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Dr. Janet S. Scharman

Seemingly Unimportant Decisions

What a great start to today! I loved the testimony, Austin. Thank you. And to be able to start a meeting with prayer—aren’t we lucky to be in a setting where we can do that? Where we can ask the Lord to attend us and to prompt us?

I’m grateful to President Richards for this invitation, although I have to admit that it wasn’t actually until this morning that it occurred to me the juxtaposition of this talk with General Conference, when we had great leaders of the Church speaking to us  just really hours ago at the Conference Center north of where we are right now. So, I feel very humble and kind of intimidated here, and I hope that there is something that I might say that will prompt a thought for you.

I love meeting in this setting, this historic building that literally is in the shadow of the Salt Lake Temple. And it kind of brings up thoughts of our forebears, of those early Saints who did so much and paved the way that we can be here today under these great circumstances and meet together. It’s really just a wonderful opportunity.

Earlier this summer, June 10th, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was invited to England as a representative of the Church to speak to the all-party Parliamentary group on foreign affairs at the UK Parliament. That was really quite an honor. As part of that trip to England, he also spoke to a group of young single adults, probably not unlike what we have right here, in another historic building, maybe also a little bit like where we are right now, in Oxford, England—an old church there.

One of the things he said to this group of young adults was, “We are privileged to have the opportunity to live in this, the greatest era in the history of the world.” I don’t know why we have that opportunity, but we do. Now think of what he said: “The greatest era in the history of the world.” I think it’s not hard to think of why he would call it the greatest. All of the blessings of the gospel are here, ready for us to do our part and to partake of it. We have just finished general conference, when we listen to the counsel of God’s chosen leaders. We were able to participate in the sustaining of three new apostles. We have access to great education. We have access to so much information, to wonderful medical treatment. Our living conditions are better than people ever have enjoyed before, and the list could go on and on. I hope you think about what would be on your list of why this is the greatest era in the history of the world.

At the same time, we are also living when there are just lots of negatives. If you think about that, it’s pretty easy to make that list as well. This summer in the state of Utah, we had probably the worst flooding disaster where over 20 people died. There are hurricanes in the East, hundred-thousand-year rains in South Carolina, at the same time as droughts and wildfires in California, and tornados and typhoons in southern China, and earthquakes and a tsunami in Chile—lots of natural disasters, and on top of that we have terrorists, and wars, and rumors of wars, and refugees, and financial uncertainty in parts of the world. We could go on and on with that as well.

During April conference of this year, so just six months ago, Elder Kevin Pearson spoke to everyone that was listening, and he said he felt like two of Satan’s greatest tools were deception and distraction, and I would add discouragement.[1] And so I think that’s one of the adversary’s strongest tactics is to get our attention and to focus on all of those negatives and not pay attention to all of the wonderful things that are happening in our lives. Think of the media and the news—what you hear all the time. It’s always the dramatic, and it’s usually the negative that gets highlighted.

Satan tries to convince us that if God loves us, or if there even is a God, He would answer our prayers the way we want them answered and when we want them answered, and that if we are trying really hard to do our best, we shouldn’t have to deal with the disappointments or heartaches. We should be immune to the crises that other people have to deal with.

If we allow ourselves to believe any of that, we will be continually disappointed. He attacks truth with partial truth—sometimes outright lies—and it’s meant to confuse us or to focus our attention elsewhere, and that’s deception. So we’ve got the discouragement and deception around us all the time.

I love the counsel that Elder Holland shared with us at another time. He said, “Please don’t hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood, and resolved. They do and they will. In this Church, what we know will always trump what we do not know.”[2] I think that’s an important thing for us to remember.

It seems that part of our Heavenly Father’s plan is for us to deal with questions, with uncertainties, with challenges, and then to learn and grow from those experiences. We are given exercises that will test us. Apparently, this temporal existence for us wasn’t intended to be easy.

My family has been reading about the life of the Prophet Joseph in the Ensign recently, and I think his life provides us with just such a striking example. He must have proven himself in his first estate. The Lord loved him, and loves him, and had confidence enough to send him to restore the true gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth in these latter days. And yet, he had probably about as hard a life as anyone I can imagine.

