[Prefatory clarification: The title of this blog entry notwithstanding, it doesn’t actually constitute the first installment of my autobiographical memoirs.]
The fifth chapter of the gospel of Matthew closes with one of the most daunting challenges in all of scripture: “Be ye therefore perfect,” says the Savior at Matthew 5:48, “even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Once or twice, when I’ve been interviewing young adults as part of my Church assignments, I’ve had interviewees come in — recently returned missionaries, in the cases that I recall — who’ve told me that they have a plan laid out according to which they should be perfect by no later than, say, the age of twenty-five. And they’re serious. I haven’t mocked them; I love youthful idealism. But I’ve cautioned them that they might find the attainment of perfection at least a tiny bit more challenging than they have assumed. Oh, we can have perfect attendance at sacrament meeting, be full tithe payers, abstain perfectly from using tobacco products, and so forth. But the intangibles and uncountables — e.g., prayerfulness, perfect love, forgiveness, and the like — are, to put it mildly, much more difficult to master.
And, speaking personally, I can say that I’ve had more than a few days at the end of which, feeling satisfied that I’d checked all the boxes and used my time unusually well, I’ve suddenly remembered very worthy things that I had completely neglected. I’m reminded of a cartoon image of someone trying to hold down all of the corners of a carpet who can, actually, only control three of the four. No matter how hard he tries, one of the corners flips up. We simply can’t do everything that we want to do, or feel that we should do.
I think it safe to say (and, yes, rather sad to say) that few if any of us who have passed the age of twenty-two have any delusions about attaining perfection in this life.
So what is the point of a command to be “perfect”? Doesn’t it merely taunt us, depress us, make us acutely conscious of our failures? Isn’t “perfectionism” a heavy cross to bear? Sometimes, in fact, a debilitating psychological challenge? I’m told that some contemporary women, in particular, sometimes stagger (and even despair) under the weight of unreasonable expectations.
This, of course, is where the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ comes in. Or, in a sense, where it should come in. That should be obvious to any serious, thoughtful Christian.
I return, yet again, to a quotation from the Prophet Joseph Smith, as reported in the Elders’ Journal for July 1838 (page 44). Its importance simply cannot be overstated:
Question 20th. What are the fundamental principles of your religion.Answer. The fundamental principles of our religion is [sic] the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, “that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;” and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.
Too many people in general, and too many Latter-day Saints in particular, appear to labor under the sense that they need to earn their way into heaven — despite the explicit teachings of their faith and of the scriptural texts that they read. “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved,” declares the prophet Nephi in the Book of Mormon, “after all we can do.” (A helpful article on this verse is Jared Ludlow’s ““After All We Can Do” (2 Nephi 25:23),” published in 2017.) Which is to say — and I’m aware that this sounds very harsh, which I regret, but which merely reflects reality and may also serve to alert us to the gravity of the error — that they seem, to that extent at least, to be living as non-Christians, effectively rejecting the atonement of the Savior. We do not need to be “perfect” in order to be welcomed into heaven. (In any event, none of us will be.) We simply need to be serious disciples of Jesus who accept him as our Lord and Master, who seek to follow him, and who accept his atoning sacrifice on our behalf.
The fact that we can enter heaven while still imperfect means that we have been given the precious gift of time. Commonly in this life, we feel the passage of time as oppressive. We have too little of it. There is never enough of it. Dreaded deadlines come too fast. Lives are too short. Wonderful moments pass too quickly. Happy memories and memories of loved ones recede into the past too quickly. But with the promise of eternal life comes the promise of endless future time.
We are not complete at death, and we are not expected to be. One of the most glorious of the many glorious teachings of the Restoration is what, when I was young, we commonly called “eternal progression.” (I’m not sure that the expression is so common these days, but I could be wrong.) It signifies that our “education,” our pursuit of perfection, can and will continue beyond the veil. In a line from uniquely Latter-day Saint lyrics that have been set to an exceptionally beautiful hymn tune,
The works of God continue, and worlds and lives abound; improvement and progression have one eternal round.
In other words, we can relax just a bit. If we err, if we fail, if we mess up, we needn’t despair. We’re not lost. But this is not permission for laxity, for being indifferent to the commandments or to those around us. If we stumble, that’s okay. But we should continue to press forward. We should not relax too much. We should not stand still, let alone turn back. The tension between the call to perfection and permission for self-forgiveness is essential:
And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order. (Mosiah 4:27)
President Russell M. Nelson delivered a wonderful and very timely talk at the conclusion of the Sunday morning session of General Conference. I commend it to all, including myself.
To be continued.
Posted from Park City, Utah