Be Ye Perfect . . .? Let’s Start with Being Perfectly Honest

Jana Riess is a writer on various faiths, with a particular gift for writing about Mormonism. She is also the author of the Twible. Jana agreed to write this post to set the stage for our contest with Jana’s new book, Flunking Sainthood.

I recently came across a 1995 General Conference talk by Russell M. Nelson about perfection. I was heartened to read the opening lines about how the commandment in Matthew 5:48 (“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”) is the most difficult of all to keep, since so many of us are far from perfection. Amen to that, I thought.

However, I found the talk disappointing from there. The opening examples Elder Nelson gave of people falling short were of individuals losing their car keys, not remembering where their cars were parked, or walking into a room and forgetting why they were there. Those aren’t examples of sin; that’s ordinary human memory loss.

Hearing a talk that promises relief from perfectionism and then trots out such benign examples of “imperfections” may well have the opposite effect of the one Elder Nelson surely intended. The net effect of such words on people whose families and lives are truly dysfunctional—which is far, far more of us than the LDS Church seems to openly admit—can actually be devastating. Imagine hearing those words if you are the person who forgot where your car was parked, but you did so because you went to a frat party and blacked out from alcohol, not because you were having a gentle Senior Moment. Or perhaps you are the individual who lost her car keys, but that happened because your autistic son hid them again, and you are within a hair’s breadth of losing your sanity as you contemplate how you are possibly going to hold on and care for him the rest of your life.

I don’t mean to pick on Elder Nelson here; I like the talk’s general emphasis on perfection as something to be attempted here but honed in the eternities, and something far more than the “errorless performance” many Latter-day Saints strive to achieve. But the talk follows those encouraging thoughts with this mixed message:

Mortal perfection can be achieved as we try to perform every duty, keep every law, and strive to be as perfect in our sphere as our Heavenly Father is in his. If we do the best we can, the Lord will bless us according to our deeds and the desires of our hearts.

I find this troubling. I’ve never met a Christian who was even close to “mortal perfection,” and I don’t believe perfection is something that can be achieved through our performance. What’s missing from this talk is the elephant in the room: the reality of our sin, and the bizarrely unexpected grace of a loving God. Elder Nelson never talks about how royally screwed up most of us are, how mired in our selfishness and blindness, how very damaged. If he did, I think this talk would be a beacon of hope for me. But there are no real people here, no one who feels recognizably flawed.

The emails I sometimes receive from Mormons whose lives are quite far from perfect are both heartbreaking and gospel-affirming. These people seek me out because of something I’ve written that helps them feel they’re not alone in being spiritual misfits or doubting Thomases. I’m glad to help, because I’m tired of trying to keep up appearances.

Ironically, though, it’s only been recently, through the experience of writing a memoir about failure, that I’ve come to feel hopeful that perfection may, in fact, be attainable in the hereafter. Someday. A long time from now, when I’ve been changed in the twinkling of an eye. But that’s not because of my performance, my achievement, my effort, my perfection. It’s because of Jesus standing in the gap. And because I’ve finally found the guts to go public with what a disaster I can sometimes be.

Last winter, the worst of my life, saw me sobbing in the bishop’s office about a series of difficult events that started with my father’s death and, incredibly, got worse from there. I was sure I could not cope. I asked to be released from my calling, and felt demoralized about that failing.

What I received from the church was love, pure and simple. My bishop listened with compassion to my terrible sadness, never judging. He and his counselors got our family a gift card to our favorite ice cream place to help stanch the pain. (Ice cream is remarkably effective therapy, if you haven’t tried it.) The Relief Society president gave me hugs and supportive words at every opportunity. One day, I opened my front door to find a sister from my ward standing there with a plate of cookies. Our home teacher was faithful with hands-on blessings and visits.

The center held. The community of the faithful was not shocked by the pain I was experiencing, not judgmental. Being on the receiving end of that kind of agape love was humbling and freeing. I did not need to hide the truth of what a mess I was.

I recently read Brennan Manning’s new memoir All Is Grace, in which he recounts a tumultuous personal journey from troubled young alcoholic to Franciscan priest who was able to get sober. He eventually left the priesthood to marry a wonderful woman, but the demons of his insecurity and addiction caught up with him again and destroyed his marriage. It’s an achingly raw memoir, and I was struck by the truth of these words that one of Manning’s friends wrote, possibly with him in mind:

My highest hope is for all of us to stop trying to fool others by appearing to have our act together. As people living in intimate union with God, we need to become better known for what and who we actually are. Perhaps a good place to begin would be telling the world—before the world does its own investigation—that we’re not as bad as they think. We’re worse….If we really believe the gospel we proclaim, we’ll be honest about our own beauty and brokenness, and the beautiful Broken One will make himself known to our neighbors through the chinks in our armor—and in theirs. (179)

I hope for more candor and transparency in Mormonism. I want our talks to be more like country songs, where people recount all the honest sorrow first and only then voice the hope. I want us to be free to bring our whole selves to church, in all our beautiful brokenness. As Frederick Buechner has written, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

Comments

  1. This leaves me something to think about.

  2. Jana,
    Your words remind me of my primary lesson last Sunday. From #38 “I can be Righteous and Pure”

    Does your hero always obey the law?
    Does your hero ever swear?
    Does your hero act righteously at all times?
    Does your hero dress and act modestly?

    Explain that if they had to answer no to any of these questions, perhaps they should find someone more righteous to choose as their hero.

    Its one thing to have a different concept of Deity or scripture, but to so thoroughly miss the whole point of Jesus’ message (that we are all broken and desperately in need of his grace) is very very sad. I read your post with shame – that you’re words need to be said at all.

  3. Last Lemming says:

    From D&C 128:15: “…neither can we without our dead be made perfect.”

    We treat the command to be perfect in Matthew as one directed to each individual. But D&C 128 tells us that perfection is not an individual pursuit. We depend on others–in this case our dead, but I don’t believe it is limited to them. Viewing the pursuit of perfection as a collective enterprise changes everything, in my mind. (And it reinforces your call for candor and transparency.)

  4. What’s missing from this talk is the elephant in the room: the reality of our sin, and the bizarrely unexpected grace of a loving God. Elder Nelson never talks about how royally screwed up most of us are, how mired in our selfishness and blindness, how very damaged. If he did, I think this talk would be a beacon of hope for me. But there are no real people here, no one who feels recognizably flawed.

