We have all heard those crazy mission stories: blatant disobedience, secret combinations, bizarre cultural conditions, horrible standard of living, etc. This is not one of those stories.
I served a mission in northern Europe. We traveled on high-speed trains, ate delicious food, and enjoyed a higher standard of living than nearly anywhere else in the world. And as a mission, we were obsessed with obedience. There was this sense that only the most righteous missionaries had been called to serve in my mission and in Europe in general. And for good reason, since the temptations were so strong here—beautiful women, high standards of living, happy families who didn't believe in God, and socialism. Worst of all, socialism that worked. Mission Presidents and visiting General Authorities cultivated this obedience mentality, of course, pointing to the number of early Saints that had lived in our mission. We were promised that if we were exactly obedient to all mission rules and regulations we would participate in a “second harvest” that had long been prophesied wherein the church would again flourish in this godless nation.
I found the obedience rhetoric on my mission empowering and comforting. My whole life I wanted some sort of assurance that I was on the right path, that I was acceptable to God. My mission gave me the ideal venue—tons of rules about everything and the promise that if I were 100% obedient I would be blessed with baptisms. So I promised myself to never break the rules, no matter what.
When I was finally paired with a companion who was as righteously obedient as myself, we took the obedience thing to a whole new level. We wrote out an Action Plan and felt impressed that the Lord accepted it as a physical demonstration of our obedience. Per this plan, we literally ran to every appointment and spoke to every human being we saw. We never went home for lunch, we fasted on a weekly basis, and we asked just about everyone who had a pulse to be baptized. I can only imagine what we looked like to others, but we loved our unity in obedience. Our goal was 7 baptisms. We had none. In fact, I never baptized anyone on my mission. But I never stopped believing, and I never stopped obeying.
As a zone leader in the winter near the end of my mission, we were driving in a rural area when we saw a stalled car on the side of the road in the snow. We stopped to see if there was anything we could do to help out. Two young women were very grateful to see us and said that they just needed a ride to a nearby house a few miles away where their friend lived. My heart sunk: mission rules were very precise about who could travel in mission vehicles. Do I help out or be obedient to the rules? It only took a moment to make a decision, and I sorrowfully explained that our rules prevented us from having women passengers in our vehicle. We drove away with the women still on the side of the road.
I received all sorts of praise as a missionary, of course. I trained several times and was a mission leader for the majority of my mission. I know people looked up to me for my knowledge of the Gospel and adherence to its every prescription.
Today, I am ashamed of my mission obedience. I look back with extreme sorrow at my attitude towards missionaries and members I ignored, dismissed, and demeaned because of their lacking standards of obedience. I feel tremendous regret at lost opportunities to serve others as a Christian and as a human being. How could I have missed the glaring parallels to the parable of the Good Samaritan?
And Jesus answering said, a certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance, there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
The lawyer’s question in the parable of the Good Samaritan was “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus’ response answered the more important question, “Who am I?” Am I the obedient, scrupulous follower of God willing to disregard my fellow man in pursuit of “higher” spiritual ideas? Or am I the one who disregards any social mores or cultural wrappings to see my neighbor in every distressed and needy person?
Jesus’ parable is more revolutionary and troubling than I recognized as a missionary. He is rejecting the trappings of institutional adherence and pointing us towards visceral goodness. Compassion—with no ulterior motive—is the reigning principle of celestial living.
When in doubt, be kind, not obedient.