Small and Simple Steps Lead to Perfection
We’re shrouded in black up here, it’s raining—why are you here? I hope that’s not a bad omen. Thirty-six years—that is the definition of long-suffering, of patience. That’s how long my wife has been dealing with me—my quirks, my idiosyncrasies. I love her and have been blessed to have her in my life [for] every one of those 36 years.
It’s great to be here. I’m kind of celebrating a one-year anniversary here at the College, and it’s been a great year. Before coming here, I had spent the previous eight years teaching ninth-graders in Bountiful, Utah. Now think about that for a minute. I’d been spending all day, every day, with 14- and 15-year-old, twitterpated bundles of energy and enthusiasm, and I walk into my first class—it’s a night class, a Book of Mormon class—and I’d spent all day with my little ninth-graders, and I walk into that class and two or three minutes to go until that class starts. I just kind of hint that I’m going to walk towards the teaching stand, and as I kind of get ready to go and walk up there, the students get quiet. And the students get out papers and they start to take notes—you know, getting ready to take notes. And I almost start laughing. What is this? This is not ninth-graders at the end of May, wanting to get out of school. But that’s who you are. You are amazing. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light on the hill. You are cities set on a hill. How did you get that way?
After Brother Nelson asked me to do this, I’ve been thinking about how you got to here, how you got to where you are today. You are amazing. You are Saints, you are holy, you are virtuous. And as I thought about that, I thought of some words that Alma had said to his son Helaman. He said, “Now you may suppose that this is foolishness in me, but behold, I say unto, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass, and small things in many instances doth confound the wise.”
The Lord also says to Joseph Smith in D&C 64: “Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.” (v. 33)
In 1 Nephi 16, the Lord says: “Thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.” (v. 29)
In D&C 123:16 it says, “You know… that a very large ship is benefited very much by a very small helm in the time of a storm.”
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that over and over the Lord talks about this principle as He teaches His prophets. Small and simple things.
President [Henry B.] Eyring talked about this principle. He said, “Most of us have had some experience with self-improvement efforts. My experience has taught me this about how people and organizations improve: the best place to look is for small changes we could make in things we do often. There is power in steadiness and repetition. And if we can be led by inspiration to choose the right small things to change, consistent obedience will bring great improvement.” (“The Lord Will Multiply the Harvest” [an evening with Elder Henry B. Eyring, Feb. 6, 1998], 3 Quoted in “The Objective of Seminaries and Institutes of Religion,” Gospel Teaching and Learning: A Handbook for Teachers and Leaders in Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, (2012) https://www.lds.org/manual/gospel-teaching-and-learning-a-handbook-for-teachers-and-leaders-in-seminaries-and-institutes-of-religion/the-objective-of-seminaries-and-institutes-of-religion?lang=eng )
So small changes can lead to great improvement. In fact, I think that is what perfection is all about. Small things in our lives, small improvements—it’s not one giant leap to perfection; it’s just small steps every day.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught: “Nobody becomes perfect in this life…. becoming perfect in Christ is a process. We begin to keep the commandments today, and we keep more of them tomorrow…. We can become perfect in some minor things…. If we chart a course of becoming perfect, and, step by step and phase by phase, are perfecting our souls by overcoming the world, then it is absolutely guaranteed—there is no question whatever about it—we shall gain eternal life.” (“Jesus Christ and Him Crucified,” BYU Fireside, Sept. 5, 1976, http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=657 )
That’s a pretty bold promise from an apostle—a guarantee of eternal life. Small and simple steps that we take every day.
Elder [Russell M.] Nelson said, “Brothers and sisters, let us do the best we can and try to improve each day. When our imperfections appear, we can keep trying to correct them. We can be more forgiving of flaws in ourselves and among those we love…. We need not be dismayed if our efforts toward perfection… seem so arduous and endless. Perfection is pending. It includes thrones, kingdoms, principalities, powers, and dominions. It is the end for which we are to endure. It is the eternal perfection that God has in store for each of us.” (“Perfection Pending, Oct. 1995 General Conference, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1995/10/perfection-pending?lang=eng )
I love that phrase, “Perfection is pending.” We can improve. Perfection may not be here now, but with small and simple steps, perfection is pending. So what are these small steps that can lead to perfection?