    Very well said, Jana, and very true. From what I can tell, looking back over the past 25 years or so that I’ve knowledgeable enough to pay attention, Mormon discourse about grace has improved….but it still has so very, very far to go. There are, perhaps, theological causes for this frequent inability to fully embrace the Christian message of “bizarrely unexpected grace” (like the belief which many hold that God was once a man, suggesting that all of us have the “stuff” to be perfect; we just need to keep working at it); and there are perhaps structural/social reasons as well (a church culture that embraces the idea of repentance, but which shies away from directly confronting what it is we’re all presumably repenting of). Either way, our public rhetoric sometimes truly invokes despair and hope, but more usually glorifies a sweet-sounding but banal, managerial incrementalism. (Home teaching stats are up! Thus we move closer to Godhood.) Thus do the truly damaged often escape our grasp, because we often just don’t know what to do with failure (of missions, of marriages, and more).

  5. it's a series of tubes says:

    This issue caused me a lot of heartburn when I was younger. But as I a) took courses in Hebrew and Greek and understood telios>, and how poorly the modern connotation of ‘perfect’ is in translation, and b) considered the difference between Matthew 5:48 and 3 Nephi 11:48, given what Christ had done and experienced in the intervening period… well, I’ve become much more accepting of my own flaws and brokenness, (hopefully) more accepting of the same in others, and more grateful to the Savior through whose grace one day I hope to be made perfect.

  6. Sharee Hughes says:

    I heard part of a BYU devotional talk a few weeks ago. I don’t know who the speaker was–I just have my car radio tuned to KBYU for the classical music, but this particular time there was a devotonal. He was talking about perfection and said that Jesus didn’t tell us to “try” to be perfect, he said to “be” perfect. I thought about that and about the impossibility of such imperfect beings as we are doing anything more than “try.” If the brother who was speaking thinks he is pefect, I think he has another think coming. I like Last Lemming’s idea of the pursuit of perfection being a “collective enterprise.” We can’t do it alone. I have often heard it taught that we should work on one thing at a time, but that would leave a lot of things so much less than perfect. I read recently a quote from a pioneer ancestor of Ardeth Kapp that struck me s a good way to work towards perfection: “I make this covenant to do the very best I can, asking God for wisdom to direct me that I may walk with him in all righteousness and truth. I much desire to be pure in heart tha I may see God. Help me Lord to overcome all evil with good.” That’s from Kapp’s book, Rejoice, His Promises are Sure.

  7. I have always read the word perfect here as “whole” or “complete” with those words themselves having ambiguous meanings. I don’t even know if that is true, but I heard on my mission that this was the way the greek went, and have always liked/believed it. So in my mind, we can feel whole and complete in this life as Nelson suggests, because we know we are on the path to where we are supposed to be going.

    I don’t disagree with your perspective though. Too often, I see people at church who are struggling, but don’t want to ask for help, as if exposing their faults will condemn them. Too often, I hear members pull up the strawman of “judging mormons” who will condemn them if they are not perfect in every way.

    It reminds me of Max Lucado’s somewhat saccharine “You are special”, which I read to my children now and again.

  8. When an apostle talks in conference about what he sees as serious shortcomings in people that can only be dealt with through Christ’s atonement, that often isn’t taken so well either; leaves some feeling unappreciated. Sometimes better to stick with innocuous memory lapses to get everyone to listen apparently, and other times to be more raw and leave some feeling hurt.

  9. Mark Brown says:

    we’re not as bad as they think. We’re worse

    Yup.

    I really appreciate this, Jana. From one royal mess to another, thank you.

  10. Steve Evans says:

    #2: “Does your hero ever swear?…. Explain that if they had to answer no to any of these questions, perhaps they should find someone more righteous to choose as their hero.”

    A non-cussing hero is no hero at all.

  11. Had that “be ye perfect” lesson in Gospel Doctrine on Sunday and was tempted to speak up and say, Um…yeah, not possible. But I had said it before last week in a different way: “…saved by grace after all we can do.” There were nods all ’round, but you know what? I don’t think anybody actually believes that.

    We are a workscentric culture, period. It’s one of the things the evangelicals can (rightly) bang on us about. (Then again, I have my opinions on theirs, too.) Sometimes I think our grace rhetoric is getting better; sometimes I think it’s getting worse.

    All I can do is see where I am now and see where I was at X point on the timeline and evaluate my progress pertaining to my current priorities (understanding, sympathy/empathy, service, non-judgmental, or in other words, loving my neighbor) and common sense: Am I better or worse? In some ways better, some ways worse. (No, I don’t see swearing and letting my daughter wear tank tops as priorities. Ever.)

    Then I look at my mom, who really strives to be a better person in the aforementioned ways and she’s come so far from the woman I grew up with. She freely admits what she’s working on and failing. She takes each issue one at a time and chips away at it until she feels strong enough in that area to move on to her next area of weakness. She makes me think perfection (or pretty close to it) is possible.

  12. Great and beautiful post, Jana, and I agree completely.

    I am trying to get my head around one line in the post (which I know is not yours)–one that Mark isolated:

    “we’re not as bad as they think. We’re worse”

    Where does appropriate acknowledgement of one’s weaknesses and sincere humility stop and self-loathing start? I’m not saying this quote crosses that line. I am saying I don’t know where that line is.

  13. Steve Evans says:

    Moriah, more like “we are saved by grace despite all we do”

  14. Steve, good distinction.

  15. Stunning, Jana. Makes me feel right at home- for I am surely a beautiful disaster. Thank you so much.

  16. “we’re not as bad as they think. We’re worse”

    Where does appropriate acknowledgement of one’s weaknesses and sincere humility stop and self-loathing start?

    I don’t know–but to be honest, I really suspect that a little more self-loathing on the part of the comfortably unbroken wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

  17. Yeah, I feel like many members feel that “all we can do” is far more than they can do. Often “all we can do” is call for help (or I guess not often, but more like most of the time). I think often we forget that that’s the most important thing to do. It’s extremely prideful of us to think that we can really do more.

    I like the sentiment that it takes a village to achieve perfection. One of my former Gospel Doctrine teachers refers to church as “group therapy.” It’s the reason I give when people wonder why it’s so important to go to church.

