I'm sure that most Mormons would agree that perfectionism is a problem within Mormon culture. I don't know the social science research, but I've seen perfectionism often enough among friends and others in the Church that I'm satisfied by the anecdotal evidence; there is some significant number of Mormons who battle with finding their best efforts unacceptable if there is any flaw at all in them. The cultural source of the problem is difficult to pin down exactly, but my guess is that it starts with the Ben Franklin style drive for self-improvement implicit in American culture, imbibed fully by many Mormons and sometimes confused with their religion. The scriptural source is Matthew 5:48: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect." Supposedly the Mormon perfectionist is justified by that scripture and our version of the belief in theosis, that we can become like God.
I have to confess that the more I think about the teachings concerning the hereafter—theosis, sealings, eternal marriage, and so on—the less I understand what they mean. It isn't that I believe them any less, just that I don't know what they mean beyond what they mean for me in this life (which is a lot). The meaning of such beliefs for this life is good enough, so I don't plan to try to explain our belief in theosis. (See my earlier column for more about why I don't.) But I do want to think about what the commandment to be perfect can mean to a person in this life.
Because Mormons are part of a 20th-century culture, we tend to think of being perfect as perfection is conceived in the 20th century rather than as it was conceived anciently; we think that to be perfect is to be without flaw. A perfect being is one who never makes a mistake, even a trivial one like miscalculating the tip on a restaurant bill. But in neither Hebrew nor Greek is perfection understood that way.
The Hebrew root for many of the words used to denote perfection in the Hebrew Bible is kalal. Another word is the related word tikla. Both have to do with being complete or whole. The Greek word used in Matthew is similar; teleios means "being fully mature, an adult." Both have to do with moral and character development and nothing to do with such things as keeping our houses absolutely sparkling, or getting an A in every class if not a perfect result on every test, or providing not only a living for our families but a life of luxury. Read as the Hebrew and Greek words for perfection suggest, Matthew 5:48 means something like "Be morally mature, just as your Father in Heaven is morally mature."
But even that is a tall order. Indeed, perhaps we focus on such things as housekeeping, performance on school tests, and providing continually more and more because at least in those arenas we feel we have some control. Those are things I can do, at least in principle, whereas it is often difficult to see how I can make myself into a better person. Perhaps perfectionism is a desperate attempt to avoid facing up to my moral weakness.
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?