“Usefulness” was a coveted characteristic of the late-1800s LDS woman. In Woman’s Exponent eulogistic poetry—a very typical Victorian woman’s style and theme— Mormon women poets consistently praised other women for being “useful.” I know, I know: what a compliment. But Eliza R. Snow explained why LDS people should try to be useful in a statement in the Woman’s Exponent: “What is true greatness? In human character, usefulness constitutes greatness. . . . In the estimation of holy intelligences, the most useful character or person is the greatest.”
That must have been a great comfort to pioneer Mormons diligently working away at their pioneer tasks and the daily duties of feeding, tending, and raising a family. Household and farm chores became the makings of godhood.
It seems to me that we—much more unconsciously—have maintained the “useful” traditions of our fathers and mothers. Here’s a smattering of examples:
”A Message Concerning Preparation for Relief Measures” (1933) quoted in the 2003 Ensign suggests that the LDS leaders persuade members to stay out of debt and be frugal because “by no other course will our people place themselves in that position of helpful usefulness to the world which the Lord intends we shall take.” The same article reminds members of Acts 20:35: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
“Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel” encourages saints to be “willing” and “wear the worker’s seal” as they “put their shoulder to the wheel” and “push along.” Other verses glorify those with “helping hands” and those who “don’t stand idly looking on.”
The hymn “More Holiness Give Me” explicitly equates being “more fit for the kingdom” and “more, Savior, like thee” with being “more used.”
Numerous scripture references speak about being “instruments in the hands of God,” or, in other words, being useful to God through missionary work or in some other way—and numerous talks by General Authorities quote those scriptures and expound on those ideas.
At times I have found the idea of usefulness to be very motivating. I was a shy child. At some point in time, I realized that God needed me (I’m not generalizing here; shyness is not a sin) to be more open, more able to speak in public, and more able to handle social situations. I am more useful to him if I am less withdrawn and introverted. The idea of being useful to God in the building of his kingdom has motivated me to learn skills, acquire knowledge, and alter parts of my personality so I will be a suitable instrument in His hands.
However, I am now questioning the usefulness of “usefulness.” I acquired some permanent health problems a few years ago. Now that I feel dramatically less useful than I used to, I’m wondering how helpful the rhetoric of usefulness is. On good days, I think, “Well, I’m being used to my capacity, and God knew this would be my capacity. It’s not a very great capacity, but I do what I can.” On bad days, I think, “Sure, I’m useful. I’m useful for everyone else to practice their charitable instincts on,” which is a rather depressing thought to one raised with an ethic of hard work. I sit while others decide whether to serve me. It stings.
This is a bit more than the old “we can all give help and sometimes we need to accept help” type of comment. Trust me, I can accept a casserole when my baby is born as well as anyone. The question is one of when needing help is your permanent condition. What if—for the rest of this mortal life—you will be taking rather than giving? Who can help but remember that it is more blessed to give? How “useful” to her family and the kingdom of God is a disabled mother? Or a disabled child? Or a mentally handicapped person? The questions are abhorrent because they equate the value of life with utility. But doesn’t the rhetoric of usefulness set us up to do just that?
I realize that all of us are more or less useful to God. We are all less obedient, faithful, or willing than we could be. So, yes, in a sense all of us are handicapped; we are not as useful to God in the building of His kingdom as a perfect person would be. Yet obedience, faithfulness, or willingness are generally within a person’s capacity to control; physical, mental, and emotional issues may be stunningly less so. Is a person excused from the rhetoric of usefulness if he or she is mentally, emotionally, or physically disabled? Can I opt out of singing, “More used would I be / more Savior like thee”?
Is it really more Christ-like to be more useful?
My husband’s mission president was once teaching us about obedience. He said, “If God wants you to sit there and twiddle your thumbs, you do it.” For years, I’ve (ironically) found that saying to be a rousing call to action; I like to work hard doing whatever God wants me to do. Now that I am less useful, I hate the idea of twiddling my thumbs for God; I find that it is much easier said than done. Even on days when I can’t do much else.
Synonyms for “Useful”—helpful, practical, functional, of use, constructive, positive, valuable, handy
Synonyms for “Useless”—ineffective, hopeless, of no use, a waste of time, futile, ineffectual, inadequate, worthless