Latter-day Saint Life

Latter-day Saint psychologist: Addressing perceptions surrounding missionaries who return home early


I distinctly remember getting an unexpected phone call on a Friday afternoon. I didn’t recognize the number except that it was from Utah. As I answered, one of the Provo Missionary Training Center (MTC) presidents told me two things: 1. Our son was being sent home from the MTC. 2. We needed to get on a plane as soon as possible to come get him. My heart was flooded with simultaneous emotions of bewilderment, anxiety, and sadness. A few hours later we were on a plane from Portland to Salt Lake City. My mind raced with questions: Why was he coming home? What would the future hold? What could we have done to better prepare him? We soon learned our son had an undiagnosed anxiety condition. The stressors of full-time missionary service had exacerbated his distress to the point of needing to be released.

Our son’s story is not unique. Full-time missionaries come home early for many reasons: mental health problems, unresolved transgressions, physical sicknesses, and family issues. I hope such sisters and elders, who have made great efforts to act in faith, are welcomed home with open arms and equal celebration to that of their counterparts who come home on their original schedule. Those dear missionaries whose service was cut short already bear a load of grief and potential shame; we should never add to their pain through our actions or comments. In speaking of difficult trials, particularly mental health struggles, Elder Erich W. Kopischke stated, “Many, feeling overwhelmed because they do not meet perceived standards, mistakenly believe they have no place in the Church.” Our loving acceptance can help create a space where such individuals can correct their beliefs and realize the Church is a place for everyone, particularly those who have fallen short. But what happens when we do not meet the original expectations? How can we cope with that?

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Understanding “Perceived Standards”

I appreciate Elder Kopischke’s reference to “perceived standards,” because that seems different to me than actual standards. We all see the world through our own distorted lens. A significant part of life is learning to align our minds and wills with that of our Savior. If we perceive things incorrectly, we may struggle with feelings of shame and guilt that otherwise wouldn’t have to be. Elder Lawrence W. Corbridge stated, “People say, ‘You should be true to your beliefs.’ While that is true, you cannot be better than what you know. Most of us act based on our beliefs, especially what we believe to be in our self-interest. The problem is, we are sometimes wrong…. When you act badly, you may think you are bad, when in truth you are usually mistaken. You are just wrong. The challenge is not so much closing the gap between our actions and our beliefs; rather, the challenge is closing the gap between our beliefs and the truth. That is the challenge.” Closing the gap between our beliefs and the truth will help us better understand the will of our Heavenly Father, especially when it comes to matters of perceived failure.

The early Saints were commanded to build a temple in Jackson County, Missouri. They tried diligently to do this, including purchasing land and making detailed preparations. However, as persecution increased, they were forced to abandon their plans. One could certainly presume the Saints had fallen short in this situation. Did that make them unacceptable to the Lord? In contrast, there are plenty of examples in scripture where others have succeeded despite extreme odds. What about Helaman’s stripling warriors who defeated Lamanite soldiers who were probably twice their size? Or what of Nephi who ventured back into Laban’s house after having his life threatened, successfully accomplishing his divine task? With these seemingly opposing scenarios, how does the Lord feel about failure? What does He expect, particularly in situations where difficulties create roadblocks that can be formidable? He explained His position to the early Missouri Saints: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that when I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings (Doctrine and Covenants 124:49, emphasis added).

I suppose one can argue regarding what it means for “their enemies to come upon them,” but the theme of this scripture is clear. The Lord is merciful. The Lord accepts our best efforts. The Lord is willing to change plans to benefit His children. Remember, the plan of salvation exists for our sakes, not for the sake of itself. Our Father in Heaven’s entire purpose is to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life (see Moses 1:39). All plans and details are merely supportive of that overall goal, and He reserves the right to change course at any time to better meet His objectives. When we feel we have fallen short, we can turn to the Lord and try to understand how He feels about our performance. Knowing of His incredible mercy, love, and acceptance, I have a hard time believing that He would hold us in contempt. In fact, I know that He won’t. When we have done our best, His grace is sufficient. To that point, His grace is always sufficient. As Brother Brad Wilcox has taught, we are not here to somehow bridge the gap between earth and heaven through our works, but rather to use our works to change our natures so we will be comfortable returning to the presence of God.

Understanding Perfection

One of the main purposes of this life is to develop heavenly characteristics. We are to literally become new creatures, shedding the traits of the natural woman and man and becoming women and men of Christ. This process is succinctly described in the Savior’s commandment, “Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect” (3 Nephi 12:48). Although perfect in nature, misunderstandings of this commandment have led to much grief for disciples of Jesus Christ. With every perceived failure, they see themselves as out of compliance with this grand directive. They feel inadequate and unacceptable. For some, the pursuit of perfection becomes a frenzied, unrelenting chase that brings no joy at all, but ongoing anxiety and sorrow. This is not our purpose. Our very existence is designed to bring happiness and joy (see 2 Nephi 2:25). Correctly understanding the path to perfection is critical in our spiritual development.

Once again, scriptural truths help us correct our perceptions and align them with accurate doctrine. Ammon taught, “Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things” (Alma 26:12, emphasis added). Moroni instructed, “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God” (Moroni 10:32, emphasis added). The doctrine is clear. We do not achieve perfection on our own. We do our best, as robust or meager as that is, and partner with Christ to magnify our efforts. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught, “Brothers and sisters, every one of us aspires to a more Christlike life than we often succeed in living. If we admit that honestly and are trying to improve, we are not hypocrites; we are human…. If we persevere, then somewhere in eternity our refinement will be finished and complete—which is the New Testament meaning of perfection.

In a way, falling short of expectations is truly par for life’s course. We were never meant to achieve everything without failure and without help. That is the essence of the need for the Savior’s Atonement. With full knowledge that we would regularly fail, Father in Heaven provided means for us to not only repent of sins, but also to receive strength in weakness. Falling short is not something to be feared or eschewed. If we can learn to accept it as an inevitable part of life, along with a consistent desire to improve and become stronger, we will find greater joy and ultimately achieve our perfect destiny.

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