Saturday, January 31, 2009

On Being Perfect...but Not Really

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. – Matthew 5:48

So how many Latter-day Saints hate this scripture? (*gasp* did she say hate?) Anyone?

Is anybody willing to admit that despite numerous pats on the back, the admonition here still stings? Be perfect – like Heavenly Father.

These words spoken by the Savior come after the first bit of the Sermon on the Mount, and our leaders like to tell us “nonono. It’s totally unrealistic to attain perfection in this life. Christ must mean to strive for perfection.”

To which we all breathe a heavy sigh of relief and go about our day. Until we screw up. Or think we're not good enough because Brother X always does his home teaching.

So how do we “strive for perfection?” My leaders have taught me that it’s important to focus on what is realistic. We can be perfect in not swearing (oops), in our Sabbath keeping (or at least our church attendance), we can be perfect in our observation of the Word of Wisdom, our visiting and home teaching, etc.

But what if we struggle here, too? I suppose that’s where the “strive” comes from – but we’re talking about a realistic expectation to be perfect in these things. And this idea that we can be perfect in some things makes us feel good that we can be perfect in these things.

But can we?

What if we’re perfect in our visiting teaching as far as numbers go. I distinctly remember an Ensign article some years ago which praised a sister for never missing a month of her visiting teaching in a substantial period of time. This is obviously meant to motivate the rest of the membership to reach such a goal, but beyond numbers…would that make us perfect, or just the illusion of perfect?

What if we didn’t care about those we visited? We just wanted our numbers. What if that woman didn’t necessarily visit each of her sisters, but just made sure to call them or send them a letter. Let’s face it: us girls get by really easily when it comes to this. We can say “we tried to contact” and it’ll go down in our favor.

But even for the home teachers: what if a guy visits his homes every month but he doesn’t necessarily care?

Does that make him perfect in his home teaching?

As for swearing, while I understand why we shouldn't make a practice of it, I thought it mattered what was in the heart. And besides, I went for a long time under a fairly strict swearing moratorium (with the exception of the Mormon friendly “crap”) but I happen to think the cheesy substitutes are just as bad as the words themselves. The intention was just as bad. Is my friend who says "fetch" more perfect than anyone else who uses the real word?


As for the Word of Wisdom, I know I’ve gone here a few times over the past month or so, but seriously. This is such a sketchy issue: letter or spirit, and if spirit where is the line? Depends on who you are and who you talk with.

The Sabbath. This one is also sketchy. Some consider strictness the only safe route to go. I already touched on this a little yesterday regarding the Superbowl, but what if you’re “perfect” in keeping the Sabbath but ignore your family? What if you keep the Sabbath so holy in deed but in your heart you can’t help but pity those poor, heathen folks who are taking their boats to the lake?

And what if you screw up? There’s always repentance, yes, but this goal of perfection really seems to make us miss that mark, to miss the grace that is in repentance.

I submit that perfection is more about what’s in the heart than what the eyes, mouth, legs, and arms do.

A quick review of Matthew 5:

1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. (v. 3)
2. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. (4)
3. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. (5)
4. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. (6)
5. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. (7)
6. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (8)
7. Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God. (9)

8. Verse 16 does speak about works. I shall ignore this one, too. There is virtue in being an example, but only for the others until they get to know you to know if your heart is pure. Being an example is not directly beneficial for the exemplar.

9. This one is interesting. Verse 20: For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. Look up Pharisee in your Topical Guide. Look at my quote to the right. Pharisees don’t care about the heart, they care about the image.

10. Verse 21-22 deals with the unrighteousness that is anger, but more the source of the anger.

11. Verse 28 deals with adultery not just being in the act, but in the premeditation, in just the looking upon another in lust.

12. Verse 38-44 deals with loving those who revile us, to love our enemy, to pray for others, that this is how we will be children of God. I love verse 46: For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not the publicans even the same?