Think of just this one example here: his experience in Liberty Jail. He was there with companions for months under the most base of circumstances. It was really terrible. And he became worried. Their petitions to be released were ignored, and he could see that those who were with him were really struggling physically, emotionally, maybe even spiritually. He worried about those who were with him, but also about those who were outside of the jail; he was wondering how they were doing and if they were okay. So he pled with the Lord, and I love the answer that he received in Doctrine and Covenants 121. The Lord said to Joseph:

My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;

And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.[3]

In this world of chaos, confusion, turmoil, I think the words “peace be unto thy soul” are an important thing for us to keep remembering. It’s a message that we can trust in God’s ways, in God’s power, and in God’s timing, that we can believe that what we are experiencing is the purifying and refining process we go through will help us qualify for exaltation.

I’m guessing many of you here are familiar with the pamphlet For the Strength of Youth. In it, it talks about education. I believe it’s formal education, like you are getting here at LDS Business College, but I think it is also probably those life lessons that we are learning along the way.

Here is what it says: “Education is an important part of Heavenly Father’s plan to help you become more like Him.”[4] It doesn’t say education is really important so you can get a good job, or have a great career, or become rich and famous and powerful—although that might happen. It said education is important so that we can become more like Him. And I think that is why we are going through these experiences in life. It seems to be that this temporal experience is really a spiritual school, where we can grow and learn, be tested, and then—if we are successful—advance to another stage of learning so that we can, in fact, become more like our Heavenly Father.

This past Sunday in the closing session of general conference, Elder Bednar paid a tribute to those apostles that he had worked with, and talked about their lives. He was very clear that they had not been spared struggles or afflictions during what he called their “decades of consecrated service.”[5] He said that through their challenges, they gained wisdom and they became seasoned in the work of the Lord.

I’d like to talk to you for just a minute about another apostle maybe some of you are not as familiar with. He died in 1983, before many of you would have been born, but I think he exemplified this idea of working through challenges so well. His name was Elder LeGrand Richards, and he had really, really a tough life. Let me just give you a sense of what it was like for him. First of all, he was the third of fifteen children, so right from the get-go you know he had a lot of responsibility helping his mother and father as they cared for these younger siblings on their farm.

He had a lot of physical problems growing up. When he was just little, he was involved in a freak accident where his father was chopping wood and the axe ended up in LeGrand’s head. And then, when he had recovered from that, he was riding in a wagon that was pulled by horses and the horses unexpectedly backed up. He fell out, and the wheel ran over his head. The horses went forward, and the wheel ran over his head again.

When he was eight years old, he had a terrible hipbone disease that ultimately left one leg shorter than the other, and he experienced pain with that for his whole life. But at that time, he ended up in a cast that went from his ankles up to his hip, and he was in that for nine months. While he still had the cast on, he was out in the family field and a ram just kept charging at him over and over again. They believe that actually because he was in the cast, it saved his life.

While he was still on crutches, he broke his arm. He had scarlet fever. He had a serious eye problem that plagued him so that he couldn’t even read during his first two missions—I think I’ve heard that right—he first two missions. He had two heart attacks; he had a hernia operation. The list could go on and on. He had a lot of physical challenges in his life.

So now I want you to picture—he’s 90 years old, not in the greatest of health, and he goes to his tailor, and he orders three new suits, one of them with two pairs of pants. And the tailor was trying to be very respectful and suggested to him maybe he didn’t really need three new suits. And LeGrand said, “I have work to do, and I need those suits to do it.” And as it turned out, that was true.

Well, his health continued to get a little worse, and when he was 92, it was so bad he was in the hospital in intensive care. Things just kept getting worse and worse—in fact, so bad that a meeting of the First Presidency and the Twelve was interrupted with a message that his passing was imminent. So they stopped the meeting, they talked about his life, they wrote his obituary. But he didn’t die. And he said it was kind of interesting a little later, when he was reading the minutes of that meeting, to get to the point where he saw that he had died. They had been so sure it was going to happen that they had put it in the minutes, and they had forgotten to take it out.

So he started improving, but he was improving slowly. And at the next general conference, President Kimball got up and welcomed the congregation to general conference, and he said he’d like to excuse Elder LeGrand Richards who was ill. There was kind of this gulp out there in the audience, and all of the eyes went to the side. He looked over to the side, and at the very last minute, Elder Richards slipped in. I don’t think that could happen nowadays, but it happened then. And he said that he had told the medical staff who thought that he shouldn’t be there that he could die just as well in general conference as he could in the hospital, if that was to be his fate. So he just didn’t give up. He kept going and going.

