A recent article in the July 2014 Ensign magazine titled “Becoming Perfect in Christ,” written by Seventy Gerrit W. Gong, caught my eye. I’m not one to make many predictions, but when I saw the title, my immediate response was that this article would teach that “becoming perfect” is not what Mormonism teaches. In effect, I thought this general authority would do his best to make Mormonism look like the forgiving faith it really is not.
Gong did not disappoint. What I want to do in this blog is to quote from a section of the article titled “Perfectionism” and then provide quotes from LDS manuals and leaders—which I’ll indent—that seem to show another side. (To be fair, I’m quoting every word from this section of the article, meaning that this will have to be a two-part blog.)
Gong: “A misunderstanding of what it means to be perfect can result in perfectionism—an attitude or behavior that takes an admirable desire to be good and turns it into an unrealistic expectation to be perfect now.”
“Perfection is a word that causes different reactions from many people. Some people say, ‘Perfection? Why, that is impossible!’ Others say, ‘Perfection? I get discouraged just thinking about it!’ Yet, would the Lord give us a commandment that was impossible for us to keep? And when He gives a commandment, doesn’t he, as Nephi said, prepare a way for us to accomplish what he commands? The Sermon on the Mount is the Lord’s blueprint for perfection” (The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, 1979, p. 57).
Gong: “Perfectionism sometimes arises from the feeling that only those who are perfect deserve to be loved or that we do not deserve to be happy unless we are perfect.”
“Jesus said, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). Because it is very difficult to become perfect, our Father helps us. He has established the Church; called leaders; and given us commandments, principles, and ordinances. In our Church meetings we receive instructions concerning these things. We must obey and live according to God’s laws to become perfect.” (The Latter-day Saint Woman Part A, p. 122).
Gong: “Perfectionism can cause sleeplessness, anxiety, procrastination, discouragement, self-justification, and depression. These feelings can crowd out the peace, joy, and assurance our Savior wants us to have.”
“His example of unhesitating, unswerving obedience sets a very high bar, but when we accept His admonition to ‘be perfect even as I, or your Father is perfect’ (3 Nephi 12:48) as a key element of the plan of eternal progression, we begin to understand what the Lord expects us to be. As we seek to determine what kind of Saints we really are, we must honestly grade ourselves on our willingness to obey God” (Robert C. Oaks, “Stand and Be Judged for What We Really Are,” Ensign, April 2003, p. 65).
Gong: “Missionaries who want to be perfect now may become anxious or discouraged if learning their mission language, seeing people baptized, or receiving mission leadership assignments do not happen fast enough. For capable young people accustomed to accomplishment, a mission may be life’s first great challenge. But missionaries can be exactly obedient without being perfect. They can measure their success primarily by their commitment to help individuals and families “become faithful members of the Church who enjoy the presence of the Holy Ghost.”
“If the Latter-day Saints live their religion, they will forsake iniquity and overcome the evil that the enemy of all righteousness causes to rise within them, until every passion and appetite is as perfectly under their own control as a patient animal they hold by the bit” (President Brigham Young, September 2, 1860, Journal of Discourses 8:160).
Gong: “Students beginning a new school year, especially those leaving home for college, face both excitement and concerns. Student scholars, athletes, artists, and so forth go from being a “big fish in a little pond” to feeling like a minnow in an ocean with unfamiliar tides and swift, unpredictable currents. It is easy for students with perfectionist tendencies to feel that, no matter how hard they try, they have failed if they are not first in all things. Given life’s demands, students can learn that it is sometimes perfectly fine to do all they can and that it is not always possible to be the very best.”
“Every principle of the gospel has been revealed to us for our individual advancement and for our individual perfection, but it is the business of the devil to blind men’s eyes to these facts” (President Heber J. Grant, March 17, 1904, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 66:168).
Gong: “We also impose expectations of perfection in our own homes. A father or mother may feel compelled to be the perfect spouse, parent, homemaker, breadwinner, or part of a perfect Latter-day Saint family—now.”
“Be perfect here? Yes, it is man’s privilege, the Latter-day Saints believe, to be as perfect in his sphere as God our eternal Father is in his sphere, or as Jesus in his sphere, or as the angels in their spheres. Said Jesus to his disciples —‘Be ye perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect.’ Perfection, then, is to a certain extent possible on earth for those who will live, lives that are agreeable to the mind and will of God” (Apostle George Q. Cannon, October 8, 1874, Journal of Discourses 17:231).
Gong: “What helps those who battle perfectionist tendencies? Open-ended, supportive inquiries communicate acceptance and love. They invite others to focus on the positive. They allow us to define what we feel is going well. Family and friends can avoid competitive comparisons and instead offer sincere encouragement.”
“These declarations of the Master are known in the literature of the Christians world as the Beatitudes and have been referred to by Bible commentators as the preparation necessary for entrance into the kingdom of Heaven. For the purposes of this discussion may I speak of them as something more than that as they are applied to you and me. They embody in fact THE CONSTITUTION FOR A PERFECT LIFE” (President Harold B. Lee, The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles manual, 1979, p. 60).
Gong: “Another serious dimension of perfectionism is to hold others to our unrealistic, judgmental, or unforgiving standards. Such behavior may, in fact, deny or limit the blessings of the Savior’s Atonement in our lives and in the lives of others. For example, young single adults may make a list of desired qualities in a potential spouse and yet be unable to marry because of unrealistic expectations for the perfect companion. Thus, a sister may be unwilling to consider dating a wonderful, worthy brother who falls short on her perfectionist scale—he does not dance well, is not planning to be wealthy, did not serve a mission, or admits to a past problem with pornography since resolved through repentance and counseling. Similarly, a brother may not consider dating a wonderful, worthy sister who doesn’t fit his unrealistic profile—she is not a sports enthusiast, a Relief Society president, a beauty queen, a sophisticated budgeter, or she admits to an earlier, now-resolved weakness with the Word of Wisdom. Of course, we should consider qualities we desire in ourselves and in a potential spouse. We should maintain our highest hopes and standards. But if we are humble, we will be surprised by goodness in unexpected places, and we may create opportunities to grow closer to someone who, like us, is not perfect.”
“It is my duty, it is yours, to be better today than I was yesterday, and for you to be better today than you were yesterday, and better tomorrow than you were today. Why? Because we are on that road, if we are keeping the commandments of the Lord, we are on that road to perfection, and that can only come through obedience and the desire in our hearts to overcome the world” (President Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 2:18-19. See also The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles manual, 1979, p. 292).
We’ll finish Gong’s article and provide additional quotes in the next blog posting on Thursday.