Thursday, October 15, 2015

Be Ye Therefore Perfect?

"Men are that they might have joy—not guilt trips!" 
- Russell M. Nelson1

      I was taught to keep the commandments ever since I was little, but when I was younger there was one commandment that always bothered me. It seemed unfair for God to ask it and impossible for me to do it. It's found in Matthew 5:48 and says "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." 

       This verse irritated me a lot. "Be perfect?!" I said. "Hello! I'm a human being! I'd love to be perfect right now, but that's not going to happen. Why are you asking me to do something you know is impossible?" I would try to forget about this verse, but it continued to pop up in seminary and Sunday school classes. Eventually I reached the conclusion that while I couldn't be perfect in this life, I should still try to live perfectly (although it was clearly impossible), and it would somehow help me become perfect in the long run - a "shoot for the moon and land among the stars" kind of thing. I tried that approach for a while, but it was just as frustrating. I would do my best and then feel guilty every time I made a mistake. Finally, an inspired teacher pointed out a footnote to this verse which not only changed my understanding of this verse, but of perfection itself.

      In the LDS scriptures, you will notice the word "perfect" in Matthew 5:48 is attached to a footnote which provides the word's Greek translation (Greek being the original language of the New Testament). In Greek, the word  we read as "perfect" translates to "complete, finished, fully developed." So while I had thought Christ was commanding me try to be perfect now or be condemned, He was really saying something else. In his talk, "Perfection Pending," Elder Russell M. Nelson explained:
 "The term perfect was translated from the Greek teleios, which means 'complete.' ...The infinitive form of the verb is teleiono, which means 'to reach a distant end, to be fully developed, to consummate, or to finish.' Please note that the word does not imply 'freedom from error'; it implies 'achieving a distant objective.' "2 
       Looking back, I see my biggest mistake was thinking perfection was the same as sinlessness. That wasn't completely illogical, though. After all, sinlessness is a big part of perfection, and whenever we talk of Christ's life as perfect, we're usually referring to its sinlessness. But perfection is more than just sinlessness. Webster's dictionary defines perfection as "freedom from fault or defect," but also "maturity," or full development. So Christ is not just demanding sinlessness of us. He's asking something more. He's asking us to finish our journey from a fallen to a redeemed state and fulfill our divine potential. He's telling us not to quit.

       For those skeptical of this idea, compare the verse in Matthew to the version in 3 Nephi. The Book of Mormon verse says "Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect" (3 Nephi 12:48). There's a key difference there. In Matthew, Jesus speaks only of His father's perfection, but in 3 Nephi He includes Himself. Why the change? Because prior to His resurrection Jesus was not yet perfect, at least not in the full sense of the word. He was sinless, yes, but He wasn't complete. He wasn't finished. 

       President Nelson taught,
"Just prior to his crucifixion, [Christ] said that on ‘the third day I shall be perfected’ (Luke 13:32). Think of that! The sinless, errorless Lord—already perfect by our mortal standards—proclaimed his own state of perfection yet to be in the future. His eternal perfection would follow his resurrection and receipt of ‘all power … in heaven and in earth.’ The perfection that the Savior envisions for us is much more than errorless performance. It is the eternal expectation as expressed by the Lord in his great intercessory prayer to his Father—that we might be made perfect and be able to dwell with them in the eternities ahead.”3 
       So, if Christ didn't expect Himself to be perfect in mortality (even with His sinlessness), I think you and I are safe not to expect that of ourselves, either.

       When I first heard this idea, it changed the way I understand God. I used to think of God as an auditor, going through my records with a magnifying glass and counting the times I hadn't kept His command to be perfect. Now I see God more as an artist, slowly and steadily working on me, looking forward to the day I will be finished. My flaws don't please Him, but He is prepared for them. He knows even though the marble is rough now, He can still chisel me into a masterpiece if I let Him. Yes, He wants me perfect, but the artwork can only be perfect when the artist is finished, and He's not quite finished with me yet.

       If you were to translate Matthew 5:48 into modern terms, I think it would sound a lot like the words of Elder Holland: 
"Don’t you quit. You keep walking. You keep trying. There is help and happiness ahead. You keep your chin up. It will be all right in the end."4    
       Jesus is not telling us we should have crossed the finish line by now. He's telling us to finish the race. He's not telling us to keep up or get left behind. He's telling us to stick with Him on this rough road, because it leads to somewhere wonderful. 

       Essentially, the only way we can break this commandment is by giving up. As long as we keep going, as long as we don't rebel against the master artist and refuse to be completed, then we will be perfected. It may take a long time, but it will happen, so long as we keep trying. 

       There are still times when I'm discouraged or feel I don't measure up. But now this verse gives me hope instead of guilt. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by this commandment, I can actually feel encouraged. Through this verse, it's as if Christ is saying "Keep going. Remember where we're headed. I won't quit if you won't." As long as we keep going, not trying to be perfect now but allowing ourselves to be shaped by perfect hands, then the day will come when God will step back and admire the masterpiece He's created - the one He always intended us to be. Then it will all be worth it.

1. Nelson, Russell M. "Perfection Pending." Ensign, November 1995.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Holland, Jeffrey R. "An High Priest of Good Things to Come." Ensign, November 1999. 

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