    Just a thought, and certainly not a criticism… have there been any recent talks from the First Presidency or the Twelve acknowledging their imperfection, to any major extent?

  18. Jana, thank you for sharing your thoughts here. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments. Over the last year I have been gradually confronting something deeply un-Christian in my efforts at discipleship. Acknowledging this has given me more hope.

  19. Russell #16,

    Agreed.

  20. Mark Brown says:

    Where does appropriate acknowledgement of one’s weaknesses and sincere humility stop and self-loathing start?

    I think that is a really good question Sunny. There is no question that it is unhealthy for us to dwell obsessively on our sins and incompleteness and screwed up lives. Maybe part of the answer to the question is whether our acknowledgement is really complete, and whether we are willing to forthrightly face the fact, like they do in AA, that our failure isn’t really in the past, but rather is something we will need to deal with every day until we die.

    The apostle Paul expressed his frustration with himself by asking why he doesn’t do what he knows he should do, and why he continually does things he knows to be wrong. (Romans 7:15) We also have the example of Nephi: “Oh, wretched man that I am.”

  21. Mark Brown says:

    Sonny, I apologize for misspelling your name.

  22. Mark,
    “…whether our acknowledgement is really complete, ”

    I like that. Thanks.

    And just so there is no confusion, I am Sonny with an ‘o’ and not Sunny with a ‘u’. I’m not trying to nit pick at all, but I want to make everyone knows I’m not the one who writes profoundly thoughtful posts here at BCC. I’m the dorkus that is simply trying to keep up with most of you folks.

  23. I’ve failed before, and I’m sure I’ll fail again. If it seems like I’m doing pretty well at something, it’s probably because I’ve managed to avoid those particular situations that spell certain failure. For example, it seems like I’m getting along really well with my MIL, and haven’t felt angry or frustrated at or hurt by her more than a couple of times in the past 6 years. But then again, I’ve only seen her a couple of times in the past 6 years, so really, my position on the perfection continuum has not improved.

  24. I love this post and the comments shared.

    I have a long way to go to truly understand repentance, the Atonement, perfection, and what it really means to be like Christ. It feels so unattainable, and often, when I hear people who I deem to be “close to the church” talk about it (like the visiting 70 that came to our stake conference) I start to get really discouraged. I know I’m not perfect, but do people struggle with the same little vices over, and over, and over, and over like I do? I sometimes imagine HF rolling his eyes as I pray for repentance about the same stupid thing AGAIN for the 100th time. Perfection seems light years away when I have my hands full just trying not to be a lazy, selfish (fill-in-the-blank obscenity).

    But so far, 36 years into my life, I like to think I know more meaningful stuff about myself, my strengths, weaknesses, than I knew before mortality; I assume I’m able to see them in a context that I couldn’t see while living at God’s feet. And I’m *beginning* to learn the importance of why and how to care for others. I suck at it, but I at least see it.

    My list of things to work on only gets longer. But technically, in a weird way, that’s progress!

  25. observer fka eric s says:

    ” . . .strive to be as perfect in our sphere . . .” I get the trash to the curb *every* Tuesday night and zero points on my driving record. Don’t even say those are trivialities either, Jana!

  26. Those who advocate what RAF describes as “incrementalism” to resolve the dilemma of perfection actually point us away from embracing the what is the essence of the Gospel — the perfecting of the saints through the sanctifying workings of the spirit. It is through our covenant relationship with God that the Spirit works in our lives to perfect and sanctify us.

  27. Mommie Dearest says:

    I hate hate hate the smugness about our superior righteousness that I find rampant in church culture, especially when I am able to detect it in myself. However, I don’t know if leaders at Elder Nelson’s level (or even the bishop’s level) would be able to honestly admit their flawed nature and still have the confidence of everyone in the pews.

    I was raised in a typically conventional LDS way, fully indoctrinated in our doctrine and culture and sheltered from worldly influences, as best my parents could. Imagine the paradigm shift over the years as I’ve seen the world through my own eyes and discovered that such things as swearing, tattoos, and “worldliness” (or, conversely, the lack thereof) are not reliable markers for a malevolent sinner.

    “Where does appropriate acknowledgement of one’s weaknesses and sincere humility stop and self-loathing start?”

    Welcome to Mortal Experience 301.

  28. @Alan #24

    I sometimes imagine HF rolling his eyes as I pray for repentance about the same stupid thing AGAIN for the 100th time.

    I just assume Heavenly Father’s a lot less easily offended and more easily amused than we give him credit for, and that he really doesn’t care about a lot of stuff we think he must.

  29. Ron Madson says:

    Matthew 5:48 admonition to “be ye therefore perfect” is the concluding phrase prefaced by the admonition to “love your enemies” and do good to those that hate you. That is, imo, perfection–perfect love. Like the Ancient Mariner when we can love the most detestable thing then we reach perfection not when we get all anal about rules/trivia.

    To read this phrase divorced from the preceding 10 verses is to miss the point, imo.

  30. “Those who advocate what RAF describes as “incrementalism” to resolve the dilemma of perfection actually point us away from embracing the what is the essence of the Gospel — the perfecting of the saints through the sanctifying workings of the spirit.”

    I don’t think I agree with this. I very much feel that we’re expected to incrementally improve, that we’re to strive to obey the commandments with exactness, and that the Lord can’t look upon sin with the least degree of allowance. I also believe that in the big picture our incremental improvements appear meaningless, that we all fall horribly short, and that we must rely on Christ’s grace for our salvation and his sanctifying spirit for our progression. I think we’re expected to struggle mightily against our weakness — how else will we ever learn to appreciate His grace? But because we’ve called on His name and felt His sanctifying influence doesn’t mean we can progress if we cease to struggle. I think it’s just as very easy to become too complacent as it is to overemphasize the “rules”.

    I’ve thrown myself at the feet of my Savior and received peace and solace, but one of the worst things I’ve done is try to lie there wallowing in it. Next thing I knew, I found myself far from Him. I think we’re meant to find Him in the struggle.

  31. Steve Evans says:

    Incrementalism worked for Jesus.

  32. A good place to continue your reading, after Manning’s book, would be one by Wayne Jacobson. I’ve forgotten a lot of what he wrote, specifically, but do remember that the book I hyperlinked was a marvelous opening into a new life less focused on works (or what I could “do” to be loved) and more on being loved as I am (and that’s incredibly messed up).

