I would like to say a few words on behalf of obligation. And guilt. Two great tastes that taste great together.
Last month a member of our ward passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly. She was a pillar of the community; her husband had been bishop when the ward was first formed, she had later served as the Relief Society president, and they were currently working as Primary teachers. Everyone knew her. Everyone loved her. The loss is still fresh, and the ward is still mourning.
On that first Sunday, when they asked for volunteers to bring the family meals, help with the funeral service and offer other support, the list of those who signed up filled two pages. It was a testament to how beloved this woman was and how much service she had given over the years to so many people. It was heart-warming, but at the same time, it made me think about other people in the ward–people I probably haven’t even met yet, and may never–who go largely unnoticed most of the time but whose needs are just as genuine. People don’t line up to bring those folks casseroles. They’re the type for whom the Compassionate Service Leader has to scour the ward list to find someone willing and able to lend a hand.
It isn’t “wrong” that so many people are ready to serve the more “popular” (for want of a better word) ward members. Of course the people who give so much naturally receive our affection and admiration; they make us want to do things for them. That is beautiful and inspiring. It’s the way things are supposed to work, and it should work that way more often.
However, a lot of the service we render in the church is not necessarily borne of inspirational affection and admiration. We do it because we feel obligated to do it and guilty if we don’t. It’s the kind of service we like to complain about. We complain about giving it, and sometimes we even complain about receiving it. No one wants to feel like an assignment or a project. Service performed out of mere duty usually feels less warm and fuzzy than service performed out of pure charity. (Charity never faileth; duty sometimes bloweth.) But without assignments and projects and an unrelenting sense of duty, much of the service that needs to be done simply wouldn’t happen.
When my husband was in graduate school, we lived in one of those “transient” wards. People were always moving in and moving out. Many of these members were not particularly active in church, but they all had needs–a lot of them moving-related. My husband was in the elders quorum presidency, and I think that nine out of ten Saturdays he spent just helping people move. It got to be very tiresome. For me, anyway. We had two little kids, my husband spent a lot of hours in the lab, and I would have strongly preferred that he spend Saturdays at home with us, not helping random strangers who owned a lot of cats and didn’t know how to pack their own belongings.
One evening the elders quorum president called and asked for my husband, who happened to be in the lab (as usual). The EQP said he was looking for people to help with a move that upcoming Saturday–surprise, surprise–and wondered if my husband would be available. Then he added something else: “I’m sorry to keep calling you guys, but it’s hard to find people who will say yes. I know that if I ask, Brother J will always say yes. I appreciate that he says yes, but I still feel bad asking.” I told him Brother J would certainly help with the move. (He always said yes.) The EQP then thanked me for sacrificing my husband for another Saturday. I appreciated his appreciation, but knowing what I knew–that if Brother J didn’t show up, it would most likely be only the EQP and possibly (if he was lucky) one other elder doing the work–I could not and would not have done otherwise.
Sometimes obligation just doesn’t feel good. When I was a youth, I heard some EFY speaker say that our mantra should be, “If I don’t do it, who should?” The should is very important. It may well be that if I don’t do it, someone else will, but who should? It was a profound question to me then, and it would actually be my mantra for several years, all the time I was single and had nothing better to do than serve others. Note: I am hardly implying, God forbid, that all single people have so much time on their hands. I am saying that I did, and I was a much better person when I was using it to do things other people couldn’t–or wouldn’t–do. When I got married and started having children and therefore had immediate family obligations that did not factor into my joyful service earlier, the mantra became a little less endearing. There are many wards where only a handful of people do the lion’s share of the work. (I say “many” because I don’t have proof positive that it is “most,” although I wouldn’t bet against that.) There came a point in my life when I asked myself, “If I don’t do it [or if my husband doesn't do it], who should?” and found myself answering, “Well, I know exactly who should. I can think of about twenty people who should. And none of them is us!”
I’m sure this is not my unique experience.
