Sign up for Meridian’s Free Newsletter, please CLICK HERE

This article is an excerpt from the chapter “Serious about Perfection” in the book “Sisters, Arise!” by Lynne Perry Christofferson. The book is available at Seagull Book, Deseret Book, and Amazon.com.

On a Saturday evening in autumn, I drove to a nearby city to attend a broadcast of the General Relief Society Meeting with my mother. The spirit of the messages and music left me with a softened heart and a desire to do better, and as I drove home afterward my mind began processing what I had heard and felt. As is usually the case with me, my desire to be a more righteous woman led to thoughts of perfection, inevitably leading to discouragement for a mere mortal gal such as myself.

As my car whizzed along the freeway, my eye caught briefly on the words of a billboard: “Serious about perfection.” I didn’t quite catch what the sign was advertising, but the phrase I saw lodged itself in my mind, and I pondered it repeatedly over the next few days, asking myself, “Am I serious about perfection?”

If I added up all of the hours from my past which were consumed by fear, guilt, and worry over my lack of perfection, I’ve no doubt the sum total would equal years—years of my life wasted due to a faulty understanding of the Atonement and the gross misperception that Heavenly Father demanded perfection of me immediately, if not sooner. On countless occasions I stressed over the fact that my life could end at any time and I would die without having repented of every speck of sin, and certainly without having attained a perfect state. I mistakenly thought that this constant anxiety over my sins and weaknesses was evidence that I was serious about perfection.

In recent years, candid discussions with numerous friends and relatives have revealed that I had unknowingly been part of a club with many miserable members: The Perfectionists. The only membership requirement was to continually flog ourselves with thoughts of our unworthiness before the Lord who clearly commanded us all to be perfect. (Matt. 5:48) Was my club membership proof that I was serious about perfection? Or does being serious about perfection involve a completely different mindset?

The scriptures reveal that “… [Satan] seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.” (2 Ne. 2:27) Ironically, one of his most effective methods of ensuring our misery is to promote perfectionism among the members of Christ’s church—a distortion of the Savior’s plan for us to repent and change through His atoning power and grace.

Why is the prospect of perfecting ourselves so daunting? Perhaps it’s because it’s not our job. What? But the Savior said, “Be ye therefore perfect…” (Matt. 5:48) Yes, but He never said we must accomplish that task by ourselves. He stated His job description very plainly, “For behold, this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39) That’s His job. Not ours.

So, what is our job? Our job is to come to Christ and be willing to be perfected—perfected by Him. The day we recognize that the Lord is not asking us to achieve a perfect state through sheer willpower, we can lay aside a tremendous amount of guilt. And the day we move out of the way so the Savior has room to do His job, we take huge steps toward our ultimate goal. When we are serious about perfection we understand the difference between our role and the role of the Savior in the perfection process.

In the closing verses of the Book of Mormon, the prophet Moroni describes this process: “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in Him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness…then is His grace sufficient for you…” (Moroni 10:32) There’s the formula. We come to Christ, work earnestly at repenting and denying ourselves of evil influences, and He perfects us.

When we are serious about perfection, we determine what there is in our life that is sufficiently ungodly—what creates a barrier between us and the Holy Spirit—and then make it our daily quest to pull the barriers down. When we are serious about perfection, we relieve ourselves of the self-imposed responsibility of judging others. This leaves us with much more time to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling before [God].” (Mormon 9:27, emphasis added)   Our belief that Christ can perfect even us grows in direct proportion to our understanding of who He is and exactly what the Atonement means.

In our quest for perfection, it is essential that we gain a clear understanding of what sin and weakness really are. In her book, “Weakness Is Not Sin,” author Wendy Ulrich makes an important distinction between the two. “….we mistakenly lump sin and weakness together and assume that guilt and shame are the appropriate response to both…Sin and weakness are very different. They have different origins and different consequences, call for different remedies, evoke different responses from heaven, reside in different aspects of our being, and produce different effects. Sin can take us to hell. Weakness can take us to heaven.” (1)

Such a bold statement, and a careful study of the scriptures confirms its truth. The Lord declared, “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble.” (Ether 12:27) and “….I will be merciful unto your weakness.” (D&C 38:14) Sister Ulrich further states, “In other words, weakness is not just a choice we make (as sin is); weakness means vulnerabilities and limitations we must sometimes learn to live with, even as we try to improve, grow, and learn…” (2)   Elder Richard G. Scott points out, “When the Lord speaks of weaknesses it is always with mercy.” (3)

We will always have the nagging feeling that we should do better, be better. This instinctive yearning for perfection is evidence of our divine roots. We are spiritual beings temporarily housed in mortal bodies—a bit like wearing an ill-fitting suit. As magnificent and capable as our bodies are, they are still mortal, subject to illness and fatigue and sharp cravings. The spark of divinity in us will always be at odds with our mortal tendencies, which may explain some of the restlessness and dissatisfaction we feel with ourselves at times, even when we are diligent in our efforts to repent of our sins and are chipping away at our personal weaknesses.