  33. Ron:

    Good point, and one I think I overlooked. It’s all too natural to remove scriptures from their context and put their meaning elsewhere, but perhaps this instance is one wholly focused on loving those who use or abuse us, or are just our opposites and difficult to love/appreciate.

  34. “I think we’re expected to struggle mightily against our weakness — how else will we ever learn to appreciate His grace?”

    Yes. Although we don’t struggle mightily in order to appreciate Grace. We struggle mightily because the process is difficult. And it isn’t difficult because it was made difficult to teach us the lesson that it is difficult. It is difficult.

  35. When my 13 year old asked me about that scripture she had read alone (she seemed a little concerned), I told her that none of us could be perfect and be like our Father in Heaven without Jesus Christ’s atonement. So I think accessing the atonement is the only way to undo the damage of mortality and sin and be perfect and the only way to return to be with our Father in Heaven.

  36. Christian J says:

    The process isn’t difficult – its impossible. Striving yes – but never thinking for a moment that we’re in the same universe as the Perfected. Not in this life atleast.

  37. 34 – “We struggle mightily because the process is difficult. And it isn’t difficult because it was made difficult to teach us the lesson that it is difficult. It is difficult.”

    Brilliant.

  38. Could you expand on that distinction a little bit, Thomas?

  39. If anyone is interested in something I wrote about this topic back in 2008:

    “Perfection: Becoming Like Little Children” (http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2008/03/perfection-process-vs-condition.html)

    One excerpt:

    “Envision a sculptor laboring for years over his “masterpiece” – perfecting it carefully, smoothing over flaws in the initial creative process, altering it by chipping away the rough edges or redoing the blurred and faded colors. Such a product wouldn’t be “imperfect” due to “mistakes”; it would be imperfect simply because it is not completed / finished / wholly developed – because there still is work to do and changes to make until it is what its creator meant it to be when he first started molding the original lump of clay. Any marring caused by exposure to the wind or rain or hardness of the material itself would be “fixed” by extra attention and detail and softening of the material itself – making it more malleable in the hands of the sculptor.”

  40. One more:

    “Based on the original meaning in Matthew, I wish “Be ye therefore perfect” was translated in our own modern vernacular as, “Become ye therefore perfected.” I like “become perfected” much more than “be perfect” – since it doesn’t carry the same mis-perceptions about being mistake-free in the here and now.”

  41. This is an excellent post. Very recently, I was listening to an older talk from Elder Holland (1997). Holland is one of my favorites, and I do love this particular talk, but I was struck by a line that seemed, to me at least, incomplete.Elder Holland said, “Everything in the gospel teaches us that we can change if we need to….” Now I don’t want to take this out of context. The talk is all about the Savior’s love and the beauty of repentance. But as I listened to the talk I found myself desperate to hear him utter the words “and we all need to” at the end of that sentence. Or at least change that “if” to a “when.” As is stands, the talk left me with the impression that there are those who have basically managed to get close enough to God by keeping the commandments and then there are the rest of us. I know Elder Holland does not mean it that way. Nor do the many other LDS leaders who make similar statements. Nevertheless, I think many LDS do internalize that feeling of those who need to repent and those who just lose their keys or raise their voices to their kids once every decade. I suspect that this is an ingrained trope that may die out. I certainly hope so.

  42. Christian J says:

    Yes Taysom, it seems that Mormonisms rejection of original sin is a double edged sword.

  43. You know, too often when someone talks about being “perfectly honest” they are using it as an excuse to be brutal with someone.

    I was glad to see something else here. I know that I and my family have caused a large number of people to be uncomfortable as we have not hidden the imperfections in our lives, our losses and our pain and difficulties.

  44. I forgot to say how much I liked this post. Sorry, Jana.

    One of the standard definitions of “honesty” is “uprightness and fairness” – and another, archaic one is “virtue or respect”. That opens up all kinds of meanings for “perfectly honest” that our more narrow modern focus eliminates completely. In that light, I agree totally with your concluding quote and thoughts about being much more open about our struggles.

    “To Envy Less: The Vulnerability of Removing Our Masks” (http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2011/06/to-envy-less-vulnerability-of-removing.html)

  45. I think there are sometimes legitimate reasons for a lack of candor. Since we’re all being honest here, I’ll admit that I wear a different face as a YM leader on Sunday than I do at the office during the week. And the office version of me is much closer to the “real me,” if such a thing exists (for more on that, see Steve’s recent post “The Fall”: http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/09/28/the-fall/).

    The variance in my behavior is attributed to my belief that my YM deserve a role model that’s better than me, so I try to be the role model they deserve, at least at church. I’m still grappling with the notion of being that guy all the time, but I’m not sure this dichotomy is dishonest any more than first-date behavior is dishonest; I’m trying to show my best self.

    I can think of reasons why the GAs would put on a righteous face as well, especially in their conference talks. They need to do what they can to maintain our confidence in their legitimacy as righteous leaders, right? And it’s easy to think that a certain amount of remove accomplishes that better than intimacy. “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

    Also: amazing post, Jana!

  46. I wonder if a single strategy exists to best “go and sin no more”. Some feel relief in admitting weakness, letting go, and starting over fresh. Others benefit from a “fake it till you make it” approach (which works much better for me in particular). My anecdotal experience suggests that those who believe they have control over their own fate do best with the first, whereas those (such as bipolar depressives) have more need to hold onto to structure, however hollow, than start again without the momentum of history to propel them.

    Maybe the best that an understanding Bishop can do is figure out what strategy works best for each person. After all, the morality is in the goal, not the process. For the latter, psychology, compassion, and wisdom are what is called for.

  47. Alyssa E. says:

    someone mentioned GAs admitting imperfections. This last October, I found Boyd K. Packer’s talk to have a bit of this–not a lot, but a bit–and it really struck me that, like him or not (I’m in camp “not”), he is an incredibly genuine man who is willing to put his all on the table. When he talked about his lack of a testimony and trying to ride on the testimonies of his seminary teachers, I became glued to the TV screen. There was relatability, there was fault, there was SOMETHING HUMAN that I could latch onto and “liken unto myself” as it were. I’ve never seen BKP so emotionally vulnerable and open, and it was incredibly refreshing. For all his faults (admitted and otherwise), BKP has always come off as being a very sincere and genuine human being, and I respect that immensely.

