Being Perfect; Perfect Being
Or perhaps, instead of hiding from ourselves in perfectionism, we recognize our weakness and imitate the hypothetical cry of the sinner in Romans 7: "I don't understand what I do: I don't do what I want to do, but what I hate, I do" (Rom. 7:15). If we understand ourselves well, contemplating moral wholeness as a requirement to be met can do nothing but depress us. Faced with our moral weakness, the command to be morally whole seems impossible. But the Lord's response to Paul's prayer to be released from his "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor. 12:7), is apt: "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). Jesus' command to be perfect is not a command that we do something, but a command that we allow something to happen. He commands us to be perfected in him, to be made perfect by being imbued with his strength rather than our own.
For the perfectionist and probably for many of his friends, the question of perfection is a question of power: how do I have the power over my life needed to make myself perfect? The answer is "I cannot." Perfection is not a matter of power. As another Mormon scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants, reminds us: "No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood [and if not by the priesthood, then also by no other power], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned" (D&C 121: 41). Love must replace power in our lives. But how can that happen?
In a sideways move toward answering that question, consider the prayer of 1 Peter 5:10: "The God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that you have suffered for a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you." Peter also understands perfection as something that happens to us rather than something we accomplish by filling out our daily planner assiduously, gritting our teeth, and setting to. Planning and gritting and setting to may often be necessary, but they aren't the means by which we will be perfected. The only requirement Peter mentions is suffering. That will make us perfect (understood in this verse as being able to meet the requirements set for us), will establish us, and will strengthen us.
Peter doesn't pray that the saints will suffer, but he also doesn't pray that they won't. Suffering is a fact, but a Christian who remembers the suffering of Jesus can hardly expect not to be required also to suffer. As the Book of Mormon prophet Alma teaches of Jesus:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. (Alma 7:11-12; emphasis added)
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.