Look and Live
In the church we talk of ideals often, the paramount good that we’re striving to reach. Ideals are the serpent on the staff which we look to. We look up to see our goal, the image of perfection which we’re striving for – eternal life. There is much good in this, in looking up, in striving for better, in believing that we are capable of more, but I fear that we don’t recognize the ugliness can be found in extreme devotion to the ideal.
When we are overly committed to the ideal we value reality less. We can focus so much on the ideal that reality becomes a constant disappointment. Every spilled glass of milk is a catastrophe and every flat tire an injustice. Sometimes this becomes so heavy to bear that in extreme cases a person can even become delusional, taking the opposite view by seeing only the positive in their friends and family, or in their lives, because they so desperately want it to be that way. They avoid the pain of imperfection and sin by ignoring it, leaving their rose colored glasses on until they forget they’re on.
When we are overly committed to the ideal we judge ourselves and others harshly, often destroying the very relationships and qualities we idealize. Compassion can’t be found in us, because it would mean taking our eyes off the ideal to look down to help another up. Our love is reserved for ideal situations, where hurt, pain and sin cannot touch us. Not because we think we are perfect, but because we want to be perfect. We are hold out for perfection.
Often when we talk of Christ we hold him up as our exemplar, as we are rightly taught to do. When we are overly committed to the ideal we don’t accurately judge what parts of Christ’s behavior we can and should exemplify and which are beyond our grasp. For instance, we are encouraged to love others, as Christ loved the Samaritan woman at the well. Not only did Christ treat the woman kindly and not judge her harshly, but he also forgave her of her sins. None of us can absolve sins the way that Christ does. In our day even judges in Israel, bishops, only act for the church when they undertake disciplinary action for serious sin, complete forgiveness is found in Christ alone (see The Miracle of Forgiveness).
Some of the characteristics of Christ which we should exemplify, or not, are easily discerned, others are not so obvious. Christ fasted for forty days, yet we are instructed to fast for 24 hours. Still there are times we are tempted or even erroneously instructed to fast beyond that point. (BD, True To The Faith: fasting) Looking to the ideal, Jesus Christ, can be taken to extreme lengths – even dishonoring Christ’s magnificence by pretending that we can approach his glory and perfection in this life.
There are even scriptures that we erroneously take to extremes, derailing the process of perfection by looking beyond the mark. This one might have entered your mind while reading the previous paragraphs about Christ: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends “ (John 15:13). Or maybe this one: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Are we to take these scriptures literally in our devotion to the ideal?
In my life, including online interactions, I have seen the ugliest side of the Saints when the ideal is strenuously chased. In reality it is not Christ that some look to, it is a gilded image, the ideal of perfection and absolute accordance with laws and ordinances that are sought after. In this obedience taken to extremes it is not Christ that we seek to glory, it is ourselves. We seek for golden moments of perfect obedience to enshroud ourselves in, making ourselves the golden calf which we worship. Our fruits rot in service that seeks praise, in leadership which criticizes, in condemnation of those who have fallen instead of a warm hand up. In these circumstances, and many like them, the ideal is raised high, so high that it reaches beyond Christ. It is a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.
We are placed in this mortal sphere to have an imperfect experience, to rub elbows with fellow sinners and shed tears in our travails. We cannot escape the fact that imperfection is all around us, that we are fallen, ill-fitted and flawed. Yes, we look to the ideal, to the day that we sit at the right hand of God in the kingdom of heaven clothed with glory, with Abraham, and Isaac, and with Jacob and with all our holy fathers to go no more out. But first we are mortal. We cannot rise to the perfection which we were created to attain without also recognizing what our sin is, what keeps us from the ideal, and we certainly cannot get there alone.
Our challenge is to see and experience the weakness and sin of our brothers and sisters while continuing to love them. It is not hugging them with one hand while plugging our nose at the repugnance of their sin with the other hand. When we accept and love our sinful siblings we are in effect learning to love our sinful selves, as God loves us – with forgiveness and knowledge of our infinite worth. Our eyes must be open to all that mortality can teach; the good and the evil.
God is good to us, sharing his vision of our eternity so that we have ideals to strive towards. The problem is that if we focus too acutely on the ideal, we never get to the business of today.
“And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Num 21:9).
When Moses held the pole with the serpent of brass the people were not commanded to gaze only upon it, never taking their eyes off of it, instead they were told to look and live. Look at the ideal, and then go and live. Look to the glorious day when Christ will rule on earth again, and then live today with a grateful heart seeing all the blessings that are now ours despite the telestial sphere we inhabit. Look to the eternal relationships which we will enjoy in the presence of God, and then live with patience and learn to love the imperfect families we have the privilege of starting here in mortality. Look to Christ as our perfect exemplar, and then live realizing his great love for us and all mankind while drawing on his infinite atonement.
Look my friends, and live.
Photo credit: lds.org