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.”