I love the opening quote of this lesson. “Do not expect to become perfect at once. If you do, you will be disappointed. Be better today than you were yesterday, and be better tomorrow than you are today.” Too often we get bogged down in not being perfect right now, and feel guilty for not being good enough. The lesson itself acknowledge this at the end when it says “President Snow acknowledged that the command to be perfect causes concern for some Latter-day Saints. As you study this chapter, look for counsel that might comfort someone who is troubled by the command to be perfect.” I would love it if this lesson focused on making people feel good about their progress and hopeful for success. So here is what I find comforting; I hope some of it is useful to others.
What Does Perfect Mean?
The scripture that this lesson is based on is Matthew 5:48 “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” On it’s face, this is a daunting task; to become perfect like God is perfect. This is especially disconcerting if we think of perfect as without flaw or error. Many people seem to view perfections as getting every good thing done every day. It means that they read their scriptures, went to the temple, did their visiting teaching, did some family history, canned some peaches, etc. etc. It also means they didn’t yell at their kids or partner or co-worker, they didn’t gossip, they didn’t get angry, they didn’t order pizza instead of making dinner, etc. etc. The problem is, we are given so many good things to do and so many things not to do that it becomes overwhelming. No one can do all the things we feel we are supposed to do to be perfect and still take care of a family and/or hold down a job and/or go to school and/or take a vacation and all the day to day things we need to do to function in society and not loose our minds. No one can live a day without a mistake. So if perfect means means doing the good/bad checklist every day, we’re all going to fall short.
I was once taught, however, that without flaw is not the best translation for what Christ is talking about in that scripture in Matthew. I was told that a better word would be whole or complete: “Be ye therefore whole, even as your Father which is in heaven is whole.” (A quick internet search finds that this idea is not unique to my teacher. See this for an example.) I find comfort in the idea that what God expects is not for me to become without flaw in this lifetime, but to become more complete, like God is complete. Our Heavenly Parents don’t try to be good. They simply are good. They have become complete people. So my job is not to do the checklist every day and kick myself if I haven’t read the Ensign in a while, but to learn what God wants me to be to become complete, to become like God.
What I find comforting about this idea is that what “perfect” means to each person is going to be different, because what God needs us to become is unique to us and our lives. So the list of things we are “supposed to do” becomes much shorter. It is less of a list then an idea of who we want to be and who God wants us to be. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis suggests that commandments are designed to turn us into certain kinds of people.
“People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do [an]other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing… into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself…”
So if the checklist isn’t getting us closer to God, it’s not doing us much good. But if we can focus on what God wants us to do and to become, that seems more manageable. Instead of scrambling to do everything, we can focus on what will do us the most good. So instead of asking “What do I still need to do today to get every good thing done?” we can ask “What does God want me to do today?” Our Heavenly Parents love us; they aren’t going to dump a million requests on us at once. Some days the answer will be “Take a break. You need it.” Sometimes it will be to go to the temple. Sometimes it will be to focus on our families. Sometimes it will be difficult, like to sacrifice something we really want or to practice a skill like patience or compassion that is not natural to us. But it won’t be a million things that we aren’t learning from; it will be things that we need to learn.
You Don’t Have to Do It All At Once
Lorenzo Snow said “The child grows from childhood to [adolescence], and from [adolescence] to [adult]hood, with a constant and steady growth; but [they] cannot tell how or when the growth occurs. [They do] not realize that [they are] growing; but by observing the laws of health and being prudent in [their] course [they] eventually arrives at [adult]hood. So in reference to ourselves as Latter-day Saints. We grow and increase. We are not aware of it at the moment; but after a year or so we discover that we are, so to speak, away up the hill, nearing the mountain top. We feel that we have faith in [our Heavenly Parents]; that [Their] providences are always beneficial; that we are connected with [Them]; that [They are] actually our [Parents], and that [They lead] us along in life. (Some words are changed for gendered reasons.) Change is a process, and often we don’t notice that we have changed because it is so gradual. As a church that believes in eternal progression, we can take comfort in the fact that we have time to become the people we wish to be. We have this lifetime, and we have time after this lifetime. We have time to learn, to make mistakes, to progress. Most changes that are worth it will take time. At the beginning of the lesson, there is a story about Lorenzo Snow learning to speak publicly. At first, he is so afraid he speaks for less than a minute. But he keeps practicing, and is able to speak more articulately and with less fear. He wasn’t able to wake up one morning and speak perfectly in public, even though he wanted to. It took practice and patience, just as it will take for us to make changes in our lives. As the first quote said “Do not expect to become perfect at once… Be better today than you were yesterday, and be better tomorrow than you are today.”
One Thing at a Time
President Snow said that it is possible to be perfect in the “sphere in which you are acting.” He also said “A person may be perfect in regard to some things and not others. A person who obeys the word of wisdom faithfully is perfect as far as that law is concerned. When we repented of our sins and were baptized for the remission of them, we were perfect as far as that matter was concerned.” We can be successful in one thing at a time, and still be moving towards perfection. Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Our available time and our responsibilities change throughout our lives, and God does not require us to “run faster than we have strength.” What is important during one phase may not be important in another. To use a personal example, my mother has always loved genealogy. She feels called upon to find her ancestors and do their temple work for them. While she always did some, it has only been in the last few years, after she retired and her kids moved out, that she has been able to dedicate most of her time to it. We can find what God wants us to focus on in each phase of our lives, and don’t need to feel guilty for not doing everything at once.
It’s Okay to Make Mistakes; God Will Help Us Be Successful.
“If we could read in detail the life of Abraham or the lives of other great and holy men we would doubtless find that their efforts to be righteous were not always crowned with success. Hence we should not be discouraged if we should be overcome in a weak moment; but, on the contrary, straightway repent of the error or the wrong we may have committed, and as far as possible repair it, and then seek to God for renewed strength to go on and do better.” Life doesn’t always turn out how we plan; not every attempt is met with success. That is how the world runs. If we succeeded at everything on our first try we would never learn. That would not be progression. And we were put on this earth to learn. So our Parents know we won’t always be successful. They will not hold that against us. They know we need help; they won’t hold that against us either. Lorenzo Snow said “So in reference to the Latter-day Saints; they could not possibly come up to such a moral and spiritual standard except through supernatural [heavenly] aid and assistance.” Our Parents know we need help; they want to help. We don’t have to feel like failures for asking for help, nor do we need to wait til we have exhausted ourselves in the effort before asking. It’s okay to make mistakes in your journey towards God, and it’s okay to ask for help.
Questions to Ask Ourselves:
What does good want me to do? Who does God want me to be?
What is important at this phase in my life?
What kind of person do I want to become?
What do I feel guilty about? Do I need to?
What can I ask for help with?