When I was 22, I left home to serve a full-time mission in French Polynesia. I went first to the Missionary Training Centre in Utah, USA, where I improved my French skills and learnt the basics of Tahitian, and how to teach the Gospel in both of those languages.
Serving a mission was the hardest thing I had yet done in my life. As a girl, it was completely my choice – and not one that the other girls of my peer group took. I did it because I really wanted to; because I felt that it was right for me to do. I loved the Gospel; I wanted to share it with the world.
But I wasn’t used to succeeding at things, at least in my mind. I had some very negative influences which taught me this, and it was all I knew at that point. So another reason I wanted to become a missionary was to prove, to myself and others, that I could do it. That I could do something everyone knew was not easy, something where you needed to succeed, something bigger and more consequential than anything I’d yet done. I wanted to know and to show that I could do great things. Because deep down, I knew there was more to me than others seemed to see, and than I believed.
I was actually quite afraid that I might not manage it. That I might get out there, and fail; find that I didn’t have it in me to do this audacious thing. But I was also determined; that I would do it anyway, and maybe – just maybe – I would succeed.
This probably influenced one of the promises I made to myself, and to God: that I would stay the course, no matter what. Quite a few missionaries return home early, and I was not going to do that. The main reason for that is that I felt strongly that this was correct. But my determination to succeed at this big thing also came into it. I made a similar promise to keep all the missionary rules.
And I did it. I kept both those promises. I had a wonderful experience in the MTC, and a mostly very difficult 15 months in French Polynesia. Serving a mission was hard. Like I said, it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, to that point. There were many times when I felt like I couldn’t go on; that it was too hard; that I was too weak and couldn’t ever be good at this. The others in my MTC district (all elders) said they felt the same. One lived near the airport in Faa’a (Tahiti) in his first area, and said he used to watch the planes taking off and wish he was on them. But we all stayed.
Why was it so hard? Well, we were teaching the Restored Gospel in a country where the majority of people were staunch Protestants, and this was a big part of their community life. If you left that, you didn’t just leave a church; you left your standing in the community, often your relationships with your family, etc. It was an ingrained aspect of life there, even more than the actual spiritual element. The rest were mainly Catholic, along with some newer denominations, and a few atheists (usually French). There was one really weird church, called the Church of the Hand, if I remember correctly; but we won’t go into that 😀.
So it was hard to interest people, or once interested, for them to leave this ingrained life and all its implications. This isn’t too different from most missions. Our extra-special situation was that we were also doing it in two foreign languages, in a culture and society very different to our own, with food, living conditions, expectations, and even climate all foreign to us. Then we had our own weaknesses to overcome, as we strove to live a life so removed from what we had been up ’til then – thinking far less of ourselves, living with a missionary companion 24/7, building relationships with local church members, and denying ourselves of many things we usually wouldn’t, in order to secure the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit in our work.
But here’s the thing we learnt: by doing it, even though we weren’t at first sure we could, we realised that we could do more than we knew. That making commitments, trusting God, and going about to do your best, all the time, made us able to do things we wouldn’t have imagined before. In fact, it was more than doing our best – and that’s what was so hard about it. We were forced (voluntarily) out of our comfort, beyond the boundaries of where we thought our capacity ended. Over and over. There was hardly a moment when this didn’t happen. As we just kept doing what was necessary – what we had to, because we were there, and it needed to be done – we found that it was possible.
Winston Churchill said,
Sometimes it’s not enough to do your best. Sometimes you must do what is required.
So often, I think my capacity isn’t enough to meet a trial; to overcome. I think that I’m just not strong or good enough, my desires aren’t pure enough; I’m just not the person to do this. That it’s unfair that it’s so hard; that there’s some mistake, because ‘I don’t deserve this’. Well, it’s true – my capacity isn’t enough, yet. But there’s more in me than I know. I’m thinking about what I already know my ability is, and my perspecitive is finite and also flawed. I don’t know all that’s possible. I don’t know all that’s in me. But God does. And when I choose to work with Christ to do what I think I cannot do, that potential begins to unfurl.
We are unable, until we trust that we can do it; that we haven’t been sent here without the ability – the ability which comes as God enlivens our power to endure, and to overcome our weakness. Once we realise that, and we do what’s required, not just what we think we can do, we see that we can.
In the story of Job, he continued to suffer until he realised this. That he wasn’t experiencing hardship because he was sinful (although this is always possible for us, in part), but because that is how life goes. That God hadn’t forsaken him, and he was actually able to endure the awful things which happened to him. That he was more than those circumstances, and God was still there, still aware of him, still ready to guide him. Once he realised all of this, he began to rise from his despair, and was again greatly ‘blessed’.
I wrote ‘blessed’ because the outward things are what we most recognise as blessings, or the state of being blessed. But they’re not really the greatest blessings, or the only ones. We are greatly blessed by learning this truth – that we are capable of more than we realise, that God is able, and that suffering isn’t stronger than we are. That weakness is expected, and overcomable, because there is a Plan of Salvation. That even though we look at the course in front of and around us, and see only difficulty, when we do what’s required in those conditions, we learn that we only saw part of what is real.
Serving a full-time mission was the hardest thing I’d ever done. But I did it. I survived. I even learnt great things, met excellent people, laughed, experienced joy and peace and love, and got all the warm weather I could want. By doing it, I learnt that I could do such hard things, and not fail. I found reserves of strength within me I hadn’t discovered before. If I hadn’t gone, hadn’t been so determined, and hadn’t gone through all those crazy-hard things, I wouldn’t have known that.
I like this saying from Elder Jeffrey Holland:
This is the salvation of our souls we’re talking about, not a stroll down the street. It’s going to be harder than we think is possible for us to endure. We’re going to come up against our weakness, and weaknesses, at every point. It’s the very reason for this existence – because to get to where we might be, in the presence of God, with all of our potential alive in us, beings of power and beauty and marvellous light – yes, we have to endure hard things. We have to overcome every weakness that is in us. We must become more. God is pulling us, always, towards more. We don’t have to know already that we can do it. We have to trust that God knows, and that is why so much is required of us.
Remember Esther and Job. They didn’t know they could, until they did; and they were able to do much more than they had thought. Esther was able to save her people, and not die for an ancient tradition, which seemed the most probable outcome. Job was able to endure terrible things, and still know God, and have good things restored to him. In fact, most of the people we read about in the Bible and throughout the scriptures, represent this lesson.
May you find the strength to endure and the power to overcome your weakness, as you have faith in the grace of Christ to save you, and go boldly towards the things which are required of you. May you realise that your limits are broader than you thought they were, and that with God, nothing is impossible.