Priorities in the Pursuit of Excellence
By Janath R. Cannon
Education Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency
Janath R. Cannon, ‘Priorities in the Pursuit of Excellence,’ Ensign, Apr. 1976, 70
Dear sisters, as I look into your faces, it seems to me I can see a bright desire shining forth from your very souls’a desire that brought most of you from afar to this building, a desire for excellence in fulfilling your Relief Society callings, a desire for excellence in your personal lives. This is a great and worthy desire, for you are the leaders of the women of the Church; you are called to set an example in the pursuit of excellence.
What kinds of excellence will you pursue? The principle of free agency and choice is laid upon us by the Lord. Every day he sets before us choices’not only choices between good and evil, which are easy for most of us to make, but choices between good and good. ‘If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.’ (See A of F 1:13.) But sisters, we cannot seek after all of them at the same time. To everything there is a season.
We’ve also been brought up with the maxim ‘If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well.’ But Richard L. Evans once remarked that some things were only worth doing if they didn’t have to be done so well that they interfered with more important things. The setting of priorities is the key to a successful pursuit of excellence.
One of the most touching stories in the Old Testament, and one of the most significant for women, is the story of Michal, daughter of Saul, first love and wife of David. There can be no doubt of their love.
‘And Saul saw and knew that the Lord was with David, and that Michal Saul’s daughter loved him.
‘And Saul was yet the more afraid of David; and Saul became David’s enemy continually.’ (1 Sam. 18:28’29.)
But he let David take Michal to wife, thanks to Jonathan’s intercession; and when David finally had to flee to escape Saul’s murderous wrath, it was Michal who warned her husband and helped him escape. Years later, when David’s armies had been successful and Saul was dead, David demanded the return of his wife Michal, and they were reunited.
David also brought the ark of the covenant up to Jerusalem. This was an occasion of great rejoicing, a veritable parade, with music and dancing along the way. ‘And David danced before the Lord with all his might,’ the scriptures record, ‘and David was girded with a linen ephod’ (2 Sam. 6:14), which was a piece of ceremonial clothing. It was evidently rather short, for when Michal looked out the window and saw her husband dancing at the head of the parade in his linen ephod, her sense of propriety was deeply shocked. We read:
‘Then David returned to bless his household. And Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, How glorious was the king of Israel to day, who uncovered himself to day in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the vain fellows shamelessly uncovereth himself!’ (2 Sam. 6:20.)
Well, you can imagine what a dash of cold water that was to this triumphant, exuberant man.
Now Michal was the daughter of a king, and she knew kings should behave with dignity and set an example of excellence in their dress and deportment. She was right. But oh, how wrong her priorities were that day! David was deeply hurt and angered. He replied, ‘It was before the Lord, which chose me before thy father, and before all his house, to appoint me ruler over the people of the Lord, over Israel: therefore will I play before the Lord.’ (2 Sam. 6:21.) And the story of Michal concludes with these bleak words: ‘Therefore Michal the daughter of Saul had no child unto the day of her death.’
If only Michal had had the Relief Society to teach her that husbands should be greeted with mildness and affection! If only she had understood the high priority of personal relationships! She could have waited and mended David’s manners later with loving tact and good example. Sisters, put successful personal relationships, especially with those dearest to you, near the top of your list of priorities.
An experience of Michal’s father Saul, more familiar to us than hers, can give us another priority, perhaps the most important of all. When the Lord gave Saul victory over the Amalekites, it was with the command that the Amalekites and all their flocks and herds be utterly destroyed. But Saul had ideas of his own. He reasoned that it was not sensible to kill all those sheep and cattle; surely the best should be saved. Besides, his people wanted to save the best of the Amalekite herds, and Saul thought the voice of the people should be heard by a ruler. So Saul ignored the Lord’s command. When Samuel, the living prophet, called Saul to account for his disobedience, Saul thought ofanother good reason for sparing the best animals’they would make an excellent sacrificial offering to the Lord in proper and appropriate ceremonies. But Samuel said, ‘To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.’ (1 Sam. 15:22.) Saul was rejected by the Lord as a ruler over Israel, because his priorities were wrong. The word of the Lord through his living prophets has priority over any of our own ideas, however excellent they may seem to us. So also the work of the Lord should have precedence over other pursuits in our search for excellence.
We want to encourage the sisters to pursue excellence in their schooling, in homemaking, in Relief Society, in every worthy endeavor in its proper season. But remember always to set your priorities by inspiration and by hearkening to the living prophets of the Lord.
I testify to you that the men who lead this Church today are living prophets; that our Savior, Jesus Christ, lives and directs this, his Church, through those prophets; and that the Relief Society is his gift to us for our perfecting. Through obedience and love, by studying, praying, and hearkening, we can receive inspiration to set our particular priorities in our pursuit of excellence. May the Lord help us so to do, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.