Today I want to look at a few of these small and simple steps that can, I think, maybe get us closer to perfection. Most of you are quite young, so it is only the more seasoned among us that will recognize this story.
He was 6 feet 1 inch tall. He was 190 pounds. He won five Olympic gold medals, one Olympic bronze medal, in two different Olympics in two different sports. He had won 52 United States national championships; he set 67 world records. In his entire competitive career, he never lost a race, and retired with an unbeaten amateur record. He was the fastest swimmer in the world. He was becoming the first—he became the first person in history to swim 100 meters in less than one minute. In 1950, he was chosen as the greatest swimmer of the 20th Century.
Now, in addition to all this, he was chosen by Hollywood to play the part of Tarzan, King of the Jungle. You older ones know who I’m talking about. This is Johnny Weissmuller. He was the King of the Jungle! He was amazing!
Now my question for you today is, who is beating his time today? Twelve-year-old girls. In 2008, a girl named Lia Neal placed in the Olympic Trials and would go on to swim in the London Olympics just recently and won a medal there—she swam faster than Tarzan. That’s pretty cool, to be able to swim faster than Tarzan. Did she get there overnight? Did Johnny Weissmuller become the amazing swimmer that he was overnight? No. It took small and simple steps.
President Richards knows who you are. I’m starting to appreciate and know more and more who you are, the longer I’m here. You are already great but can become greater. C.S. Lewis said the following: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…. There are no ‘ordinary’ people…. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” (The Weight of Glory,a sermon delivered at Oxford University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, June 8, 1941, http://www.swordofthespirit.net/bulwark/april10p5.htm )
It’s hard; it takes work. But as a student body, we can swim faster than Tarzan. Jesus taught: “Ye are not able to abide the presence of God now; wherefore, continue in patience until ye are perfected.” Wow. Continue in patience until you are perfected. It sometimes might seem daunting, frustrating, this quest for perfection that we are all on, but as divine sons and daughters of God, we can do it.
So my first step, my first clue for you, is President Hinckley’s clue for each of us. Simply, we try a little harder to be a little better. That’s what Johnny Weissmuller did; that’s what Lia Neal did. That’s all we need to do—just try a little bit harder to be a little bit better, and improve just a little bit each day.
Are we saying our personal prayers morning and night? If we are not, that’s an easy place to make a small, simple change in our lives. If we are very consistent in saying our personal prayers, that’s still a great place. We just try to be a little bit more dedicated, a little bit more sincere in our prayers.
Personal scripture study, paying a generous fast offering—yes, you can pay fast offerings. Please do. But do as much as you can. Making the sacrament more meaningful in our lives on Sundays. Small things that we can do on a regular basis to improve.
President Eyring talked about the small and simple act of inviting the Spirit into our lives. He said, “I was sitting in my home ward…and I felt a very faint prompting from the Spirit to act that day. I bear you my testimony that the scriptures are not being poetic when they describe the Holy Ghost as the still, small voice. It is so quiet that if you are noisy inside, you won’t hear it…. I am confident that because I went and did the small thing that I felt impressed by the quiet voice to do, I made it more likely that I could receive a spiritual nudge again.” (“Listen Together,” BYU Fireside, Sept. 4, 1988, http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=825 )
We don’t need to be jolted or slapped around; it’s just the quiet, small, simple nudges that if we will heed and listen to, the Spirit will become part of our lives. And in that small and simple act of inviting the Spirit into our lives, we can be perfect.
Now, that’s a lot to think about for step number one: try a little bit harder to be a little bit better—just simple, daily improvement. But it can make a huge difference in our lives.
