Missing the Point of Perfection

photo by LHK

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)

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15 Responses

  1. Tom says:

    I seem to think that most of the instances of people “talking past” one another when it comes to subjects like these can often be overcome when we focus on that passage you quoted from Moroni 10, and what it means to “deny [oneself] of all ungodliness]. I feel that the rules, manuals, etc… are means not to the perfection, but to the denial from all ungodliness.

  2. Kristine says:

    Ah, Linda–you ARE perfect 🙂 Thanks for this.

  3. Anne Wunderli says:

    Your point can’t be made often enough, Linda. Thanks very much for sharing it.

  4. nat kelly says:

    That squirrel joke is seriously one of the best I’ve heard in a long time. LOVE it. Great post.

  5. CatherineWO says:

    Thank you for this reminder, Linda. I needed to hear this today.

  6. Rebecca says:

    I’m teaching RS this Sunday and I can’t wait to use the squirrel joke! Actually, my lesson is about reading the scriptures. Any ideas on how to make that one fresh would be welcome. I’m trying very hard to avoid questions that bring out the primary to-do list answers. Those types of lessons usually bring out the following thought processes in me…yawn…I wonder who is out in the hallway that I can chat with…Darn, I forgot to put a book in the car!

    Great post. In the past few years, I’ve come to emphasize grace more in the way I think about my own life. As a kid growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s we sure heard a lot about works. Grace seemed like almost a bad thing as in, “We aren’t like those other churches who think that they just have to accept Jesus and they are saved”. Well, of course there’s a lot to be said for grace. I like the ideas of perfection being akin to wholeness and healing. To feel the Lord’s grace is to feel whole or healed and we can do that today. We don’t have to wait until we’re perfect, better, have our crap together, and so forth. I’ll meditate on that thought. Thanks Linda.

  7. Deborah says:


    I love the confidence and humility of claiming your perfection. I’ve used the term “grace” much more in the last couple of years. It’s not only a beautiful concept, it’s a beautiful WORD. Even with my two left feet, I feel grateful and grace-ful these days. More whole than I have in a long time.

  8. Jeff Spector says:

    Thank You. Your post was just “perfect.” You really do understand.

    Now get back to work…… 🙂

  9. Angie says:

    I love this post – my religious beliefs match what you are saying.

    Here’s an amazing talk about this subject, focusing on the phrase “after all we can do” from the Book of Mormon:


    Rebecca asked a question about her RS lesson. In “Preach My Gospel” on page 107, there is a list of questions that are answered in the Book of Mormon. I’ve used this list in a lesson on the scriptures, because everyone wants to know the answers to questions like these.

    • Rebecca says:

      Angie, thanks for the suggestion. The list of questions from Preach My Gospel is a nice practical list people can take home. I’ve never served a mission and wasn’t familiar with the missionary teaching guide. Great!

  10. Thomas Parkin says:

    Yup. Exactly. I personally love the metaphor of ‘wholeness.’ It interests me very much that the words “whole” and “holy” have the same historical root. I’m also interested in the idea that sin has more to do with lack, and the situations that lack puts us in, than behaviors we may do in those circumstances. (though the behaviors themselves may get us more stuck in our painful, lacking state.) Repentance, then, would only be secondarily a matter of altering behavior. It would primarily be expanding our being, filling in the empty spaces (impurities) that keep us from being truly whole, and that expanding and sanctifying are largely the same thing – gifts of the Spirit as it grows us in light and understanding and capacities and love. “I know the seed is good … for my soul doth begin to expand …” And eventually we become truly whole, completed human beings, finished, and have everything that Father and Mother have. Aye-yup … pretty much tastes right to me.

    • Rebecca says:

      Thomas, thanks so much for that. In my personal prayers, I tend to think of repentance as asking forgiveness for my wrongdoing and then trying to modify my behavior. These first steps are generally followed by sin/failure then the cycle repeats. I feel a little bit stunned to realize that this very primary kid version of the repentance concept is alive and well in my personal religious practice. Your version feels right to me and certainly puts a focus on the healing power of grace. I like the images of “…expanding our being, filling in the empty spaces (impurities) that keep us from being truly whole…” It’s a much more hopeful idea. I hope that I am growing in my understanding and in my capacity to love, moving toward being a more whole human.

  11. Carol says:

    What a beautiful post! I talk to so many LDS women who are wonderful, beautiful, talented, and giving but do not feel they are good enough. We need to celebrate our divine worth, do our best, and realize that as we surrender our lives to God, He makes up the difference, and we are whole.

  1. January 14, 2013

    […]  For me, the notion of worthiness sometimes brings with it feelings of guilt of not being perfect. Perhaps this has to do with how worthiness is gauged by someone outside ourselves, often a […]

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