I have never once thought that my mission was the best two years of my life. I served in Norway, which (like all of Scandinavia) is a tough place for missionary work. A Christmas Day article published by a leading Norwegian news outlet proclaimed that "Scandinavia is the most godless corner of the most godless continent in the world" (translated to English from original Norwegian).
I know people that have very good reasons for feeling that they had a horrible experience as a missionary. Not me. The two years I spent serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were a time of tremendous growth. I had times of incredible joy, far more times of depression, and copious periods of simple mundanity. And cold. It gets cold in Norway. Although summers can be beautiful.
What I did not see much of was success, if by success you mean people joining the Church and staying committed to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. I climbed into the baptismal font exactly once while in Norway, where I baptized a teenage girl that stopped attending church three weeks after her baptism. But that's not why I returned home feeling unsuccessful.
If I was in Norway to baptize a bunch of people — as the continuous pressure to produce adequate numbers of contacts, lessons, baptismal challenges, and converts plainly suggested — I was a failure as a missionary. Sure, we had missionaries that never baptized anyone in Norway. But there was also one elder that baptized at least one person for every month he was in the country. Compared to him I was an absolute failure.
I knew that I was never good enough as a missionary, although, I served in every leadership position that a young elder could be called to. Pretty much every week of my mission I turned in numbers that fell far below the stated minimum goals in every reporting category. Every motivational tool we used as missionaries became a stick with which I continually beat myself.
I still remember feeling guilty about being such a lousy missionary as I stood to speak in sacrament meeting days after returning home. There were many things I loved about my mission. But I didn't love my mission. How could I? I had never been good enough. I was no slacker, but I had never lived up to what I felt was expected of me as a missionary.
For many years this feeling of guilt represented the chief symbol of my mission in my mind. When others would talk in glowing terms of their missions I would cower inwardly under a sense of self loathing.
Throughout my youth I had repeatedly been exposed to a quote by some church leader where he encouraged missionaries to work hard by saying something to the effect that how hard you worked during the two years of your mission would determine whether it brought you a lifetime of joy or regret. (My internal perception may have paraphrased it more harshly than it was intended.) Although I can't seem to find that quote now, one of my companions had a mini poster of the quote prominently displayed in our apartment.
All I could think of every time I thought of this quote was the part about regret. Having failed to work as hard as I could have as a missionary, I was clearly in for an eternity of regret. I figured, for example, that I was probably called to be an assistant to the president to keep me out of the field because I was such a lousy missionary.
But today, more than three decades after returning from my mission, I feel better about my mission than ever. It's not that the years have caused me to forget the hard times. Rather, having gained some perspective of life, the gospel, the Church, and my own personality, I perceive my mission in a light that I feel is more in line with the way the Lord sees it. I think he counts success differently than we often do in human terms.
It seems that people with my personality type are prone to feeling guilt. Messages intended for slackers can absolutely tear the earnest but guilt-prone apart. While guilt can be a source of motivation, it can also be a trap that stymies progression when incorrectly applied.
The Lord's command for us to forgive everyone extends equally to ourselves (see D&C 64:10). As I look back on my callow 19-21-year-old self, I see a kid struggling through the normal issues of life doing a pretty decent job with the resources God blessed him with.
And if I am completely honest with myself, as I listen to the quiet whisperings of the Holy Spirit, I sense that the Lord is pleased with the service I rendered in Norway. Yes, he's pleased in the way a parent is pleased when their kindergartener brings home a pencil holder made of a spray painted can covered with dried macaroni. But I feel that through the grace of Christ, my missionary service was acceptable to the Lord. And my guilt is swept away (see Enos 1:6).
I will probably never be able to say that my mission was the best two years of my life. But I deeply cherish the time I served as a missionary in Norway. I would never wish to repeat some of the experiences that I have come to cherish. But I rejoice in knowing that I can think about my mission free of guilt and with a sense that in some small way I was able to please my God as a missionary.