We speak about “excellence” a great deal, but by definition, excellence does not come easily or quickly—an excellent education does not; a successful mission does not; a strong, loving marriage does not; rewarding personal relationships do not. It is simply a truism that nothing very valuable can come without sacrifice and effort and patience on our part. Perhaps you discovered that when you got your last grades. Maybe you are also finding that many of the most hoped-for rewards in life can seem an awfully long time coming.
My concern is that you will face some delays and disappointments at this formative time in your life and feel that no one else in the history of mankind has ever had your problems or faced those difficulties. And when some of those challenges come you will have the temptation common to us all to say, “This task is too hard. The burden is too heavy. The path is too long.” And so you decide to quit, simply to give up. Now to terminate certain kinds of tasks is not only acceptable but often very wise. If you are, for example, a flagpole sitter then I say, “Come on down.” But in life’s most crucial and telling tasks, my plea is to stick with it, to persevere, to hang in and hang on, and reap your reward. Or to be slightly more scriptural:
“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.
“Behold, the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind; and the willing and obedient shall eat the good of the land of Zion in these last days” (D&C 64:33–34).
I am asking you not to give up “for ye are laying the foundation of a great work.” That “great work” is you—your life, your future, the very fulfillment of your dreams. That “great work” is what, with effort and patience and God’s help, you can become. When days are difficult or problems seem unending, I plead with you to stay in the harness and keep pulling. You are entitled to “eat the good of the land of Zion in these last days,” but it will require your heart and a willing mind. It will require that you stay at your post and keep trying.
On May 10, 1940, as the specter of Nazi infamy moved relentlessly toward the English Channel, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was summoned to the post of prime minister of England. He hastily formed a government and on May 13 went before the House of Commons with his maiden speech.
“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’
“We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all our strength that God can give us: … That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory—victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be” (Churchill, The Life Triumphant, American Heritage Publishing Co., 1965, p. 90).
Six days later he went on radio to speak to the world at large. “This is one of the most awe-striking periods in the long history of France and Britain,” he said. “Behind us gather a group of shattered States and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians—upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall” (Churchill, p. 91).
Then two weeks later he was back before Parliament. “We shall not flag or fail,” he vowed. “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender” (Churchill, p. 91).
I share these lines with you not only because they are among the most stirring calls to patriotism and courage ever uttered in the English language, but also because I relied on them personally once.
Exactly 20 years ago last fall I stood on the famous white cliffs of Dover overlooking the English Channel, the very channel which 20 years before that ran as the only barrier between Hitler and England’s fall. In 1962 my mission was concluding, and I was concerned. My future seemed very dim and difficult. My parents were then serving a mission also, which meant I was going home to live I-did-not-quite-know-where and to pay my way I-did-not-quite-know-how. I had completed only one year of college, and I had no idea what to major in or where to seek my career. I knew I needed three more years for a baccalaureate degree and had the vague awareness that graduate school of some kind inevitably loomed up behind that.
I knew tuitions were high and jobs were scarce. And I knew there was an alarmingly wider war spreading in Southeast Asia, which could require my military service. I hoped to marry but wondered when—or if—that could be, at least under all these circumstances. My educational hopes seemed like a never-ending path into the unknown, and I had hardly begun.
So before heading home I stood one last time on the cliffs of the country I had come to love so much.
This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, . . .
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war.
(William Shakespeare, Richard II, act 2, sc. 1, lines 40, 43–44)
And there I read again,
“We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. . . . What is our aim? . . . Victory—victory at all costs; victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be. . . .
“Conquer we must; as conquer we shall. . . . We shall never surrender.”
Blood? Toil? Tears? Sweat? Well, I figured I had as much of these as anyone, so I headed home to try. I was, in the parlance of the day, determined to give it “my best shot,” however feeble that might prove to be. I ask you to do the same.
As you wage such personal wars, obviously part of the strength to “hang in there” comes from some glimpse, however faint and fleeting, of what the victory can be. It is as true as when Solomon said it that “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18). If your eyes are always on your shoelaces, if all you can see is this class or that test, this date or that friend, this disappointment or that dilemma, then it really is quite easy to throw in the towel and stop the fight. But what if it is the fight of your life? Or more precisely what if it is the fight for your life, and your eternal life at that? What if beyond this class or that test, this date or that friend, this disappointment or that dilemma you really can see and hope for all the best and right things that God has to offer. Oh, it may be blurred a bit by the perspiration that keeps running riverlike into your eyes, and in a really difficult fight one of the eyes might even be closing a bit; but faintly, dimly, and ever so far away you can see the object of it all. And you say it is worth it, you do want it, you will fight on. Like Coriantumr, you will lean upon your sword to rest a while, then rise to fight again (see Ether 15:24–30).