When he was 96, a person asked him, “Have you lived all of your life in the United States?” And he answered, “Not yet.”

But he was having problems. He had some really serious circulation problems, and it resulted in one of his toes being amputated. That didn’t solve the problem, so ultimately one of his legs was amputated. But he didn’t stop. He still demanded to go back into work, so one day shortly—well, enough time had gone by after the surgery, but his first time back to the Church Office Building to continue working, 96, amputated leg—he rolled in in his wheelchair and someone came up to him and said, “Oh, Elder Richards, how are you doing?”

And he said, “Well frankly, I feel like I’m on my last leg.” And then, it’s recorded that he said, “You know, I think the Lord has figured out if He’s ever going to get me out of this world, He’s going to have to take me a piece at a time. And I’m just glad He started at that end.”

So he had a way, through all of these difficulties, of looking and seeing what life was all about and how wonderful it was, and that he could keep going and focus on the positive.

In a very serious moment, he said, “I could live better without the limbs of my body than I could without [my] testimony” of the Savior and of the Holy Ghost.[6]

I think Elder Richards understood the purpose of learning and growing and dealing with adversity and disappointment, and he felt the peace that comes with understanding that. With a positive and optimistic outlook on life, he endured and he triumphed.

That’s pretty impressive, but I’m guessing some of you are thinking, “Well, you’ve just given us an example of a prophet and an apostle. What about me? I’m just a regular person having regular life experiences, just little ones day to day.”

Just a few weeks ago, the BYU president, Kevin J. Worthen, speaking at one of the BYU devotionals said this: “We should recognize that our character is usually shaped not by dramatic . . . events but by small and simple daily decisions.”[7] And I’d like to use the rest of my time here talking about the importance of those small, daily decisions that each one of us are going to be making every single day of our lives.

My husband had a very interesting Church calling a few years ago. He was called to be a bishop at the Utah State Prison, and members of his flock were men who were on death row and in maximum security. So he never met with them as a congregation; when he would meet with the people on death row, it would be kind of like what you would see on TV—you know, you’ve got sort of a little booth with the glass in between talking to each other. When people from maximum security would come and meet with him, a guard would bring them in, they would have ankle cuffs on, they would have a belt around their waist, cuffs on their hands that would be attached to that belt. They were brought into a room where there was a long pole cemented into the floor, and then they would attach the ankle cuff onto the pole.

Now, think of what that meant for them. For some of these people, they could be out of their cells for one hour every forty-eight hours. That meant they wouldn’t be able to make a phone call or take a shower or get a haircut or whatever they would do during that hour. So they were pretty motivated to try to meet with someone who could help them and guide them.

One of the inmates, named Rob, wrote an open-ended letter out there for anyone to read. He was hoping that it would be kind of a cautionary tale. In it, he talked about what he called “SUD”s, or Seemingly Unimportant Decisions. And he said, “You know, I didn’t go from A to Z in one leap. It was those little tiny decisions that didn’t seem very important at the time that got me from A to Z. You know, I had a drink with a client—just to make them feel a little bit more comfortable. And then I skipped church once in a while, and then after a while it was more than once in a while, and all of a sudden I wasn’t going to church anymore. But I didn’t really think about it. And I started with some little white lies, but the white lies got bigger and bigger and all of a sudden I was really in a mess.”

President Gordon B. Hinckley used that very same expression, “seemingly unimportant decisions.” This is what he said: “It is not so much the major events as the small, day-to-day decisions that map the course of our living. . . . Our lives are, in reality, the sum total of our seemingly unimportant decisions and of our capacity to live by those decisions.”[8]

I’d like to share with you a seemingly unimportant decision that happened in my life quite a few years ago. It was a very powerful experience for me, and I think about it regularly, even this many years later.

As was mentioned, I lived in Germany for a while, a little village called Negram in the south of Germany near Stuttgart. And at the time that I was there, there were a lot of American military bases around. After World War II, the Americans had taken over those bases and sent military people in to help the Germans rebuild their country. And that rebuilding had pretty much happened by this point in time. They were still there and working as colleagues and friends on other kinds of things.

Families lived on some of those bases, and where there were families, there were also schools—elementary, junior high, and high schools. These were American schools, American curriculum, and the classes were taught by American-trained teachers. These were called Department of Defense Dependent Schools—DODDS. We called them DODD schools. And the curriculum was very, very set, so when these families would move around quite frequently, as they would, whatever base they would go to around the world, the students would have the same curriculum. So they wouldn’t be disadvantaged by moving around with their parents as the parents were reassigned. And then when the children would come back to the US, they would have an American education.

