Small Things Change the World
by Kenneth R. Allen
Based on an address in 2002
The Spirit often dwells in the small and humble things. As it says in 1 Nephi 16:29, ‘And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.’ Might I add that it is by just a little neglect comes great mischief as Benjamin Franklin said in Poor Richard’s Almanack.
‘For want of a nail, a shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost.
For want of a horse, a rider was lost.
For want of a rider, a message was lost.
For want of a message, a battle was lost.
For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost.
All for want of a nail.’
- George Herbert (1593-1632) (Subsequently paraphrased by Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack)
So the small things count. The Lord entrusts us with small things that we may learn to do great things. That is one of the many rich messages in the scriptures, especially in the parable of the talents, one of my very favorite scriptures. I especially like the promise made to the master’s servants who took the best care of the master’s properties. Matt. 25:23: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; thou has been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.’
This is both a temporal promise and a spiritual promise. That promise is as valid today, every Saturday morning, every day of next week, as it was 2000 years ago.
Have you ever heard of the Butterfly Effect? It was discovered some forty years ago by MIT professor Edward Lorenz who was trying to figure out how to mathematically predict the weather. This simple principle holds that the smallest things can have profound consequences. The flapping of the wings of a butterfly in China for example, could affect the weather in California. The discovery led to what is called chaos theory. But the Lord had already revealed that principle to us in scripture long ago. The smallest of choices have long term, often profound consequences. A parent’s choice of level of activity in the Church for example will impact generations of descendants. I am sure you have seen that in your own experience. For example, I have a cousin whose choices as a teenager have meant that scores of her descendants--children, grandchildren, great grandchildren--are totally unaware of their rich heritage and have no knowledge of the Gospel.
But the plan of the Lord is Agency. As tragic as it
is when wrong choices are made, it is according to the Lord’s way to allow
choices. The Lord will force no man to Heaven, as the hymn goes.
The Lord does things differently than the world. The
Lord works from the inside out; the world tries to work from the outside
in. Where it is God’s way to work on the individual soul, to use the
least intrusive influence, the still small voice, it is the world’s way to try
to change the whole environment, even by force and by war.
Small things, weak things, foolishness to the World: These are the tools of the Lord, the same tools we should come to understand.
From James 3:3-4:
3 Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about the whole body.
4 Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.
5 Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
And Alma the Younger to his son on the need to keep good records, the records that became the Book of Mormon:
6 Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.
7 And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls.
When the Apostle Paul visited the Corinthians, he played with words to make this point when he spoke of the type of people who were not chosen as leaders in the Church. He said:
1 Cor. 1:20, 25-27:
20. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called [chosen: JST]:
27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty.
And again in Ether in the Book of Mormon:
27 And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. Behold, I will show unto the Gentiles their weakness, and I will show unto them that faith, hope and charity bringeth unto me--the fountain of all righteousness.
One of the profound truths of the Gospel is that we are all equal in the sight of God. In our Church there are many opportunities to experience that reality. I recall from my mission in Germany where it was not unusual for a private in the U.S. Army to be the Elders Quorum President over lieutenants and captains, and for a colonel to be a nursery teacher. Totally strange to the way the world operates.
Menlo Park Stake President Boyd Smith related how he loved the cannery in Redwood City. I, too, remember those muggy summer evenings. It reminded me of what heaven might be like on a work day. Hard, steaming hot, dirty, noisy, chaotic. [Kind of like how a movie might depict Hell, actually.] But as you looked around you found happy people, chatty people, all doing a job. But what made it such a profound experience? It was this: all of us were working together. We were all equal, equal in the sight of God!
There is something profoundly comforting in the realization that we are all equal in the sight of God. I am a patent lawyer. I work with highly successful entrepreneurs and other lawyers. I am told I am pretty good at what I do, perhaps the best. But I try not to neglect my other obligations and interests: family, church and other non-work-related service opportunities. Those are where I find my rewards.
However, many of my colleagues are working furiously to succeed in the ways of the world. They measure their success by rank and wealth. They are married to their profession. Often, in my observation, the hardest working are the least self assured. And worldly success is their way of compensating. Their fear of failure prompts them to work even harder to secure rank and strengthen position. It reminds me of a hike to the top of Half Dome with the scouts. I easily made it up, but it was way too high for me. I stood at the peak and looked down over the edge of the abyss. I broke out in a cold sweat. Surely this is not a life’s goal, to climb so high as to put yourself in such mortal danger that a little gust of wind could end it.
Yet how many of us are literally and figuratively climbing to high places and standing at the edge of the abyss? There are those among us who simply don’t have enough healthy fear. We should not ignore or suppress that fear. Fear God and live.
