A Spiritual Approach to Perfectionism
For many of us, the commandment to be perfect triggers feelings of anxiety. We are painfully aware of our weaknesses and inadequacies, yet we continue to drive ourselves to reach impossible goals. Then, when we fall short, we label ourselves as failures and often feel hopelessness and shame. How can we ever achieve perfection?
The Commandment to Be Perfect
It may be helpful to look at the scripture verses that contain the command to be perfect. In Matthew 5:48, we read where Jesus, during his mortal ministry, gave this commandment:
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
In this verse, there is a footnote to the word "perfect" that tells us that the meaning of the word in this context is "complete, finished, fully developed." Notice that it does not mean "flawless!" Now let's contrast that verse with the commandment given by Jesus, in His resurrected state, to the people of the Book of Mormon (3 Nephi 12:48):
Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect.
Notice that only after Jesus had completed His mortal life, had performed His atoning sacrifice, and had been resurrected, did He describe Himself as being perfect -- "complete, finished, fully developed." Is it possible that the commandment to be perfect refers to the process of "becoming" rather than "being?" As Elder Russell M. Nelson has told us, "Perfection is pending."
Adam, Eve, and Becoming Perfect
When the Lord placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, He gave them two commandments. The first commandment was to multiply and replenish the earth. The second commandment was to not partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
It was impossible for Adam and Eve to keep both of these commandments. The only way for them to multiply and replenish the earth -- or to have children -- was to become mortal; and they were not mortal in the Garden of Eden. The only way for them to become mortal was to partake of the fruit.
We don't know whether Adam and Eve understood that concept, but we do know that they eventually partook of the fruit. Because of their transgression, and because the Lord has said that no unclean thing can be in His presence, Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, where they had been in the presence of the Lord.
Out in the world, there was nothing that Adam and Eve could do to change their situation. They could not take back the fact that they had partaken of the fruit. There was no way that they could put themselves in a condition where they could again be in the presence of the Lord. They had transgressed, and they could not make themselves clean again.
Adam and Eve desperately needed the Savior. His message to them was, essentially, "You go forward from here and do the best that you can, and I will take care of this transgression. Then, between your best effort and my Atonement, you will be perfect."
Now let's compare our situation to that of Adam and Eve. Like Adam and Eve, we are placed on the earth with commandments; but we have more than two. In addition to the basic commandments there are a lot of other things to which we sometimes give commandment status. These extra commandments will vary from one person to another but might include things such as "Thou shalt get A's in all they classes," or "Thou shalt always make others happy." Sometimes, in our LDS culture, we even extend commandment status to such things as "Thou shalt always have a beautiful centerpiece and attractive handouts when thou teachest a lesson.
The point is, even when we clear away all the extras and just look at the basic commandments, it's impossible for us to do it all. We may achieve perfection in some areas; but because of the demands and challenges of our mortal existence, we are not going to keep all of the commandments perfectly.
So, like Adam and Eve, we desperately need the Savior, who essentially says to us, "You do the best that you can, and I will take care of the rest. Then, between your est effort and my Atonement, you will be perfect."
This is the message of the Atonement. As Nephi tells us, "It is by grace [or the Savior's Atonement] that we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). That's a comforting message. Yet how often do we ignore the "grace" part of the equation and obsess of the "all that we can do" part?
The Prophet Brigham Young said:
Those who do right, and seek the glory of [their] Father in Heaven, whether their knowledge be little or much, if they do the very best they know how, they are perfect.
Putting It In Context
Perhaps we question whether we are doing our best. People who struggle with perfectionism often believe that they could be doing better. Perhaps we have focused on one experience or one area of our lives, convinced that we could have done better. We need to ask ourselves, "What would I have to change in order to do better?" It's easy to take an experience out of context and believe that we could have done better. But that's not the way real life works.
Think, for example, of a past assignment or test where you believe you could have done better. What would you have had to change in order to do better? Perhaps doing less on other assignments or classes? Or not going to work at your job? Or not fulfilling your calling in the Church? Or not getting enough sleep? Or not paying attention to important relationships? If you put your test or assignment back into its real-life context, could you really have done better?
When we feel inclined to "beat up" on ourselves for not doing something well enough, we need to ask ourselves, "At this moment in time, with all of the demands and requirements on my time and energy, could I really be doing better at this?" For many of us, the answer will be "no."
Striving vs. Driving Ourselves
Relying on the Atonement and Accepting that our best effort is good enough doesn't mean that we "settle." Rather, we continue to strive to improve, accepting along the way that what we can do at this moment in time is enough. This striving for growth is a joyful process becuse we can feel satisfaction with small increments of progress. Contrast that with the misery that comes from driving ourselves, with constant self-criticism for not yet having achieved perfection. For those of us who are stuck in the painful pattern of perfectionism, the Final Judgment could be a breeze compared to what we do to ourselves!
President Gorden B. Hinckley said:
I feel to invite [you] to rise to the great potential within you. I do not ask that you reach beyond your capacity. I hope you will not nag yourselves with thoughts of failure. I hope you will not try to set goals far beyond your capacity to achieve. I hope that you will simply do what you can do in the best way you know how. If you do so, you will witness miracles come to pass.
What About Sin?
We all have sinned; and because of our mortal state, we will sin in the future. The Savior's Atonement makes it possible for us to be forgiven. We might think that what we have done is too terrible to be forgiven, but that is a tactic that Satan uses to discourage us. President Boyd K. Packer said:
Save for the exception of the very few who defect to perdition, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no apostasy, no crime exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness. That is the promise of the atonement of Christ.
President James E. Faust said:
All of us have made wrong turns along the way. I believe the kind and merciful God, whose children we are, will judge us as lightly as He can for the wrongs that we have done and give us the maximum blessing for the good that we can do.
Accepting the Savior's Invitation
What heavier burden is there than the fear that we can never be good enough? Listen to the Savior's invitation to those who are so burdened:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).
By coming unto Christ, we find relief from our burden because we allow the Savior to carry it for us. We do our best, and then Jesus willingly makes up the difference.
The Savior knows and understands us. He knows what it feels like to be us because he experienced the pain of all of our life's challenges and weaknesses when he suffered in Gethsemane. He understands the stress and pain associated with perfectionism. Consider what Alma tells us about the Savior in Alma 7:11-12:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind. . . . And he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
Moroni gives us the solution to the pain of perfectionism when he exhorts us to "Come unto Christ and be perfected in him" (Moroni 10:32). This is the enabling power of the Atonement -- the power to make us perfect.
When we can accept the invitation to be perfected in Christ, we will find peace and happiness in doing our best, even when our best is far short of perfection. We will recognize that our best effort is good enough for the Savior because He will make up the difference. We will be relieved of the burden of self-criticism and the fear that we can never do enough. Michael McLean stated it so well: "One thing that I know for certain, He has borne my every burden, so I can be gentle with myself." Through the Atonement, we will find peace for our troubled souls.
READ ENSIGN ARTICLES ABOUT THIS TOPIC:
"Perfection Pending," Elder Russell M. Nelson
"A Balanced Life," Brent L. Top