Well, it seemed that someone had made the decision to have a pilot or trial there in their foreign language curriculum—at that time they taught French, German, and Spanish—and I assume someone had said, “Oh, we’re in Germany, we’re close to France, we’re close to Spain—why don’t we have some native language speakers teach the foreign languages?”

So that was true. There was a French teacher from France who was teaching in the high school on a base near where we lived. But the French teacher and the principal did not get along at all. They really were in conflict all the time, and one day the principal just fired her and said, “I do not want another person from France here. I only want an American teacher here.”

It just so happened that the person who was in charge of identifying and recruiting teachers from the States and helping them transition was a member of the Church and was in our ward, and he somehow learned that I had taught French. So he approached me and said, “Would you like this teaching job?” And I said no.

He said, “I am really in a bind. You know, it takes quite a while to identify a teacher and then make sure they’ve got the credentials and get them to move over.” And he started groveling. He was really pathetic, and so I said okay, and I did it.

I had been teaching for just a little while when my principal came to me and he said, “The DODD system has decided that they are going to update and kind of rewrite the foreign language curriculum, and what they want are two teachers from each of the three languages to meet at a hotel in northern Germany for a week and work on that. And I would like you to go.”

I thought, “That really doesn’t sound very fun.” And I said, “You know, I don’t actually feel qualified to do that.” And he said, “Oh. You are the most qualified person in all of Germany.”

And for a nanosecond I thought, “I am better than I thought! I must be really impressive.” Until he went on to say, “They need one person who speaks English as their first language because this is going to be for all the schools around the world, and they want to make sure it makes sense to all of the English speakers. And you happen to be the only foreign language teacher in the DODD system in Germany who speaks English as her first language.”

So with that rousing endorsement, I went. Here’s what happened: we all arrived on a Monday morning at the hotel, we checked into our rooms, and then we met, we introduced ourselves to each other, got what our charge was—what it was we were going to do—and then we went to lunch. And at lunch, I started to panic, just a little bit, all of a sudden. Because we were sitting in the hotel restaurant, and right across from me the waiter was coming, and he started pouring wine for the person across from me. I could see that he was making his way down and around the table and he would get to me.

I thought, “Oh my gosh, we are in Mainz, Germany. This is right at the heart of a premier wine-producing region of Germany. They love their wine. They’ll probably be offended if I don’t take a glass of wine. Besides, I could think of this as a cultural experience, and I didn’t order the wine. I’m not paying for it. Really, what could one glass of wine hurt?” All these things are coming in at one time. “In fact, there are doctors who think that a glass of wine is really good for your heart health.” And so I was thinking of all these things, and then I thought, “Besides, I don’t know these people. I’ll never see them again. No one will ever know.”

So just as an aside, if you hear, “No one will ever know,” that is not a Holy Ghost thought. So just get rid of that.

So I kind of surprised myself. When he finally got to me after all those thoughts rolling around, and I said, “No, thank you.” But it wasn’t really a very honorable response because I had been in Germany long enough to know they serve mineral water in wine glasses, and I thought, “If I order mineral water, then no one will ever know.” And so I had mineral water—which really is one of the worst drinks on the planet—for every meal for a week. And here’s how it worked: I got up, we had breakfast together, we worked, we had lunch together, we worked, we had dinner together, we worked. We got up the next morning. So we had no free time.

But finally, we finished everything about right before dinner on Friday, and everyone was leaving Saturday morning. So after dinner one of the people said that he knew about this great place downtown where there was wonderful music, we could order some drinks, we could just kind of visit. And I thought, “I cannot have one more glass of mineral water.” And besides, it was kind of smoky. So I came up with some excuse and decided not to go. I wished them well and said I would see them in the morning.

As I was walking back to my room, the other French teacher caught up with me and she said, “I’ve decided to stay back as well. Would you go for a water with me?”

And I thought, “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m being asked here.” And so finally I said, “I’m not really sure what you’re asking me to do.”

And she said, “I really want to talk to you. Normally, I would say, ‘Would you go for a drink with me,’ but I noticed that you only drink water, and I didn’t want to offend you.”