  48. “a series of difficult events that started with my father’s death and, incredibly, got worse from there”

    This is an interesting phrase for illustrating being perfectly honest regarding imperfection. Mourning the loss of a parent is right up there with the imperfection of forgetting where car keys are, and whatever it is that is worse than that is left for the reader to imagine without it being spelled out. Nonetheless it works pretty well to express need beyond the writer’s capacity without turning into an exhibition of pain for all us voyeurs.

  49. I thought his CES presentation (Packer’s) where he went over some BYU profs telling him he was prooftexting, and his need to change his talk, was telling as well.

  50. of course I’m different at church. I’m also different at a library than when I’m watching a live ball game. There is a difference between putting our best foot forward and putting a false foot forward…at least we really want to be our best…but our false is for others only…to deceve them in some way.

    Frequently we don’t share heartache and doubts and fears at church..I’m not sure how I would do that in 5 minutes in the hall…whilst being pulled 2 directions. I do assume there is very likely a world of real struggle behind everyone I meet and hope they allow me the same grace. I don’t always feel comfortable sharing my vulnerabilities for fear of falling apart completely. I do share pieces…my fear of prayer for example..or more specifically my fear of what will be asked of me. I have 9 children. 9 specific answers to prayer. I wash they came with packets of money and…I wish I was blessed also with the patience, organizational skills, homemaking skills, psychological-parenting know how…Instead I have some people assuming I must be a saint or the most perfect parent ever who knows how to deal with every possible scenario…else why would I have so many chidlren? I do love children…to be sure. But I’m afraid to pray at times for fear of what will be asked of me. I sometimes purposely dig my feet in and drowned out the spirit because I DON’T WANT TO KNOW! My husband and I even skipped the temple for a time because we had been feeling it was about time to have another child…but didn’t really want a specific revelation right then…and the temple is notoriously bad for us on that topic. It was easier to avoid the whisper…but once we’re shouted at we feel much greater responsibility…is this desensitizing me? We try to prepare-mentally-physcially-financially and in every way..but no amount of logic would convince me we should have another child…so what do you do when that’s your answer to prayer…when you are praying on an entirely different subject?! It’s like God’s just glad we opened up the line of communication and is happy to tell us what He’s been waiting to tell us. Or we wonder if we are just horrible receivers and God is really talking about something entirely different and we are misunderstanding. But if I start quesitoning those answers to prayers…where do I stop? which answers to prayers are right –if any at all?

    I do feel gratitude and love for my babies-so much..and their amazing health and their amazing spirits, the hilarious things they say, the way they learn, their little toes, all of the snuggles and kisses, their acomplishments, how they are becoming…I just very very consciously feel I’m not enough for them.

    How do you explain that nicely in the hallway when someone says…9 children? you must be a saint! I couldn’t do it! Are you having more?–or how does my husband explain it to the head coach he works with who tells him weekly we should NOT have more children? or your family, who sees up close your struggles and wants you to STOP?

    As for perfection…I love the concept of completeness…I just have gone on the assumption that I need to connect myself to the completeness and wholeness that is Jesus Christ. I feel all of the whatever I’m supposed to do everyday -all of those Sunday school answers…are just supposed to connect me to Jesus. The analogy I use is we can chip away with a pick ax laboriously at our icey hearts or we can choose to be in the presence of the sun. I just wish that melting would happen more quickly so my chidlren can enjoy it…yet here I sit digging in my heals.

    sorry for the length and the liikely TMI

  51. Steve Evans (#31),

    Incrementalism worked for Jesus.

    Um, no, it did not–or at least it did not if you take “incrementalism” to mean something different than what I took it to mean. I meant it to mean a vision of life which presumes, all things being equal, that we human beings, ideally at least, face a morally open field of action, upon which we may, slowly but surely, every day and in every way, resist temptation and get a little bit better and better. Which is, upon my reading of the scriptures, perhaps superficially true, but ultimately simply nonsense. My response would be to say that Steven B. (#26) has it more correct: the call to perfection is a call for the saints to become perfect through the sanctifying workings of the spirit. Losing oneself in others, abhoring (or, better, a yielding of) oneself and repenting in dust and ashes, all that.

  52. I hope future discussions of the Mormon view of grace will include this masterful BYU devotional address given by Brad Wilcox:

    http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=13436&x=59&y=9

  53. Martin (#30),

    I think we’re expected to struggle mightily against our weakness–how else will we ever learn to appreciate His grace? But because we’ve called on His name and felt His sanctifying influence doesn’t mean we can progress if we cease to struggle. I think it’s just as easy to become too complacent as it is to overemphasize the “rules”.

    I don’t think I disagree with this at all; we are absolutely supposed to continue to struggle and fight temptation and aim for our own self-improvement. And there are, I suppose, plenty of examples throughout history of Christians who interpreted grace in such a way as to believe that there’s no real role for us human beings to play as we await God’s sanctifying power power, which becomes a license for sloth and further sin. So yes, I agree: we’re suppose to work and set goals and attempt to be perfect. But we shouldn’t ever forget the primary point here: we’re going to fail, and fail badly. It’s from this constant, probably inevitably failure that we learn mercy towards and solidarity with all the other pathetic failures around us. (There’s this interesting reading of 1 Corinthians 10:13 which purportedly claims that there isn’t any test we could face that we can’t master. I don’t think that’s the message at all; I think God is just promising that, if we turn to Him, there isn’t any task we will face that will kill us or need drive us to self-destruction. There’s a real promise of confidence in that, but it isn’t any promise that should make us confident in our own abilities.)

  54. Steve Evans says:

    RAF, your #51 overthinks my response, which was thinking more upon Jesus’ own progression line upon line.

  55. One of my favorite General Conference talks of the past year was this one by C. Scott Grow: The Miracle of the Atonement. I think it speaks to the subject of this discussion quite well.

  56. I can think of reasons why the GAs would put on a righteous face as well, especially in their conference talks. They need to do what they can to maintain our confidence in their legitimacy as righteous leaders, right? And it’s easy to think that a certain amount of remove accomplishes that better than intimacy. “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

    To hide the truth about yourself in order that others will think better of you and find you more legitimate is pride. I really believe that our culture of worthiness leads more people away from Christ — even (maybe especially?) while they are actively engaged in church — than being honest about struggles with sin ever could.

