The Problem with the Popular Perception of Perfection

[ 4 ] Comments

by Ray DeGraw

Isaac - Brancoveanu Monastery

Fergal of Claddagh, OP (CC)

OK, the title is intentionally over-the-top alliteration, but I believe it accurately reflects one of the biggest problems of the apostasy – and, I believe, one of the greatest obstacles in understanding the heart of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The great commandment “in the law” is, in summary, “Love God and everyone else.” However, the great culmination of the beginning portion of Jesus’ penultimate sermon (The Sermon on the Mount) is a powerful commandment outside the law – and, in a very real way, is the practical application of the command to love God. This foundational command is contained in Matthew 5:48:

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which art in Heaven is perfect.”

Historical Christianity has addressed this commandment in two ways:

First, it has applied a legalistic meaning (“never make a mistake / commit a sin“).  Second, based on the impossibility of that definition, it has turned the command into a suggestion – something one cannot hope to achieve but a nice platitude regardless. (“Try not to make mistakes or sin, but realize it doesn’t really matter in the long run.“)

While this sounds fine – and even laudable – to most people, it totally destroys the power and beauty of the actual command itself. It is my conviction that someone simply cannot understand the atonement (and the full grace that makes “at-one-ment” possible) if s/he accepts and internalizes this apostate definition of perfection.

The footnotes to Matthew 5:48 make a critical definition distinction – one that changes the entire meaning and empowers the command in an amazing way. Footnote (b), which is attached to the word “perfect”, defines it from the Greek thus: “complete, finished, fully developed“. This means that the verse can be read as follows:

“Be ye therefore complete, finished, fully developed, even as your Father which art in heaven is complete, finished, fully developed.”

What an amazing difference!

Moonstone architectural detail, Las Vegas Temple
Altus Photo Design (CC)

I am planning on delving further into the practical application of this principle in future posts, since I don’t want this one to be a novella all by itself, but suffice it to say here that this definition changes fundamentally how our quest for perfection should be understood and approached – and, at the most basic level, lies at the heart of nearly every aspect of the atonement (grace, repentance, faith, works/fruits and, perhaps most importantly for many – especially women – guilt, shame and spiritual/emotional freedom).

What do I mean when I say that?

I think we buy into the incorrect traditions of our fathers too much with regard to many things, and how we view perfection is one of those mistakes.  Looking solely at how we view Jesus’ own perfection, there is something profoundly disturbing about the idea that “little Lord Jesus no crying he makes” and “He never got vexed when the game went wrong” – and it is related directly to our too common acceptance of totally unrealistic expectations, especially for far too many women I know.

“Christus-König-Statue” in Świebodzin, Polen
Mirko Klammer (CC)

To reiterate, the real meaning of “perfect” is “complete, finished, fully developed.” The last thing Jesus said, just before He died on the cross, was, “It is finished.”  According to Matthew 5:48, he might have said, instead, “I am now perfect” – even though he had never sinned.  He grew from grace to grace, line-upon-line until he finally could claim, right before he died, “It is finished.”  In other words, even though he was sinless, he still was not perfect until he had nothing left to do in mortality – until his assigned work was done.

Why do we suppose we need to short-circuit the process of growth Jesus experienced and be now what he was only at the end of his own mortal life?  Why do we feel guilt and shame for being imperfect (incomplete, unfinished, partially developed), when that is how God created even his only begotten son?  Why can’t we accept our own Second Article of Faith that says we will not be punished for Adam’s transgression – which I take to mean being mortal with its accompanying weaknesses and automatic transgressions.  If the Atonement of Jesus Christ pays for those things we didn’t choose, it frees us to pursue growth and change toward perfection as the substance of things for which we hope but cannot see.  It allows us to do the best we can with faith that our efforts will be acceptable to Him who said His love is long-suffering and kind.

If you take nothing from this post but one message, take the faith that you do not need to feel ashamed, guilty and/or overwhelmed by your “incomplete, unfinished, partially developed” state. The world teaches that such a state is irreconcilable with God – described in much of Christian literature as “the unbridgeable gap”; Matthew 5:48 says otherwise – that it can be done – and, in the Sermon on the Mount, I believe Jesus provides the practical way to do so, as well.

  • How has your understanding of “perfection” affected the way you view the Atonement?  
  • What are the biggest obstacles you have faced in letting go of unrealistic perfectionism? 
  • How do you view the command to, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father which is in heaven is perfect” – and has that view changed over time?

About Ray DeGraw

I am the husband of my high school sweetheart and father of six children. I basically have no life outside of family, work and church - except blogging, which I have been doing actively, to put it mildly, for the past 5 years. I have lived in almost every section of the United States and currently reside in Carson City, NV. I have written at Things of My Soul, Mormon Matters, Times & Seasons and StayLDS.com - and commented more than occasionally at various sites in the Bloggernacle.

4 Responses to The Problem with the Popular Perception of Perfection

  1. Paul says:

    Ray, a super post.

    I am still trying to wrap my head around the difference between our not being done yet and our having the unbridgable gap. I suppose the latter suggests that we’ll never, ever be done.

    In either case, however, I think the only way we can approach perfection (or completeness) is through the Savior and his atoning sacrifice. It is that atoning sacrifice that can complete us.

  2. Bonnie says:

    LOVE this idea, Ray. When my oldest was a young teen, I had a friend who wisely said (in response to my endless worrying) that “they’re not cooked yet.” I had a visual of myself pulling a cake out of the oven, it’s watery texture falling because I was in such a hurry. It was very settling. I am willing to give others, and myself, a little more space to live in unfinished condition. I think it’s relevant that the mansion He’s preparing for us is not completed in our earthly lifetimes. We’re always in such a hurry to inhabit.

    I especially like your discussion of Jesus’ similar path. I’ve often thought that with all the mythology that we’ve built up around Him, few of us would recognize him if we saw Him during his mortal life. Thank you so much for that beautiful and needed characterization.

  3. Sarah says:

    Wonderful. I am a perfectionist who constantly berates myself for my failures. I have only just recently realised this about myself, and it is a thought pattern I need to eradicate.

    ‘Be ye complete, even as I am complete.’

    I’m not done yet, and that’s ok. I like it.

  4. Bonnie says:

    James has a great thought along these lines over at his blog.

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