When I was a Methodist teenager first learning about Mormons, the youth pastor at my church warned me that Mormons were a lot like the Pharisees – very rule bound, proud and determined to “work their way into heaven”. Having been a committed Latter-day Saint Christian for nearly 40 years now, I know what he was sensing.
In a recent lesson I heard the old saw about becoming perfect. I think we have evolved enough that in any given ward, at least someone will point out that the word “perfection” means “whole, complete” and in some cases even “wholehearted” rather than behaving as a scrupulously ethical “do-bee.”
In this lesson, too, someone (other than me) made that distinction. Still, up went the masking-taped banners: pray, read the scriptures, have family home evening, attend the temple, serve, pay tithing, fast, keep the word of wisdom and so forth.
As a church we do like our lists. Before questions are even asked we know the answers. Keep the commandments. Read your scriptures. Pray, etc. This reminds me of the joke where the Primary Teacher asks her students, “what has a bushy tail, runs up trees and stores nuts?” A confused child answers, “I know the answer is Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me.”
Then there are the sub-lists to define the commandments and how much, how often, and in what posture we should perform them. I have nothing against reading my scriptures, praying, paying tithing, wearing garments, and so on, but focusing on a rigid spiritual check list tends to distance me from God instead of drawing me closer. I find that when I nurture my love and personal relationship with God, my “obedience” follows like “light and heat from a flame” to quote Martin Luther. For others, apparently, obeying rules is the strategy that works for them to develop their love for God. Surely there’s a circular feed there.
When I first discovered the Myers-Briggs personality testing concept I learned that there really are people for whom having all the rules laid out helps them function best. There are other people who work and live best with a more intuitive approach. This enlightened my view on the culture of the Saints and why I still felt like a stranger and a foreigner in the household of God. I lived in a personality type quadrant different from the ones who clung to manuals, thrived on instructions, and got the most press and airtime in the institution. I missed the emphasis I knew worked for me. But to borrow a phrase from Exponent II matriarchs Laurel Ulrich and Emma Lou Thayne, “All God’s critters got a place in the choir.” I was determined to add my imperfect voice.
During that recent lesson about perfection, I made what must have sounded like a boastful comment. I said that while I was very aware of my insufficiencies, I felt like I was, well, perfect.
I explained (more or less) that this wasn’t because of my own abilities to pray appropriately, wear the approved number of earrings, or remain faithful to my husband, etc. It was because I had accepted the atonement of Christ as the major focus of my life and He, as promised, made up for my lacks and made me whole, complete…and perfect. It’s the gift and the grace of Christ that accomplishes the perfection. This was a truth I knew as a young Methodist, and one I have claimed through all these many years as a Mormon.
It seems to me the verses at the end of the Book of Mormon get the point of perfection:
Yea, 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….[I]f ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot. (Moroni 10:32-33)