  57. DTR — Thank you so much for sharing that Wilcox talk. That’s one I could frame on my wall.

  58. Steve Evans says:

    Katie, I disagree with you, at least in the limited case of parents. The parent who does not try to show a good example — even while internally feeling unworthy — is doing harm to their child.

  59. A profound (and “perfect”) post. Honestly.

    Thank you, Jana.

    (ps: I loved reading the story in the Tribune about you, and I’ve long been jealous of the name of your blog/book. “Flunking Sainthood” says it all. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us)

  60. Thank you Kyle M for #45 and lessonNumberOne for #50.

    Kyle, I understand what you’re saying about our different faces; the times, even for an hour at church or a few minutes during family home evening. when I look like the modern man or dad portrayed in the posters from the distribution center. Most of the time. It’s a pose that I can’t seem to hold for very long yet, but I hope it’s getting a little better.

    Lesson, the notion of being afraid to get answers from God strikes a chord with me. I suspect the Lord is withholding a lot of useful blessings and instruction from me simply because I’m too scared to take them from his outstretched hand. I’m working up the courage to say to Him “I’m yours, mold me as you will.” I’m afraid that the moment I say that my life will go all Job on me. I know my life is easy relative to most others, but I don’t want mine harder than it already is. Ugh. I know I can be stretched more, but don’t ask me to volunteer for it very willingly. That’s one place I need to move toward “perfection” is to know that it will all be alright if I have faith in God. I understand the concept. The actual practice scares the hell out of me.

  61. Several years ago I realized “after” in 2 Nephi 25:23 could mean “notwithstanding,” but mostly kept the idea to myself–a private consolation–fearing that I’d be viewed as an advocate of spiritual sloth (that was the reaction I got from fellow Mormons the couple of times I did put the idea forward). A few months ago I searched the Journal of Discourses and General Conference talks for all references to 2 Nephi 25:23 to see how it had been used historically. Only in the middle of the 20th Century did the General Authorities start interpreting “after” to mean “subsequent to.” Prior to that, “after” was interpreted as “notwithstanding,” and consequently the scripture was hardly ever quoted–it was just one among hundreds of scriptures that emphasize how insignificant even our greatest actions are and how great is grace, and therefore there was no reason to pay any great attention to it. It’s only since the alternate interpretation became popular in the 1950s that the scripture has become a key and much-quoted scripture. I made a list of the first talks that interpret the scripture that way, but don’t have it with me at the moment.

  62. Steve, sure, but I think there’s a difference between showing a good example and being dishonest about yourself and your humanity.

    I don’t expect anyone — leaders, parents, even siblings, my spouse or close friends — to share all the sordid details of their sinful streaks. I don’t need to know and don’t want to know. But I think it’s healthy to speak in relatively general terms about struggles (“I find myself feeling judgmental more often than I’d like,” “I struggle with pride,” “I have difficulties with the Word of Wisdom”) so that others understand that we’re all in this together — that’s setting a good example, too. And in some circumstances it might be appropriate to be more specific, depending on the audience, the situation, and how the Spirit moves.

    Also, I think everyone needs a person or two with whom they can be pretty much transparent. That’s a bit of a different issue than hiding for “example’s” sake, but those kinds of relationships are important for most of us to feel grounded. Feeling like you have nowhere to go to be yourself, because you’re afraid of being rejected or judged, is a lonely place to be. I wonder if our culture has a tendency to produce such feelings of alienation more often than it has to…

  63. I love this post, Jana, thank you. This is one of my current soapboxes–trying to learn how to take off the mask and stop pretending that life isn’t hard for me. (Ray, I liked your post about it too.) I actually wrote one myself a couple years ago: http://becominglovely.blogspot.com/2009/10/its-perfect-and-even-if-it-isnt-never.html

    About 2 Nephi 25:23: I think the problem is the way we understand the phrase “after all we can do.” I think we read this as, “after all it is possible to do.” Which is why we constantly compare ourselves to others, thinking that they are doing so much more than we are, and feeling inadequate because obviously there’s more we could be doing. I believe that “all we can do” just means continuing to try even when we know it’s not enough. What it comes down to for me is understanding that “not enough” is “all we can do.”

    We’re never going to be able to be enough on our own; that’s why the Atonement is necessary. We talk about this concept, but I don’t think we actually understand how it applies to ourselves–namely, that we shouldn’t feel guilty for not doing or being enough–we say we know we can’t be perfect on our own, and then we feel guilty for our imperfection anyway.

  64. I really loved this quote from Elder Nelson’s talk:

    “When comparing one’s personal performance with the supreme standard of the Lord’s expectation, the reality of imperfection can at times be depressing. My heart goes out to conscientious Saints who, because of their shortcomings, allow feelings of depression to rob them of happiness in life. We all need to remember: men are that they might have joy—not guilt trips!”

    Easier said than done, I think, but good to know that sometimes guilt trips are a natural consequence of being conscientious.

  65. Miri #63–The major ramification of changing the interpretation of “after” in 2 Nephi 25:23 back to the earlier interpretation is *not* a different understanding of the amount of work we will do–we know that as we are more and more converted we will naturally desire to do more and more in the kingdom. So someone who has truly embraced the Atonement on a deep level will be an actively engaged, striving and sweating (though imperfect) servant of God. Rather, the major difference that the “notwithstanding” reading of “after” makes in understanding the scripture is taking away the cause (work) and effect (Atonement/perfection) relationship–it re-emphasizes what other scriptures say: that no amount of work, great or small, eager or grudging, makes the perfecting Atonement kick in. Our work in the kingdom and our spiritual improvement will be evidence of the Atonement working in our lives, but is not the trigger for the Atonement working in our lives.

  66. I’m tired of trying to keep up appearances. – Jana, thank you for summing up in eight words the nagging feeling I’ve had for the past several months.

    DTR (52) – Thanks for linking us to that excellent address by the estimable Bro. Wilcox.

    Last but not least, Katie (62): Feeling like you have nowhere to go to be yourself, because you’re afraid of being rejected or judged, is a lonely place to be. – Thank you for this thought. Since encountering it on this blog, I’ve become more and more interested in the notion of the constitutive Other. I wonder if the feeling you describe is the result of seeing the Other in ourself, and then not wanting to turn back to the community for fear they will see us as Other. (I don’t like the pronouns, but I couldn’t come up with a better way to write that.)