How many of us do that? Only show love and charity to fellow Saints? How many are there who fear hanging out with apostates and raucous non-members (or *any* non-member for that matter) or liberal members of the church for fear that their heretical example and light will be contagious?

How many of us only love those who love us? I’m just as guilty.

As I understand it, we are to strive to change our hearts to this perfection. I think, though, we put too much emphasis on the “perfection” part and not in the refinement process that will perhaps one day get us there.

Let me say this though, perfection seems boring to me. I like learning, I like knowing that when I mess up I can get up and be better. I can always be better. There’s something lively and hopeful about that, and I don’t necessarily want to ever lose the chance at progression. Charity is something I’ll never perfect, but it’s something I think I’m willing to chase.

I don’t care about perfection in the minutia of life anymore. I don’t want to place that burden on my children that they should always do what will make them perfect or temple worthy. Ouch, I know, but Christ cares more about the heart so that’s what I want to care more about. I don’t, not nearly enough as I’m reminded all the time.

There is little connection between works and the heart. I can be of service to people all day long and never ever become truly charitable. It is true that service can help us become more compassionate and I do intend to help my kids learn the real benefits of service (besides outside blessings). The thing I want to focus on more than swearing and strict obedience according to wavering rules (they do change over time) is the one thing that never changes: motivation and the heart of people. I’m finding more and more that learning and getting to know about where we live, who we are and who others are only helps us develop a more Christ-like attitude.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying, but I want to brush the guilt from my shoulders and try to be a better person rather than just look and sound like one. That feels much better, and much more approachable and real too.
And he called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand: Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man, but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man...And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding? Do not ye yet understand that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man...
- Matthew 15:10-11; 16-20

Yeah. It’s the stuff that makes up what is in our heart that Christ is concerned with. We like to attribute this to why we shouldn't curse, but that would say that cursing makes us unworthy. That's certainly an argument, but Christ doesn't seem to be talking about cursing. He's talking about something deeper than the words that spill from our mouth. He doesn't care how pious we are or what our VT/HT numbers are. Quality, not quantity. While he does care about our obedience, he talks an awful lot more about charity – and that of the heart.


Grégoire said...

You seem to be exploring the contradictory nature of what it means to keep the sabbath lately.

When I was very young (about seven) my parents divorced and I was moved from New Orleans, Louisiana to St. George, Utah by my mother. That summer, I and my siblings were taken on a family visit by my father to his parents house to Provo (NOLA was too far away, and we were too young for the journey.)

My mother had taken great pains to convince all of us that dad and his family were Satan-worshipers, or at least not as observant as they should be. This despite the fact that grandma and grandpa held callings and such. I was warned that I could be led astray by drinking Coca-Cola in Provo, or watching anything other than KUED, or something like that.

One Sunday during the month long visit, the test of my young faith came, as my mother had predicted. It was decided after church that we'd go to the Baskin-Robbins on University Avenue and eat an ice cream. I remember being horribly conflicted, but I wasn't about to object.

After the guilty meal, as we were leaving, no less a personage pulled into the parking lot than President Spencer W. Kimball, and we all waited until his worship (and a couple of other cars full of what I assume to be family members) left their vehicles and walked into the ice cream shop to sin against the LORD, just as we had done.

belledame2 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
belledame2 said...


You really hit the nail on the head in the last paragraph of your blog. Keep up the great work.

Gregoire: Hooray! It's always nice to know the GAs are even human! And I will watch the Super Bowl with no guilt then.:-D

Grégoire said...

Gregoire: Hooray! It's always nice to know the GAs are even human! And I will watch the Super Bowl with no guilt then.:-D

I think most of the LDS GAs are good people. Of course they're prisoners of structure, in the way we all are, so we should forgive them for breaking their own rules in the way we forgive ourselves for breaking them.

What Mormons need is our own version of Kol Nidre... Life is a series of compromises, and we all fall short of perfection. Other traditions emphasize the journey rather than the destination, as ours tends to do.