I had only been the bishop of the ward for a few days when I got the call. I had never met the man. He had just been out of prison for a few weeks. He was behind in his bills because no one would give a job to a convicted felon. If he could not pay his bills he would be returned to jail. He had no one to turn to. He asked for help.
Providing welfare assistance was new territory for me. My instinctive question was: “Does this man deserve help?” It seemed unlikely that the man had met or would soon meet any standards of worthiness. How could I use the Lord’s funds for a sinner?
Fortunately I got counsel from the past bishop. I should tell you about that man, my predecessor in office. He was a welder by trade. His language and manner were not smooth. When he had oriented me to my calling, he pointed out the pile of paper on the bishop’s desk. “I’m a slow reader. The Church letters come faster than I can read them. I’m way behind on my reading.”
It turns out that academic prowess is no predictor of spiritual power. When I asked the bishop for his input on helping the ex-con, his answer was simple and powerful. “What would Jesus do for the man?”
Suddenly the way seemed very clear. Here was a man humbly asking for help. Jesus would take his hand, lift him up, and set him moving along the road of life. So I went to see the man. I sat with him, wrote him a check, and offered words of encouragement.
Seeing Wrongly and Rightly
The longer I live the more I am aware that I see wrongly. I admire the successful, polished saint while disdaining the ne’er-do-well. If I had been a local in 19th century Palmyra, would I have treated the Smith family well? If I had been a meridian-of-time Jew, would I have scorned Joseph and Mary as second-class citizens?
It seems that the favorites of heaven have often been modest, broken-down folks just trying to get along. Jesus puts them among us to see if we yet understand His invitation: Love one another as I have loved you.
The questions become even more penetrating as they become more contemporary. How do I respond to the young man in the ward who seems to fake maladies to draw sympathy and support? How do I react to the man who is in trouble with the law for grievous sins? How do I respond to the woman who talks incessantly?
I squirm in answer to these questions.
Seeing as He Sees
It is human nature to do a quick assessment of a person any time we meet someone new. We quickly categorize this person as interesting, not interesting, or annoying. The assessment happens so automatically that we are often unaware of it. But our response is based on our quick assessment. We remain open, choose to ignore, or decide to avoid a person. Of course our response can change over time. With more contact, indifference may grow into contempt.
This quick appraisal of people is natural, automatic, and usually unconscious. It is also very destructive. Contrast our usual question (“Is this a person I want to be around?”) with Jesus’ standard question: “How can I bless this person?” While we are looking for fun people to hang out with, Jesus is looking for ways to draw every one of us toward heaven and happiness.
We are looking for people who will like us and cheer for us. Jesus is looking for people who need a hand.
If an adulterous neighbor pushed into our home and interrupted our lunch with friends in order to blubber about her desolate state, how would we react? Would we be repulsed? Jesus reacted with kindness and compassion for the woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50).
If we heard that a ward member was in trouble with the law for mishandling money, how would we feel about that person? Would we shake our heads and cluck something about thinking he was better than that? Jesus was a friend of publicans and sinners. He went to lunch with them and treated them like friends.
If we were invited to help a family with a filthy house and we found that it was littered with animal droppings and unimaginable disease possibilities, would we help gladly? Jesus embraced lepers.
Seeing and Acting
When we learn to see as Jesus sees, we respond to need with glad giving. To the weak we offer succor. For the hands that hang down, we offer lift. For the feeble knees, we offer strength. (See D&C 81:5.) We start to think just the opposite of our natural way.
Are we known that way as well? Are we drawn to those who are lonely, annoying, troubled, and faltering? Or do we prefer to hang out with the savvy, trendy, and smooth?
Seeing Beyond the Problems
Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s grandmother was a widow from Moab, Utah. Elder McConkie’s father wrote in his journal of the following experience his mother had:
Mother was president of the Moab Relief Society. J____ B____ [a nonmember who opposed the Church] had married a Mormon girl. They had several children; now they had a new baby. They were very poor and Mother was going day by day to care for the child and to take them baskets of food, etc. Mother herself was ill, and more than once was hardly able to get home after doing the work at the J____ B____ home.
One day she returned home especially tired and weary. She slept in her chair. She dreamed she was bathing a baby which she discovered was the Christ Child. She thought, Oh, what a great honor to thus serve the very Christ! As she held the baby in her lap, she was all but overcome. She thought, who else has actually held the Christ Child?
Unspeakable joy filled her whole being. She was aflame with the glory of the Lord. It seemed that the very marrow in her bones would melt. Her joy was so great it awakened her. As she awoke, these words were spoken to her, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” ‘ ” (quoted by Bruce R. McConkie in “Charity Which Never Faileth,” Relief Society Magazine, Mar. 1970, 169).
The Paradox of Sin
Joseph Smith set a worthy example for us. He appreciated the honesty of those without pretense. “I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm, yet deals justice to his neighbors and mercifully deals his substance to the poor, than the smooth-faced hypocrite. I do not want you to think that I’m very righteous, for I am not. There was one good man, and his name was Jesus” (Documentary History of the Church, 5:401).
I am not saying that sin provides us special standing with God. Sin is not recommended. But it is universal. All of us have sinned and come short of the glory of God. So our differences in goodness may not be as important as our differences in humility.
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:27)
Are we humble? Are we helpful to all in need? Do we avoid judgment? Do we see in those who have made mistakes a welcome opportunity to share the mercy that has blessed our lives? Do we seek the interest of our neighbor? Are we willing to remain open to looking for the good even in those who don’t appear to yet be successful, polished saints?
When we are His disciples, we do the works that He did.