Jesus said, “I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect” (3 Ne. 12:48). This commandment hearkens back to the Old Testament where God said, “Thou shalt be perfect with the LORD thy God” (Deut. 18:13).
It has been said that modern Mormons, especially multi-generational Mormons in well-established church units, tend toward a preoccupation with perfectionism. Symptoms include a strong desire to appear as clean-cut and polished as possible especially at church, a guilt-complex derived from comparing one’s personal choices to those of others, and an ambition to climb the hierarchy of church callings through a reverence and emulation of the men and women who stand in higher positions. People involved in these pursuits often experience a burden of guilt, which they are told to dismiss since being perfect, they are told, is impossible and therefore a misplaced burden. But is cultural perfectionism what the scriptures mean when we are asked to be perfect?
To answer that question we must consider what the scriptures teach about the culpability of man in falling short of accountability—is it even possible for man to not break God’s laws? At least two principles may combine to demonstrate that the potential for perfection is indeed within the grasp of man:
- Man is his own agent:
“All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence. Behold, here is the agency of man” (D&C 93:30 – 31).
- The devil cannot force man to sin:
“God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
By the foregoing it is manifestly apparent that if anyone is to blame for falling short of perfection, which Jesus commanded we should pursue, it is man himself; man’s mortal limitations, however, are no excuse for a poor use of agency in the face of temptation either. This was proved by the best man who ever lived, the Lord Jesus Christ:
“He kept the law of God, and remained without sin: Showing thereby that it is in the power of man to keep the law and remain also without sin. And also, that by him a righteous judgment might come upon all flesh, and that all who walk not in the law of God, may justly be condemned by the law, and have no excuse for their sins” (Lectures on Faith 5:2).
In other words, man was not created as a vessel predestined for imperfection with mathematically impossible odds for perfection. If that was the case, Jesus too would have failed in his pursuit, according to the Lectures on Faith, and man would be able to throw his arms up at the judgement bar and claim mortal weakness as a reason for not being blamed for his wickedness. This will not be the case at the final judgement, however. As the Book of Mormon attests regarding man’s potential:
“Come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God” (Moroni 10:32).
The key to understanding how it is possible that man may be perfect, even as Abraham (see Gen. 17:1), is in understanding the true nature of sin and that the average man is not tempted to break the law and will of God at every junction of life. As Joseph Smith said, “What many people call sin is not sin” (STPJS, p. 193). Believing that God would count for sin a man’s choice for breakfast or the color he chooses to paint his house is an intolerable eternal perspective. Even God has said that, despite there being “divers ways and means” to sin and offend God (see Mosiah 4:29), he intends for man to make many decisions on his own with multiple choices being equally irrelevant to his opinion or input:
“It is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; for the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward. But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned” (D&C 58:26 – 29).
So if perfection does not involve the minutia of a thousand coin flip decisions in a given day, what then does it take to be considered perfect by God? Two things: loving God and keeping his commandments:
“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous. For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:2 – 4).
Though Christ was the only man to live a life free of imperfections from beginning to end, through his atoning grace we may become saints and perfect with the washing away of our previous sins, increasing in our capacity to do well in all things in God’s eyes (just as the people of the City of Enoch who overcame the world before they were taken up into heaven), as Paul once prayed concerning the early saints:
“The God of peace,…through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:20 – 21).
As a cultural phenomenon, perfectionism—or comparing ourselves to one another and feeling a pressure to revere and emulate those in leadership positions in the church—is not what Christ intended when he said ‘Be ye perfect’ (his full context included eventual exaltation; see my blog post Be Ye Perfect?). He intended that we learn of him and continue in our pursuit of his exemplary life, in which he did only the will of He who sent him. We too must learn to do the will of He who sent us into this world, just as Christ did.
Setting aside guilt without knowing its true source is a reckless path for the spiritually sincere. If we feel guilt in our lives for being caught up in cultural perfectionism, perhaps it is a spiritual symptom of neglecting the pursuit of true perfection in Christ.