In the LDS culture, rank does not mean privilege. Our guiding principles are based on sacrifice, obedience, service, and consecration.
My professional colleagues have told me that I am an example within my firm and my profession of someone who is not caught up on this treadmill of success. I have a life. I have a family. I have church responsibilities. I have a satisfying and useful hobby, where I can share with the greater community. Although I find my career rewarding, I also find these other activities extremely rewarding too. These are things that can have longer term importance than success in professional activities.
I recall the example of the late Dave Latimer. He spent his career as a postman, but he spent his life serving and teaching cub scouts and young boy scouts. Many of us remember the beautiful photographic portraits he took. He was a man of service. He never held a high office or sought rank or recognition. Yet generations of young men have paid tribute to him for his influence. He made youth feel important. Truly David Latimer was an angel who ministered service to others, and he has changed the world.
Another poignant example is Lynda Lowe, who died unexpectedly after struggling for most of her life with the consequences of polio. She had to fight for every breath she took through her entire adult life. She was in constant pain. She was confined to a wheelchair most of the time. She had to plug a hole in her throat in order to talk. Yet she always remained pleasant, made every attempt to live independently and most impressive, she served others. It was her calling to telephone the volunteers assigned to the Christmas exhibit and remind them of their assignments. She did amazing things, too, such as produce videos for television.
The Old Testament story of the Test of Abraham comes to
mind. As you may recall, in Genesis Chapter 22, the Prophet Abraham was
commanded of God to take his son Isaac to a high mountain and to sacrifice him
as a burnt offering. You would think that this would be extremely
troubling. Why would God demand such a horrible thing? Why was God
This was a test, but not for the benefit of God to see if
Abraham would be obedient. God, being all knowing, of course knew what
Abraham would do. The test was for Abraham himself. Abraham needed
to learn something about Abraham! He needed to know that he was a
faithful servant of the Lord. He needed to know that he could be tried to
the core and succeed.
God knows your heart. But do you? Can you pass
the Test of Abraham in your life? Perhaps not yet. Because this is
the type of test that is reserved for those who are about to be granted
exaltation. Because if you pass this sort of test, you can return to
God. When you pass your Test, you feel empowered to do anything that is
asked of you and you aren’t affected by what others feel about you. You
have established such a sure faith in God that you know the inspiration you
receive is of God. You learn to love God more than yourself. It is
THE goal worth seeking. But it is not a path you would ever want to seek
The preparation for your test starts with being faithful in
the small things. For young people seeking a full and rich life,
education, and a career, it could mean being faithful not only in Church
participation and service, but also in seminary attendance to graduation.
It could mean learning of the richness in the Gospel message and the challenge
of serving as a missionary. As compared to a lot of what will challenge
you, Seminary attendance is so easy. On the other hand, what impact will
it be if you choose to sleep in just one morning, and the next and the
next. Or you are always late to seminary. One thing leads to
another, and another. Soon it loses its importance, and soon you won’t be
able to complete the course.
‘A religion that does not require sacrifice is not sufficient to return you to God." Each of us is being tested by God. Each of us is required to sacrifice, that is, to do that which is sacred. We are asked to live a law, a law of sacrifice. It becomes the law of consecration, with all of the blessings given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is through living the law of consecration that we come to an understanding of the mind and will of God.
I have a whole list of hymns from our hymnbook that make the point that doing the little things are what counts are what help us come to this understanding of the mind and will of God. Here is a list of titles:
218 WE GIVE THEE BUT THINE OWN
219 BECAUSE I HAVE BEEN GIVEN MUCH
220 LORD I WOULD FOLLOW THEE
223 HAVE I DONE ANY GOOD
226 IMPROVE THE SHINING MOMENTS
270 IT MAY NOT BE ON A MOUNTAIN HEIGHT
230 SCATTER SUNSHINE
29 A POOR WAYFARING MAN OF GRIEF (Joseph Smith's favorite hymn)
293 EACH LIFE THAT TOUCHES OURS FOR GOOD (My favorite hymn)
Let me read you just a few words from one of those hymns:
There are chances for work all around just now, Opportunities right in our way. Do not let them pass by, saying ‘Someday I’ll try,’ But go and do something today. ‘Tis noble of man to work and to give; Love’s labor has merit alone. Only he who does something helps others to live. To God each good work will be known.
And finally from another:
It may not be on a mountain height or over a stormy sea. It may not be at the battle’s front My Lord will have need of me.
I’ll go where you want me to go.
I’ll say what you want me to say.
I’ll be what you want me to be.