Small and simple step number two: You may not be aware of this, but right next door in the Tabernacle is where mission calls used to be announced. You didn’t get a big, white envelope in the mail; you went to general conference and they would announce your name over the pulpit. And you’d find out there about your mission. “Oh, that’s exciting; I’m going on a mission.”
Well, Elder [Jeffrey R. ] Holland tells about a man by the name of Eli H. Pierce, and that’s how Eli H. Pierce got some interesting news. Now, let me tell you a little bit about Eli H. Pierce. He was a cigar-smoking, pool-playing gambler. His language was probably more appropriate to the barrooms that he used to spend all his time in or to the railroad where he used to spend much of his time. “He bought his cigars wholesale—a thousand at a time—and regularly lost his paycheck playing pool.” This is not your ideal missionary candidate. And yet on October 5th, 1875 his name was read over the pulpit right next door as a missionary. He was called to go on a mission.
Now he wasn’t there, of course; he was out in some railroad shack, smoking a pipe at the time, I think he said, and reading a novel. Now if there are any in the English department here, the novel may have been of such a nature that it was a more serious transgression than the smoking. But as he sat there, one of his workers, fellow workers, telegraphed him. The message came across the telegraph, and Eli Pierce got the telegraph. This was his reaction to this, and this is a story that Elder Holland had told and loves this story about Eli H. Pierce. Listen to what he said:
“As soon as I had been informed of what had taken place, I threw the novel in the waste basket, the pipe in a corner [and have never touched either to this hour]. I sent in my resignation… to take effect at once, in order that I might have time for study and preparation. I then started into town to buy [scripture]…
“Remarkable as it may seem, and has since appeared to me, a thought of disregarding the call, or of refusing to comply with the requirement, never once entered my mind. The only question that I asked—and I asked it a thousand times—was: “How can I accomplish this mission? How can I, who am so shamefully ignorant and untaught in doctrine, do honor to God and justice to the souls of men, and merit the trust reposed in me by the Priesthood?” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “For Times of Trouble,” BYU Devotional, March 18, 1980, http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=869 )
Eli Pierce made great changes in his life. It started, though, with him simply throwing a pipe in the wastebasket, in the garbage, and walking away. Step number two, small and simple step number two: repent. Repent often and regularly. It’s a simple step; it’s something that maybe is as simple as throwing something in the garbage and turning your back on it and walking away. Simple, but can lead to great things.
I loved what the Lord told Joseph Smith to a man by the name of Oliver Granger in the Doctrine and Covenants. He said to Oliver Granger in section 117, “When they fall, they shall rise again.” (See verse 13) Now He didn’t say “If they fall,” He said, “When they fall.” We will all fall. But the small and simple step of regularly repenting will keep us on this path of pending perfection.
Okay, on to step number three. President Hinckley’s biography was titled Go Forward With Faith. For me, that’s step number three, and it’s a great one. He said, “These are the best of times in the history of this work. What a wonderful privilege and a great responsibility are ours to be an important part of this latter-day work of God. Do not be sidetracked by the wiles of Satan that seem so rampant in our era. Rather, let us go forward with faith, with a vision of the great and marvelous future that lies ahead as this work grows in strength and gains in momentum.”
President [Boyd K.] Packer tells the story of going…he was a young general authority and he went to Elder Harold B. Lee for some counsel. He had a difficult problem he was dealing with, and so he asked Elder Lee for some counsel. Elder Lee said, “The trouble with you is that you want to see the end from the beginning…. You must learn to walk to the edge of the light, and then a few steps into the darkness; then the light will appear and show the way before you.” Elder Packer concluded by saying, “During the 29 years following that experience, I have learned over and over again that all of us must walk by faith—near the edge of the light….each of us must learn to take a few steps into the darkness of the unknown.” (“The Edge of the Light,” BYU Magazine, March 1991, http://magazine.byu.edu/?act=view&a=2536 )
Go forward with faith.
