Not all of you know what I was like when I was Mormon (or now, for that matter). So, rather than explain it with new words now I thought I’d give you the chance to see Elder C for yourself: here’s my homecoming talk, given December 13th, 2007 and previously in Arizona. In it you’ll find some of the spiritual experiences I cherished from my mission, a hint towards my challenge with doubt, and esoteric preaching to my dad (he was in the audience – forced to listen to everything I had to say! I’m not sure if I ever told him these words were indirectly directed at him, but there ya go Dad! You’ll know it when you see the two asterisks**).
“They Overcame by Faith”
Trials come to every human being, no matter where they are at in life. They may come in the form of temptation, persecution, momentary failure, or doubt, but they will come to all people and they will always come. Sometimes we will find ourselves with so much on our shoulders that we will wonder if it’s worth it to keep up the struggle, we will want to go an easier route, or we may want to give up completely.
When faced with such times we have a choice. The choice is simple, but not easy. This single choice will make all the difference in the world and for the eternities to come. The choice is to be overcome by fear or to overcome fear by faith.
When I was in my 3rd area I had the great blessing of finding and teaching a lady named Renee McKnight. We first met Renee when we knocked on her door and she said “I already have a church” and went to slam the door. We were actually just looking for someone else, so we stopped her and asked if Billy was home . . . but it turns out Billy had given us a false address. Renee was smoking, so we asked her if she wanted to quit, she said yes, so we offered to do a little workshop with her to teach her some weird ways to get rid of the craving for cigarettes. So . . . we started. She had smoked for years and had never successfully quit. Each time we helped her decide to quit something would happen and she’d be smoking again in 2 days, or sometimes she’d be able to will it out for a week. It just wasn’t working, even though she had a strong desire to quit smoking. As we worked with her we taught her how she could have strength through faith in Jesus Christ to overcome her addiction. She asked us more and more questions about our church and gained a huge desire to be baptized . . . but just one problem: she couldn’t kick the smoking addiction. She tried 4 or 5 more times, we accumulated more and more in our stockpile of coffee cans and cigarette packs she had surrendered to us . . . but each time she eventually fell. On one of my last visits with her, since I was about to be transferred, something amazing happened. She had given up giving up for a little while so she could get up enough will power for another attempt. While my companion and the member couple who had come with us were encouraging and comforting her, a spiritual impression hit me like a brick. I knew, I felt from the spirit of God, that if she would quit again, right now, she would succeed. I promised her in the name of Jesus Christ that if she would quit right now, she would conquer her habit and she would be baptized.
Imagine yourself as Renee. At this critical moment Renee had a choice. She could focus on everything that was against her – all the failures of the past, all the fear of falling again, all the disappointment in herself, all the seeming impossibility of quitting – or, she could believe God could do what He said He could do. She could be overcome by fear, but she wasn’t. Renee overcame her fear by her faith. Without hesitation she gave us her newly bought cigarette packs, her ash trays, and her coffee maker and coffee cans. She was baptized a month later.
So, what is faith, and why is it so powerful? Joseph Smith said “Faith is the moving cause of all action.” Basically, faith is an expectation which motivates action. I expect the light to turn on when I flip the switch, I need the light, so I get my lazy self off the couch to flip the switch. If I had no expectation of the light turning on (no faith) I’d have no reason to get off the couch. That applies to everything. We work because we expect to get paid. We sleep because we expect to have more energy the next day. Everything we do is done because of faith.
On my mission when I didn’t have faith life stunk. One week especially. I was serving in a little town of 8,000 – Mt. Pleasant Iowa. Each year a big festival happens called “Old Threshers” and tons of people come from all around to look at the old and new farm equipment. So, when this week came I was pumped. Usually there was nobody to talk to on the street and now there were hundreds and thousands! It started on Wednesday . . . and at first it was great, but by the end of the week I had had one of the worst days of my mission. We had talked to about 250 people in 3 days, about 150 of those said “not interested” before we could even say “Hi” and tell who we were, of the rest only about 7 of them let us talk to them for 5 minutes or more, a minister we knew followed us around and passed out anti-Mormon pamphlets, and it seemed like the only people who would give us the time of day were those who are antagonistic toward the church and only gave us the time so they could argue. This had happened at other times on my mission too, but this time I let it get to me. I had a choice, and I chose to look on all the negative rather than the positive. I was done. I had zero faith . . . so I had no motivation. I seriously expected each and every person we talked to to be a jerk, to not be interested, to reject us, to be too busy . . . which isn’t exactly a motivation to try to share my faith. But really, the problem wasn’t the trial around me . . . the problem was that I was overcome by the trial. I acted by fear rather than by faith.
