While serving in Brazil as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I often read the stories of the Apostle Paul and the accounts of the great Book of Mormon missionaries Ammon and Aaron. I studied the way that Paul shamelessly declared the Gospel of Christ, which he called, “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16), and I wondered at the way Aaron brought a hostile king to his knees in prayer by saying, “[I]f thou wilt repent of all thy sins, and wilt bow down before God, and call on his name in faith…then shalt thou receive the hope which thou desirest” (Alma 22:16). Reading about their courage and boldness filled me with the desire to, like Paul, stand on the Areopagus and preach repentance as with the voice of thunder. For all of that desire, though, I often found that my reticence kept me from talking to people in the streets with the Pauline zeal I yearned for. When I thought about the Corinthians, Ephesians, and Romans and the faith in Christ that Paul had instilled in them, I sometimes let myself think that the Lord expected the very same thing from me. When I realized that even my best and most concerted efforts would never make any lasting impression on the nations of the world, I worried that maybe I had, as a consequence of my reserved nature, put my light under a bushel instead of on a candlestick (Matthew 5:15).
At one point during my two years as a missionary, though, I read the Savior’s teaching about a man who had left different sums of money with three of his servants, giving them five, two, and one talent, respectively. When the man returned from his journeys, he demanded an account of what his servants had done with their shares.
As I read, feeling overwhelmed by my inability to be the type of missionary that Paul had been, my attention fixated on the servant who had been given two talents. Like the servant who had been given five talents, the one who had been given two had doubled the initial investment, ending up with four. While his bottom line was not, maybe, as impressive as the one who had ended up with ten talents, their lord made no distinction between the two men. To each, the master said, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of the Lord” (Matthew 25:21, 23). I began then to understand that the Lord doesn’t expect a two-talent person to end up with ten talents—and that the Lord doesn’t see the two-talent person’s end result of four as coming up short. Once I understood that, I stopped worrying about finding ways to get my two talents to add up to Paul’s ten, and I started looking for ways to use the gifts I did have in abundance in order to help bring others to the joy of the gospel.
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught the same principal I learned when he said:
I want to tell you something that I hope you will take in the right way: God is fully aware that you and I are not perfect.
Let me add: God is also fully aware that the people you think are perfect are not.
And yet we spend so much time and energy comparing ourselves to others—usually comparing our weaknesses to their strengths. This drives us to create expectations for ourselves that are impossible to meet. As a result, we never celebrate our good efforts because they seem to be less than what someone else does.
The fact that we don’t all start out with five talents doesn’t bother God. It shouldn’t bother us either, then, to realize that, in some aspects of our lives, we’ve started out with some built-in weaknesses. I made the mistake of thinking that I had to be every bit the missionary that Paul was. Some who are new to their faith may think that they need to know every bit as much as those who have known the gospel their entire lives. Others may have a gift for artistic expression and yet envy what seems to them to be the more apparent and worthwhile success of gifted mechanical engineers. We miss something, though—the chance to leave our own mark for good in the world—when we fret over the gifts we don’t have. Surely, our time would be better spent developing and sharpening the gifts that we do have.
The Book of Mormon teaches that “all…things [should be] done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in wisdom and order” (Mosiah 4:27). When I was pursuing Paul’s potential instead of my own, I wasn’t accomplishing much good at all. In fact, I was only succeeding at exhausting and discouraging myself. Once I stopped trying to turn my two talents into ten, however, I started to make more meaningful—albeit fewer—contacts with people who were sincerely seeking the truth. Once I stopped trying to impact the nations of the world, I started to see how the Lord was able to use my talents—not Paul’s—to impact individual lives. As a result, I began to see the workings of God as the workings of a loving Father who is invested in the individual success of each of His children, whether they start out with five talents, two, or even one.
Of course, even as I say that focusing on our gifts rather than worrying about our weaknesses is often, if not always, the best way to live, I do not mean to give myself or anyone else an excuse to slack off. Let’s remember that, while the lord was well pleased with the two servants who doubled their allotments, the one who did nothing to increase his portion was cast “into outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30). Just because the lord in the parable was satisfied with the second servant’s four talents doesn’t mean that he would have been pleased if the first servant had come back with the same five he had received in the beginning. The Lord wants us to improve the gifts and talents He has given us, so, while it may not matter as much to Him how much we have to show at the end, it willl matter very much to Him how much we have improved since the beginning. Cautioning against the attitude that prevents us from improving the gifts we start out with, the late James E. Faust taught:
Some of us are too content with what we may already be doing…. We miss opportunities to build up the kingdom of God because we have the passive notion that someone else will take care of it. Some of the most rewarding times of our lives are those “extra mile” hours given in service when the body says it wants to relax, but our better self emerges and says, “Here am I; send me.”
Just as I know that overreaching can be disastrous, I know that we can only grow when we stretch. Finding the right balance can be difficult: it’s a challenge for me to work out a proper balance sometimes in the changing circumstances of my life. However, I know that when I’ve reached without overreaching, I’ve found success in place of stagnation or discouragement. I also know that, as I’ve focused on improving what I have rather than languising in despair over what I lack, I’ve felt the strength and support of the Lord at work, helping me to walk that extra mile, helping me to stand a little straighter and to be a little better. I’ve come to trust more fully that He really is the “author and finisher of [my] faith” and of every other good thing that I might hope to accomplish (Hebrews 12:2).