I think of Naaman, a Syrian captain who has an incurable disease, leprosy. Go forward with faith. “Are there not better rivers in Syria? He wants me to wash seven times in this stream, and he didn’t come out even to meet me? He sent his servant out to tell me what to do?” He went forward with faith, and he washed seven times in the Jordan, and he came away washed clean. (See 2 Kings 5) Go forward with faith. A simple, wonderful message.
My wife, again I appreciate her being here. She’s an artist; she illustrates children’s books. She does beautiful watercolors. Once in a while she’ll show me a sketch or a painting she’s done, and ask me what I think. Well, I’ve learned a few things in these 36 years of marriage. One of them is to be careful how I respond to such a request. So I give her some feedback. She has a much better eye than I do, and she should never give too much weight to any of my comments, but whenever I do give suggestions, the biggest frustration she feels is that I’ve told her something that she can’t change. It’s too late. “You want me to change that? It’s…” Anyway, it’s the same with small and simple things in our lives. It’s far easier to do these small and simple things early, consistently throughout our lives.
Elder [David A.] Bednar said this. He said, “In my office is a beautiful painting of a wheat field. The painting is a vast collection of individual brushstrokes—none of which in isolation is very interesting or impressive. In fact, if you stand close to the canvas, [it’s] a mass of seemingly unrelated and unattractive streaks of yellow and gold and brown paint. However, as you gradually move away from the canvas, all the individual brushstrokes combine together and produce a magnificent landscape of a wheat field. Many ordinary, individual brushstrokes work together to create a captivating and beautiful painting.
“Each…prayer, each episode of…scripture study, and each family home evening is a brushstroke on the canvas of our souls.” (“More Diligent and Concerned at Home,” Oct. 2009 General Conference, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2009/10/more-diligent-and-concerned-at-home?lang=eng )
We can change. I do testify to each of you. “Ye are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14) You are truly Saints. You are holy ones, virtuous ones by definition. And it’s the small and simple things that you do on a daily basis that will make the big difference in your lives. As fathers, mother, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters—as children of our Heavenly Father, we have been chosen, we have been called to be here at this time. What a blessing in our lives; what a marvelous opportunity we have to be here, knowing the amazing opportunities you have before you, that I have in front of me, I want to be able to tell my Heavenly Father, “You can count on me. Here I am. I will do the small and simple things. If there are hard things to be done, I will do them, one step at a time.”
Elder [M. Russell] Ballard—and I’d like to conclude with this thought that he gave—he said, “When God asked who would come to earth to prepare a way for all mankind to be saved and strengthened and blessed, it was Jesus Christ who said, simply, ‘Here am I; send me.’ (Abr. 3:27)
“Just as the Savior stepped forward to fulfill His divine responsibilities, we have the challenge and responsibility to do likewise….
“ ‘Father, if you need [someone to raise] children in righteousness, here am I, send me.’
“ ‘If you need [someone] who will shun vulgarity… and speak with dignity and show the world how joyous it is to keep the commandments, here am I, send me.’
“ ‘If you need [someone] of faithful steadiness, here am I, send me.’
“Between now and the day the Lord comes again, He needs [men and] women in every family, in every ward, in every community, in every nation who will step forward in righteousness and say by their words and their actions, ‘Here am I, send me.’” (“Women of Righteousness,” Ensign, Apr. 2002, http://www.lds.org/ensign/2002/04/women-of-righteousness?lang=eng )
You are amazing, and we have the opportunity to be perfect. Don’t be discouraged. Satan will try to counterfeit with his counterfeit plans of small and simple steps, to try to keep us away from the small and simple steps leading to perfection. But with Elder Nelson, I testify that perfection is pending. It is possible, and what a marvelous opportunity we have as Latter-day Saints, to be engaged in this great work. I bear this testimony in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.