The Lord told Joseph Smith, "Behold, the field is white already to harvest; therefore, whoso desireth to reap, let him thrust in his sickle with his might, and reap while the day lasts, that he may treasure up for his soul everlasting salvation in the kingdom of God" (D&C 6:3).
This revelation has to do with the necessity of doing missionary work. It's a command to go out into the world, preaching the gospel with the intent to convert people to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. And the implication here is that there are many people who are waiting to receive this message and are only kept from accepting it because they have not yet had it preached to them.
However, God's use of likening this effort to a farmhand harvesting hay with a sickle, and especially the date when this revelation was given provides us with some interesting insight into doing missionary work.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially organized on April 6, 1830. The revelation just quoted was given in April 1829, a full year before there was a church organization. At this time the Book of Mormon had not even been fully translated, let alone published, and yet the Lord told Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdry that "the [missionary] field is white already to harvest."
In that same revelation the Lord declared that "A great and marvelous work is about to come forth unto the children of men" (D&C 6:1) which was a reference to the Book of Mormon being printed and being distributed throughout the world. Later, when the LDS missionaries went about preaching, they left copies of the Book of Mormon for people to read and in doing so many people came to believe that it was the word of God and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God.
But the illustration of a field of hay, shining white in the sunlight, being ready for harvest should give us pause to consider its implications. To understand why, we must first understand the principle of farming.
In ancient times as well as in modern times, there is a process to farming. First, the ground has to be plowed in order to break up the hard soil, thereby loosening it which makes it easier for plants to grow in. The next step to farming is to plant the seed, which is usually done by punching a hole in the ground, dropping a seed into the hole and then covering the hole with dirt.
The next important step is to water the seed. Without this step the seed will most likely not germinate. After the plant begins to grow above the ground, so do weeds and other naturally growing vegetation, so the farmer has to remove the weeds because they will absorb the nutrients in the ground, leaving not enough to nourish the growing plant. And during this process the plants need to be continually watered to keep them from drying out and dying.
But as the plant grows taller there are other threats to its existence. There are bugs, insects, and diseases that will destroy the leaves or even the entire plant. As the plant begins to develop fruit, animals and birds will eat them long before they have a chance to mature and ripen. Therefore, a farmer must take precautions to eliminate these threats if they want to have a bounteous harvest. The use of fences, scarecrows, pesticides, and other measures are often used to protect the crops. To help the plants grow to their full potential, farmers use various kinds of fertilizers to give the soil added nutrients that will help the plants produce strong, healthy fruit.
If we look at a tomato plant we see that it begins as a green stalk that gets thicker and thicker as it grows. Then, at some point, a flower appears. Within a day or two a small round green fruit appears in the center of the flower and as it grows the petals of the flower fall away. Day after day the fruit grows bigger and larger but its color remains green. However, eventually, the fruit starts to change its color to red and it is at this point when the fruit is ready to be picked from the vine. In other words, it is when the fruit is fully ripe that it is ready to be harvested.
The ground is plowed, seeded, and cultivated usually in the early Spring but for most fruits and vegetables, they are not ready to be harvested until late Summer or early Fall. That means there is a relatively long growing time required before the fruit is ripe enough to pick. When the Lord told Joseph Smith in 1829, while he was still in the process of translating the Book of Mormon, that the field was white and ready for harvest, God had already been spending a considerable amount of time preparing people to the point that they were spiritually ripen enough to accept the message of the restored gospel even before the time the Book of Mormon was being translated.
What this tells us is that the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in 1830 was not an arbitrary date. Had it come forth much sooner than this, the world would not have been sufficiently ready to accept it. During the long period we call the apostasy, God was not asleep, doing nothing. He was busy, at work, plowing the hardened ground, planting seeds, cultivating the soil, removing weeds, shooing away harmful threats, and nourishing His garden so that when the time was right (or should we say when the time was ripe), God was ready to send out laborers into the missionary field to harvest the souls whom He had been carefully preparing.
This is why God has been referred to as The Gardener. The world is His field and He is the one who is overseeing the work of caring for His crops. He is the Master of His house and the Lord over His vineyard. Like every large farm, the master needs servants to go out into the fields and do the actual manual labor, according to the direction and instruction of their master.
God issues the call for people to come work for Him and, like a good master, He pays for their service according to their diligence in serving Him. Jesus taught, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33). He could just as well have said, "Seek ye first to take care of my vineyard and all things shall be added unto you," because to take care of His vineyard and seeking to build up His kingdom have the same meaning.