  67. I think when we get to the next life, we’re going to realize that much of our pursuit of perfection was done in vain, and we will have wished we spent more time learning to serve and love our fellow man and woman. I believe service will get us on the path to perfection much quicker than worrying about our minor character flaws, which seem to give us Mormons so much angst.

  68. The church needs to live up to Elder Nelson’s council. The church should be open and honest about its history. It is hard for me to take the council to be perfectly honest when the church itself is far from perfect honesty. The church needs to be open about its finances both income and expenditures. It needs to be open about its history. We should learn about polyandry, polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, changes made to the book of mormon and d&c , non-evidence of the book of mormon, anachronisms, etc. in sunday school. When the church intentionally tries to hide this stuff it makes them look guilty and makes members like myself left wondering why it took me into my 40’s to learn about this stuff and now wonder what else the church is hiding. I wish I learned about this stuff early on and was inoculated somewhat about this information.

  69. Jana, you bring such wisdom into the world. I’ve been loving Flunking Sainthood and find this piece right on the money. Every time someone mentions perfection to me, my only response has been a heartfelt belly laugh at the notion that I could even come close. Thanks for all you do.

  70. I haven’t got the patience to spell out why Mike’s tired and silly and oft-repeated whining in #68 disgusts me, but neither do I have the self control to let it pass without a jeer. Nothing is hidden, Mike — witness your own half-baked awareness and poor understanding. It is not the church’s responsibility to feed your psychopathy.

  71. Ardis, high five.

  72. Ron Madson says:

    Ardis, if I understand #70, we must each take personal responsibility for our own lack of awareness/ignorance as to church history. I agree and mea culpa. It wasn’t until my fifth decade of life before I took the time to actually read all 7 volumes of our Church history and just about everything I could get my hands on as it pertains to non-correlated church history. Prior to this past decade when I began to apply the same serious thinking/research to the church/theology that I did to my profession, I had interviewed/counseled countless members/investigators who had serious questions which I too easily and at times condescendingly dismissed when in fact I was the one that was clueless–I was unprepared having primarily looked to only church correlated instructions as my source —but not all of us are Michael Quinns and many of us are relatively late to the depth and breadth of knowledge that many, including yourself, have acquired over years of study.
    But here are my question:
    1) when you say “nothing is hidden” are you referring to church history only or are you referring also to church finances (incomes and expenditures). If the latter, then how would I access that information?
    2) Has our church in any way, in your opinion, represented anything in its correlated materials that might be misleadings?
    3) Has our church created an environment/curriculum that is conducive and even inviting to full disclosure—kind of what we would see if I prepared an Offering Circular for the sale of a business or major investment in a publicly traded company?

  73. I can’t take anybody seriously who doesn’t know the difference between counsel and council.

    As to Michael Quinn–I had a class from him his first year of teaching at BYU. He was a nice guy, but, just the same, I never wanted to be him.

  74. Perfection is impossible to see. Jesus was perfect and went about undetected by all but a handful of people.

    Perfection is probably easier than we think. Was it hard for Einstein to come up with three groundbreaking papers in a year? Or Michelangelo, excepting the physical labor, to paint the Sistine Chapel? Not really because these people were good at what they did. Labor as I could, I could never do these things, ever.

    Which is why, for the really perfect people, the mighty, prodigious labor of perfection is sort of over the top. If you asked Jesus if his perfection was difficult he might say, , which was for us, not particularly for him. Even then he did the hard part easily.

    Like the Zen potter says, if it is hard you are not doing it right.

  75. Imperfection displayed and corrected:

    Perfection is impossible to see. Jesus was perfect and went about undetected by all but a handful of people.

    Perfection is probably easier than we think. Was it hard for Einstein to come up with three groundbreaking papers in a year? Or Michelangelo, excepting the physical labor, to paint the Sistine Chapel? Not really because these people were good at what they did. Labor as I could, I could never do these things, ever.

    Which is why, for the really perfect people, the mighty, prodigious labor of perfection is sort of over the top. If you asked Jesus if his perfection was difficult he might say, “not really, except for the end” , which was for us, not particularly for him. Even then he did the hard part easily.

    Like the Zen potter says, if it is hard you are not doing it right.

  76. Ardis,

    Four quick questions….

    1. Where is the revelation denying blacks the priesthood?
    2. Why does the church continue to put the picture of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery with a sheet between them and Joseph looking at the plates and Oliver writing down the translation? We now know this isn’t accurate, Joseph put a peep stone in a hat and translated the BOM that way.
    3. Why did Joseph Smith use coersion to marry a 14 year old? (Helen Kimball)
    4. Why did Joseph Smith marry women who were married to other men?

    There are hundreds more questions to be asked, but in the interest of time/space lets keep it simple.

  77. Mike, have you read any of the scholarship on those topics?

  78. Ardis,
    One more question. Are you saying I should have known about all of the church history issues when I was 7? Shouldn’t I be aware of these things before I got baptized? My parents weren’t aware of these issues so they didn’t teach me anything about them. When is the appropriate age to learn about these issue? And in your opinion what is the proper method of learning about these issues?

    J. Stapely — Yes I have read many books about church history. (Rough Stone Rolling) (Joseph Smiths Plural Wives) (No Man Knows My History) I’ve been on all the apologists sites as well and read about all of these topics on their sites too.

  79. We learn, if we learn at all, line upon line and precept upon precept. We also progress, if we progress at all, in that same way. Even grace comes gradually (grace to grace)… and grace for grace.

    President Uchdorf noted in Conference than none of us are perfect. This is a recurring theme among many senior leaders… but sometimes the expectation exceeds the reality. We almost expect to be exalted in this life.

    Yet if perfect means ‘whole’ and we come unto Christ with broken hearts then it makes sense that we are ‘made perfect in Christ. He heals the broken heart… rather than the hardened one.

    Thankfully we can have faith in Christ .. which starts us on the path (and faith is a gift!) and then we can receive the gift of the Holy Ghost which enables us to walk the strait and narrow path and prompts us to stand up when we fall down or to return when we depart. The perfection of our walk is far less important than the direction of it. keep coming unto christ and away from our natural selves.

    and when others fall … bear their burdens and help lift them up so that they will do the same for you when you feel weak. We cannot be perfect alone.

