One unique aspect of the missionary experience is the opportunity to focus everything you do, day and night, directly on the goal of serving God. It can be kind of scary to set that as your project, because it is a tall order. Serving God for one day is hard enough; you run out of ideas. Serving God for two years takes a lot of creativity and thought. On the other hand, how else can you really make sense of an idea as big as God? How can you seriously expect to understand God if you never devote more than a few hours at a time? It takes a lot of time and work and growth.
This is essentially the thought that drove me to serve a mission. By the time I was in college, I had had enough tough questions asked me, and known enough people who thought differently from me, that it became clear that I had not figured God out. I knew God existed, and I believed he had sent prophets, come to Earth, founded a church, etc., but I had a lot of questions about what faith really is (does it mean setting aside reason?), how to feel about people who didn’t believe (aren’t they wonderful people too?), what to think about those who prayed and did not receive the answers I had received from God . . . These were deep questions, and the questions were coming much faster than the answers.
I needed to take some time and clear my agenda to work out my relationship with and my understanding of God. I didn’t want to keep on living my life in the dark, sweeping these questions under the rug. That would be like driving down a freeway without being sure whether you had missed your turn or not. You can do that for a few minutes, but the longer you go, the farther off track you are likely to be, and the more time you will waste driving back to where you should have been the whole time, the more you will miss of whatever you were driving to get to. If you have another two hours of driving to do, it’s worth five minutes to pull off and look at the map. I figured two years was about the right amount of time to figure out what I needed to live my life right.
A lot of missionaries don’t have the kind of questions that I did, at least when they start out. The questions haven’t occurred to them. They haven’t necessarily had to explain their beliefs, or they have explained them mainly to sympathetic audiences, or they haven’t really known and admired someone well enough who didn’t reach the same conclusions, to feel the need to dig deeper.
I hadn’t exactly counted on what it would be like to be around other people who were also trying to devote themselves to God, night and day, for two years (or one and a half, in the case of the sisters). There’s no more serious business, and disagreeing somehow becomes a much bigger deal than it would usually be. My trainer called me an apostate and called the mission home because I said we should talk to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to our door. I thought, hey, they want to talk about religion with us, unlike most people we meet; why not talk to them? The faith of a sincere search for knowledge looks rather different from the faith of resting assured, and I couldn’t share too many of my questions with my companions. It was too upsetting to them. When I saw my trainer’s face that day, though, I knew he wasn’t trying to make things difficult for me. He was honestly shocked. So I realized I needed to slow down and get to know these guys better, and share my thoughts more selectively. Actually, just what I was learning about our investigators–to find out about them and build on common beliefs, to reach some common basis for understanding, and then challenge them gently, from a basis of trust.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned as a missionary is what I learned from being around my companions, who were very different from me. I learned to listen, to notice what matters to people, not to step on it, but to respect their honest efforts to make the world a better place, and when I needed to correct them, to correct them in light of standards whose value they could understand and relate to. This is the way I tried to approach my investigators, and over time, I think I became pretty good at it. It’s also what I took the basic message of the Missionary Guide, our training manual, to be. It was a lot of work learning to do this. It was very uncomfortable for months and months. It would have been much easier to just do my own thing, but how else is a community ever supposed to work? If God wants to unite his family in love, isn’t that something we have to learn? We have to be good at being together.