When we think of missionary work, we usually think of us going out, seeking for those who are ripe and eagerly ready to accept the message of the restoration, but that's not necessarily true in all cases. God needs laborers who are willing to go out into the field and do the plowing. He needs laborers who are willing to plant the seeds. He needs laborers who are willing to pull out the weeds and keep the destructive pests, diseases, and animals away. He needs laborers who are willing to nourish the souls of men in order to help them to ripen, as well as laborers who are willing to do the harvesting.
By 1829 God had already done a lot of this work Himself as evidenced by how quickly so many people in just a small part of the world easily left their old religious beliefs and were willing to be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the work continues and as the membership of the Church expands, so does the work of preaching the gospel expands to more and more people in more and more places.
Too often we get discouraged because we can't find people who want to talk about the gospel, or we don't know what to say to convince them to convert. Many times we are afraid that people will shun us or will be offended by us talking to them about our religious beliefs so we remain silent. At the same time, we see others who can walk up to strangers and boldly say, "What do you know about the Mormon faith, and would you like to know more?" and feel guilty because we don't have that kind of courageous and aggressive attitude.
But, just like with plants, missionary work involves far more than just converting souls to Christ through the use speaking the word of God. There is a saying, "Preach the gospel always and when necessary, use words." There are many ways to preach the gospel that don't involve speaking.
We have often heard the saying, "Your actions speak so loudly that I can't hear a word you're saying," or "A good example is the best sermon you'll ever preach." There are many stories told of people who converted to the LDS faith because of the example of a friend, a co-worker, or an acquaintance, and there are other stories told of people who refuse to join the LDS Church because of the bad example of a Mormon they once knew. There are those of other faiths who go to church on Sunday to profess their faith in Christ and then live the rest of the week like they don't know Christ. But a true Latter-day Saint behaves like a true believer in Christ everyday of the week, in every place they go, and towards everyone they meet. And that's because we are trying to become like Jesus by following in His ways. We're trying to love as He did in all that we do and say. We're trying to love our neighbor, we're learning to serve our friends. We try to remember the lessons He taught. And when we do, the Holy Spirit enters our thoughts saying, Love one another as Jesus loves you. Try to show kindness in all that you do. Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought for these are the things Jesus taught." ("Trying To Be Like Jesus" LDS Children's songbook, #78 )
Elder Jeffery R. Holland has said, "Asking every member to be a missionary is not nearly as crucial as asking every member to be a member! Thank you for living the gospelů surely there is no more powerful missionary message we can send to this world than the example of a loving and happy Latter-day Saint life. The manner and bearing, the smile and kindness of a faithful member of the church brings a warmth and an outreach which no missionary tract or videotape can convey." (April General Conference 2001)
Jesus put it more simply when He said, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify God" (Matthew 5:16). Someone once said, "Lighthouses don't go wandering all over the coastline looking for boats. The just stand there shining for the boats to see them." In the same way, a lamp stays in one place but its light can be seen throughout the room. The reflected light from one stationary lamp in one room can also be seen in other rooms and around corners, even if it is fainter, and the same is true of the light of the gospel that shines through us.
The apostle Paul counseled Timothy, "Be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity" (1 Timothy 4:12). Our example, in the words we use in normal everyday conversation, in the way we show kindness and concern for others, in the spirit we have about us, and in the way we live our faith, can help break the hard clumps of misinformation and false ideas spread by those who want to prevent people from accepting our message, thereby softening hearts so they are more inclined to hear what we have to say.
Our example can be the seed that is planted in the heart of someone who isn't interested in religion at the moment but who someday may be. Our example may be what causes someone to ask why we are different, or why we can handle the problems of life that they have trouble coping with.
Life can be hard and there are many things that can get us down, such as financial woes, problems with children, stresses at work, health issues, and many other things. These are like the weeds that rob us of our spiritual strength or destructive bugs or animals that eat away at our soul, robbing us of the fruits of a happy life. There are many stories told of faithful Latter-day Saints who have helped their non-Mormon friends cope with difficult challenges and it is because of this kind of loving service that has brought people into the Church as they have seen the compassion and caring exhibited by their LDS friends.
There are people in other faiths who have questions that their religious denominations don't have a satisfying answer to. There have been many stories told of people who converted to the LDS faith because we had answers to life's questions that they were seeking but couldn't find in their former denomination. When we are able to provide the answer to those kinds of questions, it's like providing water and nutrients to a starving soul.
There have been LDS members who have given a Book of Mormon or a pamphlet or church magazine to a friend, or left one of these publications laying around in a public area where someone came along, picked it up, read it, and had their hearts touched to the point where they wanted to learn more about the LDS Church.