If we’re intimidated by the thought of perfection, perhaps we could focus on another “P” word: progression. Progression toward perfection. The word progression puts me in mind of caterpillars and butterflies. Every butterfly begins its life as a tiny egg, and each egg hatches a caterpillar so small it can barely be seen. The newborn caterpillars grow rapidly though, constantly feeding on leaves.

Caterpillars face a challenge as they grow: their skin does not stretch with them. So they grow a larger skin under the old one—sort of like wearing a poofy parka crammed beneath a skin tight tee shirt. When the time is right, the old skin is shed and a new, larger version is exposed. Over the next few weeks this process is repeated several times.

When a caterpillar molts for the final time, it attaches itself to the stem of a plant. This time, underneath the old skin is a jade green casing which hardens around the caterpillar and is called a chrysalis. From the outside, it appears that the chrysalis is at rest. However, dramatic changes are occurring inside as the tissues of the caterpillar completely break down and reorganize. The chewing mouthparts are transformed into a straw-like tongue that will be used to sip nectar from flowers. Antennae and wings are developed, until finally, what was once a creeping, chewing insect emerges as a magnificent, fully-formed butterfly.

It seems to me that the “natural man” in each of us, to which King Benjamin referred, (Mosiah 3:19) is something like a caterpillar; a bit sluggish, doing little but feeding itself, and without even a hint of butterfly evident in its features or actions. Yet every caterpillar has the potential to be a butterfly—what it is intended to become—if it will only endure the “molting” and chrysalis phases of the life cycle.

The Lord requires us to exert ourselves in the quest for perfection. Every attempt we make to repent, to obey, to improve, to be a better person today than we were yesterday brings the caterpillar forcefully to mind. We can almost feel the outer layer of skin sloughing off, making room for the larger version. And sometimes, after we have made significant spiritual progress, it can feel as if we’re beginning to grow wings.

The metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly takes only a matter of weeks. For us, the process of subduing the natural man will take more than a lifetime. We are less likely to feel impatient with the slow process of perfection as long as we have a way to measure our progress. Elder Dallin H. Oaks shares two ways we can do this: First, “….if we are losing our desire to do evil, we are progressing toward our heavenly goal.” Second, “…persons who are proceeding toward the needed conversion are beginning to see things as our Heavenly Father sees them. They are hearing His voice instead of the voice of the world, and they are doing things in His ways instead of by the ways of the world.” (4)

Each year, in late December, we northern-hemisphere-dwellers experience the shortest day of the year, when the sun takes its lowest path across the sky…But the very next day, a quiet phenomenon occurs while most of us aren’t paying attention: gradually, in tiny increments, the days begin to lengthen. By the spring equinox our sunsets will be noticeably later and toward the end of June it will seem that the sun is content to hang in the sky indefinitely.

As mortals dealing daily with the effects of the Fall, we experience a spiritual inversion—a dim and uncomfortable fog. We grapple hourly with our weaknesses and suffer the shame that comes with our sinning. But no matter how far gone we think we are, change will begin as we reach out to the Savior for help and grace. Because our initial attempts at improvement are so incremental, we will likely not even notice a change at first. But one day, awareness will begin to dawn: the light is changing, increasing. This is the beautiful process of perfection. Frustration is inevitable when change and improvement come slowly. But they will come. In the dead of winter, summer may seem like a distant dream, but early spring is not so far away and we can rejoice, even now, in a daily increase of light—however modest. Just as the longest winter nights give way to spring and finally to full summer sunshine, we will someday bask in the fullness of the light within us.

Isn’t it time we cancel our membership in The Perfectionists Club? The very moment we demonstrate our faith by humbly turning toward the Lord in repentance, or seeking Divine help in making “….weak things become strong…” (Ether 12:27), we are changing our spiritual trajectory. In that moment, we become serious about perfection.

This article is an excerpt from the chapter “Serious about Perfection” in the book “Sisters, Arise!” by Lynne Perry Christofferson. The book is available at Seagull Book, Deseret Book, and Amazon.com.

Notes:

  1. Wendy Ulrich, Weakness is Not Sin, (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 2009), 3.
  2. ibid.
  3. Richard G. Scott, “Personal Strength through the Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, November 2013.
  4. Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign, November 2000.