Tomorrow two of my very favorite missionaries go home. I haven’t seen them in months… but it is still strange to think that they won’t be here in my mission, and that they won’t be full-time missionaries any longer. Two years of service is quite an offering to God, don’t you think? When you look at most nineteen- to 21-year-old men in the world, there is a stark contrast from our missionaries. I have heard people call it “two years of sacrifice.” I suppose in a way, it is. But most of the missionaries I know do not think of it as a sacrifice, but rather a privilege.
One thing that I have noticed about the very best missionaries… a thing that sets them apart from the rest… is that their desire to bring souls to Jesus Christ through baptism, and their desire to serve… is always far greater than their ultimately human ability to accomplish. No matter how many people they find, teach, baptize and serve, it cannot not match their desire to do so much more.
This desire can be a great thing. It is a motivator. It drives them to work harder, to pray harder… to be more and more obedient to the rules. But it can also be a source of discouragement when their results do not reach their desires. But this, I believe, is where an amazing doctrine comes into play. I don’t believe that we are judged solely on our accomplishments. I have heard people say that Mormons think they are “working their way to heaven.” We actually don’t believe that at all!
There is a part of the Atonement that we call “grace.” Through this beautiful principle of grace, the Savior has the power to add his perfecting power to our daily efforts. He adds to us. I believe that if you are looking at two years of a mission as an offering to the Lord, you take all the work, all the baptisms, all the service. And then, through the power of the Atonement, you add the righteous desires and what is in your heart… the perfecting power of the Savior, Jesus Christ. And that, finally, is the sum total of a mission. That is your offering to the Lord. And when you look at it that way, it is not just “the best two years.” You don’t just “return with honor.” To describe it in such commonplace terms does not do it the justice it demands.
Without the Atonement, a mission is a great thing to do. But through the grace of Jesus Christ, for whom these missionaries serve, a mission becomes something infinitely more. It becomes glorious, even triumphant. Through grace, we become so much more than we ever could by our own efforts. None of us could ever work our way to heaven.
When my own sons return from their missions, I feel what a bittersweet thing it is to finish a mission. Watching them, it has even become a bittersweet thing for me. I feel a little pain, realizing how the mission goes on without them, wherever they served, and yet I am so happy to welcome them home. I must say, I’m a little sad today, thinking that this is the last day of my friends’ missions. But I hope tomorrow is rewarding for these two great families and their missionaries. I pray they can catch a glimpse of that glory and triumph peeking through. There is a little magic in that… the real kind.