And then there are situations where members are able to teach the gospel to those who are ready to listen, and see them accept the gospel and want to become baptized. But not everyone has the ability to explain the gospel as clearly as others. This is why we have missionaries. They have been taught and practice how to effectively teach the gospel, and more than that, they have been endowed from on high with a special divine spirit for teaching. Therefore, sometimes the simplest way to vocally teach the gospel to a non-member is to offer them an invitation to let the missionaries come see them.
But even when we do explain the gospel to others, not all conversions are the same. We can again understand this principle with the illustration of farming. Picking the fruit of an apple tree is easy. You just reach up and pull the apple off. There is one kind of apple called a Golden Delicious and there are people so ready to accept the gospel that it takes hardly any effort to convert them. We call these people "golden."
But there are other kinds of "fruit" that takes more effort to harvest. For example, potatoes have to be dug up out of the ground then cleaned off. When corn is pulled off of the stalk, it is wrapped in leaves and silk strands. It takes work to shuck the leaves and get rid of all the silk, some of which are stuck in between the kernels of corn. Peas come wrapped in a pod, which have to be ripped open in order to release the peas inside of them.
The harvesting of souls is very similar to the harvesting of fruit. It can be as easy as picking apples, or it can be more difficult like digging potatoes, shucking corn, or shelling peas. But whether we are plowing the ground, planting the seed, removing the weeds, chasing away the animals, nourishing the plant or picking the fruit, each of these are examples of what it takes to labor in the vineyard to help make the harvest plentiful.
But there is another aspect of farming that is just as important to know and that is the correct time to pick the fruit. It is only when the fruit is ripe that it is ready to be taken. For example, even though a tomato may look large, unless it has turned red it is not ripe enough to pick.
And the same is true of people. There are many stories told of people who know that the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, but aren't quite ready to commit themselves to becoming baptized. There are numerous reasons for this reluctance but underlying them all is that they have not reached a point in their spiritual growth where they are ripe enough to live up to the covenants they will take upon themselves when they are baptized.
There have been many people who have been married to an LDS spouse, have talked with the missionaries many times, and perhaps even come to church frequently but will not agree to be baptized, until one day they seemingly have a sudden change of heart and want to commit themselves to living by the standards of the LDS Church.
Furthermore, just like plants, not all fruit ripens at the same time. As one fruit ripens and can be easily picked, there are many others on the same plant that are in various stages of becoming ripe that need only more time before they too are ready to be harvested.
For this reason, it can seem as if our efforts to bring people into the kingdom of God are having no effect and that we are failures at doing missionary work, but that may be because the people we are trying to persuade are not yet ready to accept the restored gospel of Jesus Christ but someday will be. Yet, just because a fruit isn't ripe enough for picking doesn't mean that we stop our efforts at weeding, nourishing, and protecting it.
Elder Neil L Anderson has taught, "To be a witness of God at all times and in all places reflects both how we live and how we speaků. Please don't see your efforts to share the love of the Savior with another as a pass/fail test with your grade determined by how positively your friends respond to your feelings or invitation to meet the missionaries. With our mortal eyes, we cannot judge the effect of our efforts, nor can we establish the timetable. When you share the love of the Savior with another, your grade is always an A+." ("A Witness for God," October GC 2016)
In today's modern society, we have machines that can cultivate and till the ground while simultaneously planting seeds. We have machinery that can spray chemicals to get rid of weeds and prevent insects from eating the plants. And there are machines that can harvest large acres of crops in just a few hours.
But doing missionary work can only be done on an individual basis, with one person at a time receiving personal attention. Thus, doing missionary work is much like doing farming the old-fashion way. It takes humans laboring in the field, to cultivate, plant, weed, and nourish the souls of people to help them to become ripe enough to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ. Then it takes effort to harvest those souls by bringing them to the waters of baptism.
However, we are not doing this work alone. Christ is the gardener, the Master of the house and the Lord of the vineyard, and we are His servants, assisting Him in His work of bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. As we follow the Lord's instructions through the promptings of His Spirit, we will become instruments in His hands to accomplish the task He wants us to perform in His garden.
Of course, just like we preserve fruit after it has been picked in order to prepare it to be enjoyed at a later time, the Church is designed to help preserve us so we are prepared for eternal life where we will be able to enjoy the fullness of God's blessings at a later time. But before that can happen, we must first do our part in laboring to help people become ready to be harvested. This is what missionary work is all about.