the cause of Zion exalted by whatsoever hands Providence may order; and have our bosoms closed against the entrance of envy when a weaker instrument than ourselves is called to greater honor; be content in magnifying a lesser office till called to a higher; be satisfied in doing small things and not claim the honor of doing great ones.” He compared the Church to a great building, with individual Saints as parts of that building, saying that we should “never feel too lofty to be sometimes cut down, squared, scored, and hewed to be fitted into the place we are to occupy in the spiritual building.”
Elder Snow concluded the letter with these words: “If a presiding elder will only seek to become as he may be and ought to be, ridding himself of selfish principles, and always act for the good of his people, and be humble, and not seek to do too much in a little time, or be too great until grown, he will never be at a loss how to magnify his office properly, nor will ever lack the power of God to bring about His wise purposes.”
For Me, the Gems
As a local church leader, let alone as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I’ve had my good days and bad days, and some that were even better or even worse than those. I think I’ve improved over time in some respects; improvement seems to be the purpose of passing years. But these lines still resonate with me just as they did when I first read them, and I still need to hear them from time to time, because, between some modest — and I hope frequent — moral successes, and rather like Mr. Darcy, “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 58).
I have sometimes known these temptations too well:
- “A suppressed wish to have the honor of it himself.”
- “Secretly wishing no person under his charge to obtain much honor unless his own name were brought into connection.”
- “Anxious to promote the cause of God, but always in such a way that his own hand might be plainly seen in all things. Ambitious to give good instructions but careful to put his whole name in full length at the bottom of them.”
This more positively worded lesson has tried to write itself on my heart; it has at least fixed itself in my mind:
To become as God would wish us, we must accustom our minds to rejoice in seeing others prospered as ourselves; rejoice in seeing the cause of Zion exalted by whatsoever hands Providence may order; and have our bosoms closed against the entrance of envy when a weaker instrument than ourselves is called to greater honor; be content in magnifying a lesser office till called to a higher; be satisfied in doing small things and not claim the honor of doing great ones.
Finally, here is simple wisdom, for leaders and everyone else; would that I had absorbed it in my early years:
[We ought] not seek to do too much in a little time, or be too great until grown.
Am I the only one who sometimes bemoans the chaff, to the point that I risk missing the wheat? When I have things in their proper perspective, there’s little room for doubt: such wheat as this is well worth sifting through the chaff.