Teachings of Howard W. Hunter Lesson 11: "True Greatness"


We live in a world that promotes personal greatness. The entrepreneurial spirit, the Internet, the modern spirit of invention, Hollywood, and social media all promote the concept that each person not only can, but should be searching for the fame and fortune that so many around us seem to be achieving.

This is where we run into the false notions and fallacies of personal greatness. First of all it is not true that the kind of wealth and fame promoted by so many are available to the masses, at least not in the quantities they would like us to believe in. The belief that wild amounts of money, or great popularity, or millions of followers online will make us happy and make us the kind of people we have always wanted to be is false.

From the time we learn that Jesus wants us for a Sunbeam through the time we learn more fully the basic principles of the gospel, we are taught to strive for perfection. It is not new to us, then, to talk of the importance of achievement. The difficulty arises when inflated expectations of the world alter the definition of greatness.

The Lord’s definition

Let’s look at what the Lord’s servants, the prophets have to teach us about being great.

Because we are being constantly exposed to the world’s definition of greatness, it is understandable that we make comparisons between what we are and what others are—or seem to be—and also between what we have and what others have. Although it is true that making comparisons can be beneficial and may motivate us to accomplish much good and to improve our lives, we often allow unfair and improper comparisons to destroy our happiness when they cause us to feel unfulfilled or inadequate or unsuccessful. Sometimes, because of these feelings, we are led into error and dwell on our failures while ignoring aspects of our lives that may contain elements of true greatness.

In 1905, President Joseph F. Smith made this most profound statement about true greatness:

“Those things which we call extraordinary, remarkable, or unusual may make history, but they do not make real life.
“After all, to do well those things which God ordained to be the common lot of all mankind, is the truest greatness. To be a successful father or a successful mother is greater than to be a successful general or a successful statesman.” (Juvenile Instructor, 15 Dec. 1905, p. 752.)

Wait! Did President Smith just say that true greatness comes from doing “well those things which God ordained to be the common lot of all mankind?” Aren’t “the common lot” and “true greatness” kind of on the opposite ends of the greatness scale? I had to sit and think about that for a while.

If you were asked to name some truly great people of the last century, many would give names like Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, etc. But if you were asked to give the names of truly great people whom you know personally, how many would name their mother, or their father, their Bishop, a home or visiting teacher, a grade school teacher, or a neighbor. Why do we think these people are any less great than Gandhi or any of the others?

Perhaps we don’t think of our mother/father as being as great because they don’t have the fame or name recognition attached to their service. And it is service that makes those close to us great, right? It has nothing to do with how wealthy our neighbor is or how many people know the reputation of our grade school teacher. These people are great to us because of how valuable their service, their kindness, their devotion to their duty has been. It is all about selfless service and sacrifice. “... It is the thousands of little deeds and tasks of service and sacrifice that constitute the giving, or losing, of one’s life for others and for the Lord.”

Greatness is a natural ability

We are all children of God. We all have the capacity to become like our eternal parents, if that is what we choose. Greatness is an inherited trait. The question lies in defining true greatness and learning how to achieve it. Satan does his level best to derail us in our efforts to live up to our potential by twisting our perception of what we are supposed to do to become great.

The quote above from President Smith says that “Those things which we call extraordinary, remarkable, or unusual may make history, but they do not make real life.” We sometimes need to remind ourselves that the Lord is not so concerned about what we do as He is with what we become. True greatness must involve becoming more than we currently are. This is why President Hunter says, “It is the thousands of little deeds and tasks of service and sacrifice that constitute the giving, or losing, of one’s life for others and for the Lord.”

Developing Character creates greatness

If it is thousands of little deeds and tasks of service and sacrifice that make up greatness, what all does that entail? Think of your parent or someone you are totally devoted to. What is it about them that puts them on the pedestal, that lifts them up above all the rest of humanity around you?

Did they do one heroic act for you? Did they bail you out of trouble once? Is their greatness based on one single act or on too many for you to count or even remember? This is the type of service and sacrifice the prophets are talking about that make one truly great. This is why people so often refer to their “angel mother.” People like this suffer for us, sacrifice for us, serve us, and give of themselves, even if it causes them hurt to themselves. This is the demonstration of the extent of their love and devotion for us. Even the scriptures teach us that we love Christ because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

To do one’s best in the face of the commonplace struggles of life—and possibly in the face of failure—and to continue to endure and to persevere in the ongoing difficulties of life when those struggles and tasks contribute to others’ progress and happiness and one’s own eternal salvation—this is true greatness.

The parent who works in a dead end job they hate just so their children will be fed and clothed and have the necessities of life, fall into this category of greatness. The parent who goes without a social life for 30 years until the children are raised falls under this category of greatness. The parent/spouse who cares for an ailing family member or spouse 24/7 for years on end falls under this category of greatness.

Greatness does not come with ease, nor does it come quickly. Greatness comes with the slow and steady development of character. It takes years of effort.

... There is no such thing as instant greatness. The achievement of true greatness is a long-term process. It may involve occasional setbacks. The end result may not always be clearly visible, but it seems that it always requires regular, consistent, small, and sometimes ordinary and mundane steps over a long period of time. We should remember that it was the Lord who said, “Out of small things proceedeth that which is great.” (D&C 64:33.)

Greatness is not always obvious

To the mother who has raised her family and looks around and sees the comfort of other women who worked instead of raising a family, her personal greatness will not be inherently obvious to her. To the father who fulfilled his duty as a provider, but was never able to become comfortably well off probably won’t feel like a great man.

It appears to me that the kind of greatness that our Father in Heaven would have us pursue is within the grasp of all who are within the gospel net.

Any of us can become great in the eyes of God. His gospel teaches us how to serve, sacrifice, love and influence for good. In the process we learn how to serve selflessly, without forethought. We learn to give and sacrifice without thinking of a return on our efforts. The joy of service is what counts. This is what service in the Church is supposed to teach us.

As a result, we often don’t see how unusual our behavior is to the rest of the world. When we give as the Savior gave, and live and love as the Savior did, we become like Him. And that is most unusual!

We should strive to remember the words of the Apostle Paul, especially if we are unhappy with our lives and feeling that we have not achieved some form of greatness. He wrote:

“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;
“While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:17–18.)

The small things are significant. We remember not the amount offered by the Pharisee but the widow’s mite, not the power and strength of the Philistine army but the courage and conviction of David.

The things which are seen are the things the world measures as being worthy of greatness. That is the only scale available to them. But the Lord looks on the heart. He sees those things which the world cannot see, the life of service and sacrifice, the nobility of character such a life has developed, and counts us great in His eyes.

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