I once read a great post by Kevin Martin who made this comment about perfection.
If there is one critical thing that I have learned about the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is that God does not ask that you be perfect, but he only asks that you recognize what you have done wrong and have a willingness to change and better yourself. When you really think about the gospel, Jesus Christ would never seek he who is perfect because a perfect man would defeat the very purpose of His atonement for the sins of the world.
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As well written and as accurate as his post was, this quote begs the question: If the atonement is not about being perfect, then why did Christ command us to be perfect? (Matthew 5:48) The Guide to the scriptures on ChurchofJesusChrist.org says this about the word “perfect.”
Complete, whole, and fully developed; totally righteous. Perfect can also mean without sin or evil. Only Christ was totally perfect. True followers of Christ may become perfect through his grace and atonement.
Illness vs. wellness
While it is true that we are not perfect right now, it is also true that the Lord expects us to be working on becoming perfect. I think part of the problem we have with the concept of perfection is our perception of the word. When I think of perfection, terms like flawless, without fault, and all-knowing come to mind. Where these certainly are part of being perfect in the broadest sense of the word, I find thinking of the word perfect easier to swallow if I look at it from a different angle.
Sin is a sign of weakness. When I sin I break laws I know I should be keeping. I could be sinning because I am stubborn or rebellious, weak and tempted, or I could be giving into passions and greed. There are many reasons for sinning (breaking commandments), all of them linked to some weakness or flaw in my character. I prefer to think of sin as an illness, something unwholesome and debilitating to my soul. To become perfect is to become well again. Repentance heals me of that which is causing me to suffer in both body and spirit. Repentance makes me well.
It is true the atonement was not meant for people who are already perfect, but I believe that it is also true that the whole point of the atonement is that by repenting of our sins we become perfect, complete or whole once again. The atonement is the engine of perfection. It is the tool we use to become perfect.
We forget sometimes that we started whole as children. The Lord considers children to be perfect. It has only been the exercise of our agency contrary to the will of God that has caused us to become spiritually weak and sick. Remember that perfection in mortality has nothing to do with being all-knowing, and without flaw. In mortality perfection comes from constant repentance and conformity of our will to God’s. Obedience brings about a state of perfection. God wants us to heal our characters. When we are commanded to become perfect, we are being told to go and heal the flaws in our characters, not become omnipotent. Omnipotence comes in the hereafter, not in mortality.
How can I be perfect?
When I am strict in the payment of my tithing, always being sure to be generous with the Lord, never shorting him in any way, then am I not perfect in this thing? I lack nothing. I am not leaving anything out of my obedience. We have been commanded to attend our Sacrament services. When I make sure I am there every week that I can possibly be there, and I go with a worshipful attitude, prepared to take the sacrament worthily, then have I not fulfilled the commandment perfectly or completely?
This mortal life, our day of probation as it is called in the scriptures, is a testing time. We are here to show the Lord that the desire of our hearts is in the right place. He has been through mortality. He knows that true perfection in all its glory cannot be had by mere mortals, so he does not expect it from us. What is expected though is that we are striving to conform to his laws in all things so that we can become as perfect, as free from the flaws of character and weakness of spirit as we can. This state of wellness allows us to be guided by the Holy Spirit more easily, thus allowing us more revelation, more understanding, more compassion, more grace, more of God’s love, because we are well enough to receive it in greater quantities. While we are sick with sin we are only able to nibble on these feast foods. The more whole we are the more we can consume of these things. In 2 Nephi 9:50-51, Jacob, the brother of Nephi explains that the benefits of the atoning sacrifice of Christ are free. He compares them to food and tells us to come and have our fill.
Come, my brethren, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy. Hearken diligently unto me, and remember the words which I have spoken; and come unto the Holy One of Israel, and feast upon that which perisheth not, neither can be corrupted, and let your soul delight in fatness.
There is no reason for us to spiritually starve to death when the atonement of Christ offers us wholesomeness and cures of the soul that cannot be found anywhere else for any price. His desire for us to freely partake in the benefits of the atonement is as close to gluttony as he will ever condone. So is perfection optional? The short answer is no.
I understand what Kevin was saying when he talked about needing to have a willingness to change and be better. We all certainly need more willingness to be better. But we are, in fact, commanded to be perfect, to be made whole once again through the atonement of Christ. That is not an option. We are commanded to repair the flaws in our characters, and to become whole once again through Christ by repenting and being forgiven of our misdeeds through Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
We have all been commanded to become perfect or whole again. Ministering is the act of administering to the needs of our fellow sufferers in mortality. We must accept them, flaws and all, just as our Savior accepts us with all our flaws and weaknesses. During Christ’s mortal ministry he set a perfect example of being forgiving of all, no matter their status of spiritual unwellness. He wasn’t afraid to touch the leper, embrace the broken and battered, the dead, the adulteress. This may take some expanding of our horizons, but as we begin to see just how kind, loving and generous Christ is to us, we should begin to see our way more clearly to be a little more accepting of others, no matter how different they are from us.
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Thank you for adding your insight of the scriptures to my words, Kelly. It is clear that you are speaking about perfection in one sense and I am speaking about it in another sense.