I said sure, so we went. I know what you’re all wondering. What did I order? Orange juice. I can still remember—it was really good. And we talked. And here was her story: when she was a young girl, these two young men in suits and ties came to their home and talked to her mother about religion. Her mother really liked meeting with them; they came several times. They gave her a book of scripture; it wasn’t a Bible. It was a different set of scripture, and she was reading it, and she was really happy. And then one day, her father came home unexpectedly, saw them in there, and he became very angry. He ordered them out of the house, never to return. He took the book and threw it in the trash.

Her mother cried and cried. The girl retrieved the book out of the trash and hid it in her bedroom and started reading it. She said, “I didn’t understand most of it, but I know how I felt when I was reading it.” And she said, “I started reading it, and my father caught me, and he took the book and he burned it in front of me, and he said, ‘We will never speak of this again.’ And we never did.

“For days I walked out trying to find those men. I never could find them. I couldn’t remember the name of their church; I couldn’t remember the name of the book. But I just prayed and prayed however I knew how to pray that someday I’d meet someone who could help me get connected with that church again. There were only two details that I could remember for sure. One is that members of this church didn’t drink wine, which was really weird for us because we drank wine with every meal. And the other was the name of the city where their church was headquartered.

“And you remember that first morning when we were introducing ourselves? Everybody gave the name of the German city where they lived, but you said you were from Salt Lake City, that weird name. You are the only person I have ever met that has both details. Do you have any idea what I am talking about?”

And you will be proud that I did not jump right over the table and grab her and say, “Do you have any idea how your life is about to change?” I was really calm. And so we talked and talked. I’ve never been on a mission—I had grown up in Salt Lake. I didn’t really know all the answers, but it was good enough. We got her with the missionaries, and her life had a very happy ending.

But one of the things that really kept bothering me after that was I thought, “What if I had taken just that one little drink of wine, that one little sip? What would have happened? Maybe she wouldn’t have joined the Church. Maybe all those people she influenced would never have gotten access to the gospel.” And then I got this peaceful feeling. I thought, you know, the Lord loves His children. He would have found a way for that woman to have access to the gospel. But I would have missed out. I would have missed out on some very important things.

Let me tell you a couple of the lessons that I thought I learned from that. I think that we are either moving firmly towards the gospel or moving away from it. I don’t believe that we are static. And I think that every seemingly unimportant little decision that we make can move us either towards our Heavenly Father and being more receptive to promptings of the Holy Ghost in our lives, or move us away. And as we move away, we don’t even notice the lack that is there.

And I think that there may be also multiple reasons why the Lord gives us commandments. The Word of Wisdom, I do believe, is a health guide for us. But I also believe it can be a powerful missionary tool. It may be a way of helping us make good decisions and testing our obedience.

I love what President Monson said about making mistakes because we’re just not going to do this perfectly all the time. He said, “One of God’s greatest gifts to us is the joy of trying again, for no failure ever need be final.”[9]

Well, we are going to make a lot of mistakes in our lives. We are going to do things that we would do differently the next time, and we have that opportunity to do it. That’s what the Atonement is all about. Elder Bruce Hafen has said this on a number of occasions—that the wonderful gift of the Atonement that allows us to learn from our mistakes without being condemned by them.[10]

It is my hope, brothers and sisters, that we will understand that seemingly unimportant decisions really do matter, whether or not we fully understand the outcome or the impact of those decisions, what might happen. Challenges and disappointments are part of this earthly experience, and if we endure them well, we can be exalted. We can learn from our shortcomings and grow and return back to our Heavenly Father. I leave my testimony with you in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


[1] Kevin W. Pearson, “Stay by the Tree,” Apr. 2015 General Conference.

[2] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Lord, I Believe,” Apr. 2013 General Conference.

[3] D&C 121:7–8

[4] For Strength of Youth, “Education,” 2011.

[5] David A. Bednar, “Chosen to Bear Testimony of My Name,” Oct. 2015 General Conference.

[6] LeGrand Richards, “Acceptance of Call to Council of the Twelve,” Conference Report, Apr. 1952, p 1111–1115).

[7] Kevin J. Worthen, “Building Character,” BYU Speeches, Sept. 8, 2015.

[8] Gordon B. Hinckley, quoted in Neal A. Maxwell, “The Tugs and Pulls of the World,” Oct. 2000 General Conference.

[9] Thomas S. Monson, “The Will Within,” Apr. 1987 General Conference.

[10] For example, see Bruce C. Hafen, “The Atonement: All for All,” Apr. 2004 General Conference.


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