But how, you ask, do you get this glimpse of the future that helps you to hang on? Well, for me that is one of the great gifts of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Is it not significant that early in his life Joseph Smith was taught this lesson three times in the same night and once again the next morning? Moroni, quoting the Lord verbatim as recorded by the prophet Joel, said: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions:
“And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit” (Joel 2:28–29).
Dreaming dreams and seeing visions. The Lord’s spirit upon all flesh—sons and daughters, old and young, servants and handmaidens. I may be wrong, but I can’t imagine an Old Testament verse of any kind that could have helped this boy prophet more. He was being called into the battle of his life, for life itself, or at least for its real meaning and purpose. He would be driven and hunted and hounded. His enemies would rail and ridicule. He would see his children die and his land lost and his marriage tremble. He would languish in prison through a Missouri winter, and he would cry out toward the vault of heaven, “O God, where art thou? . . . How long . . . O Lord, how long” (D&C 121:1–3). Finally he would walk the streets of his own city uncertain who, except for a precious few, were really friend or actually foe. And all that toil and trouble, pain and perspiration would end so maliciously at Carthage—when there simply were finally more foes than friends. Felled by balls fired from the door of the jail inside and one coming through the window from outside, he fell dead into the hands of his murderers at 38 years of age.
If all of this and so much more was to face the Prophet in such a troubled lifetime, and if he finally knew what fate awaited him in Carthage, as he surely did, why didn’t he just quit somewhere along the way? Who needs it? Who needs the abuse and the persecution and the despair and death? It doesn’t sound fun to me, so why not just zip shut the cover of your scriptures, hand in your Articles of Faith cards, and go home?
Why not? For the simple reason that he had dreamed dreams and seen visions. Through the blood and the toil and the tears and the sweat, he had seen the redemption of Israel. It was out there somewhere—dimly, distantly—but it was there. So he kept his shoulder to the wheel until God said his work was finished.
And what of the other Saints? What were they to do with a martyred prophet, a persecuted past, and a hopeless future? With Joseph and Hyrum gone, shouldn’t they have just quietly slipped away also—somewhere, anywhere? What was the use? They had run and run and run. They had wept and buried their dead. They had started over so many times that their hands were bloodied and their hearts were bruised. In the name of sanity and safety and peace, why didn’t they just quit?
Well, it was those recurring dreams and compelling visions. It was spiritual strength. It was the fulfillment they knew to be ahead, no matter how faint or far away.
In their very first general conference, convened three months after the Church was organized, the Saints had recorded this:
“Much exhortation and instruction was given, and the Holy Ghost was poured out upon us in a miraculous manner—many of our number prophesied, whilst others had the heavens opened to their view. … The goodness and the condescension of a merciful God … create[d] within us sensations of rapturous gratitude and inspire[d] us with fresh zeal and energy, in the cause of truth” (Times and Seasons, 4:23).
There they were, approximately 30 members of the Church meeting in that tiny Peter Whitmer home in Fayette, planning to overthrow the Prince of Darkness and establish the kingdom of God in all the world. All the world? What presumption! Were they demented? Had they lost all power to reason? Thirty very average, garden variety Latter-day Saints willing to work with the rest of their lives? To what end? Persecution and pain and maybe 30 more members—for a grand total of 60? Perhaps they did see how limited their immediate personal success would be and maybe they even saw the trouble ahead, but they saw something more. It was all in that business of the influence of the Holy Ghost and heavens being opened to their view. President John Taylor said later of that experience:
“A few men assembled in a log cabin; they saw visions of heaven, and gazed upon the eternal world; they looked through the rent vista of futurity, and beheld the glories of eternity; … they were laying the foundation for the salvation of the world” (History of the Church, 6:295).
Now there was a lot of bad road between that first conference of 30 people and a church which would one day have nations flocking to it. And, unless I miss my guess, there are several miles of bad road ahead of that church yet. But to have seen it and felt it and believed it kept them from growing “weary in well-doing,” helped them believe even in the most difficult of times that “out of small things proceedeth that which is great.” In a battle far more important than World War II would be, these Saints also vowed victory, however long and hard the road.