What would have happened if I would have said, “Look, this is lame, but I really believe God wants me to find people to teach, and I believe He’s preparing people and some people really need what I have right now.”? I did that exact thing about a year and a half before. I was serving in Beardstown Illinois, a little town of 6,000. We didn’t have a church in town; we were part of a ward about 40 minutes away. So my companion and I were asked to begin cottage meetings locally in an effort establish an official branch of the church later on. I loved the challenge of it, but it proved to be a lot more difficult than we had thought it would be. We would organize the hour long sacrament meetings, invite all the less-active members and all the people we knew in town, but sometimes it seemed like our efforts were useless. Some Sundays we’d have 10 or 14 people a the meetings, which is exactly what we needed, but most Sundays we’d have about 3 people there, sometimes only 1. At the end of a discouraging day when only one had come to the meeting (even though it seemed like the whole town had promised us they’d come) and when we had just had a bad experience with investigator, a defining experience occurred which taught me personally about the power of faith in God in overcoming trials. We were walking down the street and my companion expressed what we were both thinking; he said, “Man, it’s been a really tough day!” I immediately responded with a statement of faith: “Let the bells of hell ring! Satan can’t do anything as long as we listen to and follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost!” At that moment I felt an impression to turn down the street to the left. We saw an Hispanic couple go into an ally about 20 feet ahead of us, I shouted “Hola!”, we got there attention, ran up to them and told them about the Book of Mormon. They asked us when we could come teach them. Later we found out they had been at the town fair about 2 blocks from where we had met them when she had started feeling bad about being there; they left the fair, and at that moment we had turned left down the street and met them 2 minutes later. We taught them the lessons, and they were married and she was baptized 2 months later. The trial came, we responded with faith rather than fear, and the Lord gave us a miracle.
But even if nothing had happened because of our faith, success has nothing to do with how others react to you and has everything to do with how much effort you give. I learned that in Beardstown as well, with the same companion. After another discouraging day with the cottage meetings, my companion and I were pretty low. We were so frustrated with the people in Beardstown, because they just didn’t seem to want to do anything, or care about the effort to establish a branch, or care about keeping their promises to us. While feeling this way a scripture came to mind and I read it out loud to my companion. This scripture hit me more powerfully than any other scripture has in my life. I knew Nephi went through what I was going through. The time and circumstances were different, but in Nephi’s words were couched a lesson specifically for me. Nephi was a tireless teacher, a loving brother, a concerned father, a dedicated prophet, and he had spent his whole life trying to help others live as God wanted them to. He lamented:
“. . . behold, there are many that harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore, they cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught (they don’t give a junk, they don’t care at all). But I, Nephi, have written what I have written, and I esteem it as of great worth, and especially unto my people. For I pray continually for them by day, and mine eyes water my pillow by night, because of them; and I know that he will hear my cry. And I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people. And the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong unto them; for it persuadeth them to do good; it maketh known unto them of their fathers; and it speaketh of Jesus, and persuadeth them to believe in him, and to endure to the end, which is life eternal.”
We don’t always accomplish what we want to. Sometimes we try to do something great, with the best of intentions, and it fails miserably. But that’s not what’s important. Whether it’s quitting smoking, teaching the Gospel, starting a Branch, writing the scriptures (Nephi’s trial), giving to the poor, or overcoming the unique temptations each one of us has, success isn’t really in accomplishing everything you imagine. True success is measured by the effort you put into doing what you know is right. Many in Beardstown didn’t seem to care sometimes, but I tried, and the rest is inconsequential.
**Some trials seem to never go away. They’re like a thorn from a cactus that sticks into your finger: no matter how much you try to get it out some part of the thorn seems to stay in you and bug you all day long. Paul had a thorn. While we’re not sure exactly what his personal trial was we are sure that he didn’t like it at all and could never get rid of it completely. He said his personal thorn kept him humble:
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me . . . . For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. – 2 Cor. 12:7-10
Eventually, we will be delivered. Eventually we will overcome. Whether it’s our tendency to gossip, or pride, financial debt, temptations with immorality, addiction to a substance, contention with others, depression, being overweight, or whatever else our thorn may be, we must fix our eyes on Christ and not be overwhelmed. We must push forward with faith and not be overcome. I testify that the trials we have, once overcome, will do more to shape our eternal character than anything else. I had some tough trials before my mission and through overcoming them through Christ I gained faith in Christ and the companionship of the Holy Ghost. True strength. I say with Paul, “. . . when I am weak, then am I strong.” It’s when we need Christ the most that we really find strength in Him. If I wouldn’t have had the trials I’ve had I wouldn’t have the strength I developed by overcoming them, and I wouldn’t have accomplished half as much on my mission. I know that’s true.
I close with some quotes from Winston Churchill given by Elder Holland in a talk entitled “However Long and Hard the Road:”
On May 10, 1940, as the specter of Nazi infamy moved relentlessly toward the English Channel, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was summoned to the post of prime minister of England. He hastily formed a government and on May 13 went before the House of Commons with his maiden speech.
“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask “What is our policy?” I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all our strength that God can give us: . . . That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory—victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be.”
Six days later he went on radio to speak to the world at large. “This is one of the most awe-striking periods in the long history of France and Britain,” he said. “Behind us gather a group of shattered States and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians—upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.”
That is our task. That is our aim. “No matter how long and hard the road” may be we must have victory. We don’t fight against Nazism today, and our battle probably won’t be fought with rifles and tanks. But we may be assured that the road ahead will be tough – whether death in the family, failure in helping others, or our personal “thorns in the flesh” we will be tested and tried. We must not be overcome. We must overcome through faith in Jesus Christ. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.