“Be Ye Therefore Perfect…”-Handling Obsession with Perfection, Part 1
by W. Jeffrey Marsh
Displaying our humanness does not count against us.
(The following is an excerpt from an address given at Women’s Services and Resources Addictions Conference held at Brigham Young University, 6 February 2002).
While heading to the first college course I ever taught a few years ago, I passed two colleagues in a foyer. I said, “I’m on my way to teach my first class. What should I teach?” Without hesitation, one of them quipped, “Teach them who they are.” And the other chimed in, “And give them hope!”
Today I desire to do both – to remind us who we are, or more properly “Whose” we are, and to give us all a little hope. Especially those of us who are not yet perfect – who are struggling to cope with life in this very intense and demanding academic environment.
Remember, we’re here to help each other. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell noted: “The Church is ‘for the perfecting of the Saints’ (Ephesians 4:12); it is not a well-provisioned rest home for the already perfected” (Ensign, May 1982, p. 38). Likewise, BYU is for the perfecting of your skills, not an exclusive club made up of already perfected people.
“Perfectionism may not typically be thought of as an addiction. Yet the drive to become perfect bears resemblances to other addictive behavior patterns. When the focus is on perfecting ourselves, somehow the importance of the Atonement is left out of the repentance and cleansing process.” (I am indebted to Courtney Merrill for the preceding insight.) Striving for perfection without ever seeking the help of the only One who can provide it, makes it a mechanical, individual endeavor which always comes up short, rather than the truly spiritual experience it was meant to be.
BYU, like other major universities, creates a very competitive environment,and occasionally we see people who are genuinely restless and uneasy because of their feelings of inadequacy. We need to realize that these feelings of inadequacy are perfectly normal. Overzealous anxiousness about perfection during the college years can lead to feelings ranging everywhere from frustration and anger, to unrighteous dominion and impatience with everyone around us, to feelings of despair or hopeless despondency, or sometimes to just plain spiritual weirdness. The Lord expects us to produce spiritual fruit, not become religious nuts!
The commandment to “be ye therefore perfect, even as I, or your Father in heaven” refers to the way as the well as the end result. It’s not an overnight process. And it’s something that cannot be forced. The Lord has warned us to “beware concerning yourselves” (D&C 84:43). The word ‘perfect’ emphasizes that one can become “finished,” “fully developed,” or “completed” over the process of time (see Matt 5:48; 3 Nephi 12:48; 27:27; Ephesians 4:13).
Often our misunderstanding is one of semantics. “Perfection is of two kinds, ‘finite’ or mortal, and ‘infinite’ or eternal (see Elder Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 512.) Infinite perfection is an eternal goal, not a mortal possibility. We often confuse the two. Academia’s competitive environment, coupled with bombardment of reports of highly successful people (who are continually held up as the role-models we are to emulate) – all combined with LDS teachings about the importance of individual works – may cause some students to feel the need for infinite perfection now – to have perfect grades every semester (as if a B in a religion class was a reflection of the final grade at the final day of judgment), a perfect life filled with fun and exciting dates, a perfect marriage, perfect church life, perfect children who never stray from the faith, the ability to be able to retire by age 30, and have a perfectly clean and decorated house all December long – or we are somehow a failure!
Often we impose such high expectations on each other, that no one could ever be capable of measuring up.
Elder Dean L. Larsen has observed,
….Some of us create such a complexity of expectations for ourselves that it is difficult to cope with the magnitude of them. Sometimes we establish so many particulars by which to evaluate and rate ourselves that it becomes difficult for us to feel successful and worthy to any degree at any time.
We can drive ourselves unmercifully toward perfection on such a broad plane. When this compulsion is intensified by sources outside ourselves, the problem is compounded. Confronting these demands can bring mental and emotional despair.
Everyone needs to feel successful and worthy in some ways at least part of the time. The recognition of our frailties need not propel us to try to achieve perfection in one dramatic commitment of effort. The best progress sometimes comes when we are not under intense duress. Overzealousness is at least as much to be feared as apathy. Trying to measure up to too many particular expectations without some sense of self-tolerance can cause spiritual and emotional “burn-out”….(“The Peaceable Things of the Kingdom,” New Era, Feb. 1986, p. 6.)
Perfection is not something we “do” in this life – it is something we become in the next. It is to become like Christ, more kind, more compassionate, more caring. Here we lay the foundation. In the next life we put on the capstone. But Christ is always the cornerstone. President Howard W. Hunter said, “Please remember this one thing. If our lives and our faith are centered upon Jesus Christ and His restored gospel, nothing can ever go permanently wrong.” (BYU Devotional Speeches, 14 March 1989, p. 112.)
Perfection is not manifest in outward appearances, but in the quiet, almost imperceptible changes of the heart. President David O. McKay said, “What you sincerely in your heart think of Christ will determine what you are, will largely determine what your acts will be. No person can study this divine personality, can accept his teachings without becoming conscious of an uplifting and refining influence within himself….” (Conference Report, April 1951, 93.) Perfection is not achieved with a “to-do” list, but is more like a “to-become” list of Christlike traits. For example, baptism, the young women’s medallion, the eagle scout award, college graduation, the temple endowment, a mission call, and a temple marriage are not ultimate goals, they are stepping stones for higher purposes. Each is not an end-all accomplishment. Each is meant to help us develop a more Christ-like demeanor. Obsession with perfection turns each of these stepping stones into final goals and checklists. And the more one perceives the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a “to-do” list, the more unattainable perfection will be, and the more discouraged we will become.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “There is a difference between stumbling along the pathway to perfection even as we display our humanness, and wandering about aimlessly in a desert of despair and disbelief.” (Not My Will, p. 127.) Displaying our humanness does not count against us. President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “I certainly make no pretense of being perfect, nor do any of my brethren. There was only one perfect man who ever walked the earth. The Lord has used imperfect people in the process of building His perfect society. If some of them occasionally stumble, or if their characters may have been slightly flawed in one way or another, the wonder is the greater that they accomplished so much.” (“Optimism in the Face of Opposition,” Los Angeles Institute Student Fireside, Feb 10, 1990.)
The ultimate end of becoming perfect is to be more like the Savior. President Heber C. Kimball once said: “I am perfectly satisfied that my Father and my God is a cheerful, pleasant, lively, and good-natured Being. Why? Because I am cheerful, pleasant, lively and good-natured when I have His Spirit. That is one reason why I know; and another is – the Lord said, through Joseph Smith, “I delight in a glad heart and a cheerful countenance” (D&C 59:15). That arises from the perfection of His attributes; He is a jovial, lively person, and a beautiful man. (Journal of Discourses, 4:222.)
That’s what we are to become: lively, beautiful, cheerful and good-natured.
The purpose of life is not made up of 498 things “to-do”. To take each stage of life, and do what we can, where we are, to be more Christlike in each phase of life, is to make the greatest progress and fulfill the measure of our creation.
(To be continued.)
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