  80. Marie, #65–I don’t know if we’re understanding each other, but you seem to be disagreeing with my comment, and I’m not sure why because I was saying the same thing you are. I absolutely agree with you–your comment just focuses on “after” versus “notwithstanding,” and mine is discussing what “all you can do” means. In the end we’re saying the same thing.

  81. Jana, I think you would also enjoy reading Manning’s “Ragamuffin Gospel” as well. I am looking forward to reading his new book. Also, if you really want to read the gold standard of grace books, read Philip Yancey”s book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace.” That book changed my life.

    The next time someone quotes 2Nephi 25:23, have them read Alma 24:10-12, where it explains just what is all one can do.

    I always enjoy reading posts like this one because, it fascinates me that we in the Church still struggle with our understanding of grace, the sine qua non of the gospel.

    Blake does an excellent job in his second volume explaining grace. I really like his calling grace, prevenient. I totally agree.

  82. Geoff - A says:

    I believe there is negative perfection where we rarely if ever do anything that could be called sin, and if we do we can repent and return to perfection. This can be achieved once you no longer have children in the house. Do we agree that after we repent we are perfect and remain so until we sin? It’s easier to visualise remaining perfect after repenting than it is to visualise the route from where you are to perfection without repentance.

    From there we work to develop the Christlike qualities/personality/refinements, and charitable life that brings us to positive perfection, where we are a perfect person. Not that we do particular things but that we become someone who is perfect.

    Perhaps perfection is a process of becoming someone who no longer feels any desire to sin, and is also working to become a perfect person

    I believe it’s possible through repentance.

  83. The Book of Mormon is the best scriptural text on the doctrine of grace and so the prevalent ignorance of the doctrine among Latter-day Saints is another evidence of treating its contents lightly.

    Interestingly, Moroni connects the doctrine of grace with the possibility of perfection… no idea then that it is for people that try to do it alone.

  84. I might have come to this discussion a few days late. But I also found Nelson’s talk on this subject quite disturbing. It seems that on the topic of perfection and doing “All We Can Do” the Brethren always open up easy but come down with the hammer by the end giving us an unrealistic expectation of living by the law and “Keeping the Commandments” which we know is not our nature so therefore impossible.

    I spent quite a bit of time compiling a list of commandments so that we could quantify exactly how much is “All We Can Do”. It’s really astonishing and I hope it helps awaken in us the shear impossibility of the task.

  85. This bit of info is what saved me from years of worry/beating-myself-up/torment in trying to be “perfect”:

    Being perfect came from the Greek word TELEIOO, meaning he fulfilled the job he came to do. In other words where it says, “He being made perfect”, it really says in the Greek that he fulfilled the job he came to do which was to be the author of our salvation. Where it says, “Be ye therefore perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect” it basically reads, ‘Do your job even as God does his job. God makes the sun shine every day and gets his job done so you get your job done every day too and you’ll be perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect. What’s our job? The main one is the big one on which hangs all others: Love God, Love Myself, Love Neighbors (all woman/mankind). We can do this and BE perfect in the correct regard.

    There is another word for perfect which is AKRIBELA in the Greek. This is the word for perfect that we use. It means flawless. This is what we think when we say perfect. We’re thinking the Greek AKRIBELA. Where does this word show up in the scriptures? Among the people who crucified Jesus. They were trying to be AKRIBELA. They crucified Jesus because he was not AKRIBELA. He violated a lot of laws so they were always accusing him of not being AKRIBELA or flawless.

    So, we can decide if we are going to waste our lives away trying to be flawless in keeping the law or find joy and happiness in being whole or one with God.

  86. This thread is dead, but just for the record–an expansion of my first comment. Here’s a little research I did a few months back on the history of the interpretation of 2 Nephi 25:23:

    I searched the Journal of Discourses and LDS Conference Talks 1851-1970 for every reference to 2 Nephi 25:23. Only found it quoted once before 1922. That was in October 1906, when George Reynolds (of the First Council of the Seventy), in a talk about good works, paused to note that he was aware of 2 Nephi 25:23, and that yes, it did state that works don’t play a role in saving us (he clearly was interpreting “after” to mean “in spite of”) but that he felt that after we had accepted Christ and obtained his grace and the strength therein, we are to use that strength to serve in the kingdom *thereafter.* His words:

    “God grant that we all may see the truth in this light; that we may use all the energies and faculties that God has blessed us with to His service. And while I am saying this I am aware of the truth taught by the Prophet Nephi, that it is by grace we are saved, after all that we can do. But grace having performed its work, and we having received the benefits of the atonement of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we should endeavor to do our part by serving God with all the strength we have received from Him.”

    Next the scripture was used in an October 1923 talk by Joseph Fielding Smith about recordkeeping and prophets writing scripture (so the focus was not related to the works/grace portion of the scripture).

    The next use of the scripture in Conference was in October 1941 when Marion G. Romney reminds us not to try to work our way to grace, but rather to repent and call on God who will then bless us with grace; in October 1955 he again interprets the scripture this way (“after” = “subsequent to”, but “all we can do” = “repent”).

    It is in 1956 that today’s dominant interpretation emerges in the Conference talks (“after” meaning “subsequent to” and “after all we can do” meaning all our service in the kingdom and all the commandments and every drop of good we can wring from ourselves). Harold B. Lee uses it that way in both the April and October 1956 General Conferences and again in October 1970 (by then he was President of the Church). During this time period other general authorities begin using it that way and the scripture is quoted quite often during that period, including in a talk by Ezra Taft Benson in which he talks about the free world being saved by God from atheistic communism only after we do all we can do in preaching free agency through full time missionary work.

    So I don’t know who originated the current dominant interpretation, though it appears that Harold B. Lee was the one who popularized it. I imagine that the reasons it was so infrequently quoted in the earlier Conferences were that 1) there was more extemporaneous speaking in Conference in the early Church so direct quotations from scriptures were less common in general and 2) before 1956 the leaders of the church probably considered 2 Nephi 25:23 just one among dozens (hundreds?) of scriptures that emphasize that it is grace alone that saves us–it’s only interpreting it the *modern* way that makes it a stand-out scripture in the vast canon of holy writ on the topic of salvation.

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