Sometimes we can’t help. Sometimes we technically could help, but seriously, we’d better not. For example, if your wife is in labor and the EQP asks you to help with a move, you should say no. (Note: My husband never had to make this choice. Fortunately for me.) We all have limitations, and here’s an ugly truth: there are people out there who are just plain shameless when it comes to requesting the service of others. (Note: If you’ve ever thought to ask yourself if you’re one of these people, trust me, you’re not.) There comes a point at which such “help” does more harm than good. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. The rule is that we’re obligated to serve, and we are not entitled to feel warm and fuzzy about it. Sometimes we will only serve because we feel guilty saying no, and sometimes we will resent that guilt–resent it with a vengeance–but serve we still do because we still must.
Of course service rendered with resentment does not count for as much righteousness as service rendered with a joyful heart. God loveth a cheerful giver (thus saith 2 Corinthians 9). And thus saith Moroni 7:6-8,
For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift…except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.
For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.
For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.
I have to say that in recent years I have had trouble with these verses. And not because I’m stewing in resentment over all the service I’ve had to give. We now live in an enormous ward, where I have to make a special effort to render service; I am rarely asked to do anything. (And it’s been ages since my husband had to help anyone move.) It’s actually from the perspective of recipient that I take issue with Moroni’s words here (albeit respectfully and humbly because I love Moroni, seriously).
I have been on the receiving end of service more times than I can count. I have needed a lot of service over the years. I have been in the position of having to ask for service–which, in case you’ve never experienced it, just isn’t that fun. (Really, wouldn’t it be so much easier if all of life were an Ensign article and the Holy Ghost just automatically told people when we needed their help? That would be so awesome.) And I’m going to be blunt with you kids: I didn’t care with what emotion the service was rendered nearly as much as I cared that it was rendered, period. If you’re helping me out and secretly resenting it, that’s okay by me. (But by all means, do keep it a secret. Openly resenting it would probably result in me cheerfully declining your help, and that would suck for me.) In fact, when it comes right down to brass tacks, as it were–when we are at the final judgment bar and someone says, “You offered Sister J a gift grudgingly, which doesn’t count for righteousness,” I am prepared to stand up and declare, “With all due respect, Lord, it would have been far easier for this person to just stay home and do something they would have enjoyed. But instead they dragged their resentful can out to my place and helped me out because they figured you’d want them to, and that counts for a crapload of righteousness in my book.” Okay, maybe I would not say “crapload,” given the audience. Maybe I would say “big fat gobs” instead, but the point remains: insofar as you have served me, I am grateful, because I needed that service. I don’t care what motivated you. I hope God blesses you anyway.
So, yeah, it’s fun and easy to complain about having to help people move. No one minds occasionally helping people out–especially if they’re your friends–but when you have to do this stuff again and again and again and sometimes for people you don’t even really know and maybe you don’t even like so much–that gets seriously tiresome. I remember the resentment over my husband spending every Saturday helping with yet another move. But that was Hypocrite Me because how many times has the elders quorum helped my family move? Lots Of Times. (Granted, we did not have seventeen cats and all of our stuff was already packed when they showed up and it only took an hour or two instead of all freaking day, but STILL. I mean, we had a piano, for gosh sake.) Moving sucks. When we help people move, we are doing God’s work. Even if we hate doing it, we’re still doing it, and that’s a good thing.
Does Satan really rejoice when we help someone out, even while we hate every minute of it? I should think he’d find it terribly frustrating, actually. Satan doesn’t want us to help each other. God does. Of course he wants us to do it joyfully because he wants us to find joy in doing good things. And I believe that eventually one can accumulate joy, even with a crapload of resentment along the way. If we stop doing good, it is easy not to start again. (All you have to do is nothing!) When we keep doing good, regardless of how it makes us feel (and it can’t always make us feel good), I believe God likes that. And Satan thinks, “Curses! Foiled again!”
Is there a time to say “no”? Yes. And resentment isn’t good for the soul; I’ve said that as often as anybody else. But I’d still much rather live in a ward where the members were seething with resentment while serving one another than in a ward where everyone happily served only their friends, and only when it was convenient.