Today, I’m studying the talk Perfection Pending, by Russell M. Nelson. He gave this talk in the October 1995 General Conference.
Now that the talks are becoming a bit more recent (I know, still over 20 years ago), I like to think about where I was/how old I was when the talk was given. In October 1995, I would have been starting my junior year of high school, which means that I was in seminary. Which means that I would have watched this talk at the church (back in the day!) with a notebook in hand so that I could get credit for seminary.
Even though I remembered the inoculation/indoctrination concept from the last talk, I don’t remember this talk at all! I knew that would be the case. But I do like the talk.
As you could probably tell from the title of the talk, President Nelson’s address is on the subject of perfection. I really love this talk because it helps to clear up a few misunderstandings that I have had about perfection, and I suspect others have had, too.
President Nelson stated:
Keeping this commandment can be a concern because each of us is far from perfect, both spiritually and temporally. Reminders come repeatedly. We may lock keys inside the car, or even forget where the car is parked. And not infrequently we walk intently from one part of the house to another, only to forget the reason for the errand.
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.” – Russell M. Nelson
We have been commanded to be perfect. And this sometimes gets in our heads. I know that often, when I’m facing challenges and frustrations in my life, when I search deep inside of me my frustration seems to center around my perfectionism.
Interestingly enough, I think that perfectionism is actually the bane of being able to keep the command to becoming perfect. In perfectionism, we think that we have to do it on our own – be “perfect.” Whatever that even means. I mean – can we even really describe what “perfection” is? Without blemish? Well, we are born with blemish and imperfection. This is, after all, mortality.
What is perfect – doing something without making a mistake? Well, we learn line upon line, precept upon precept, which means that perfection is not something we will achieve over night – or after the first try.
What is perfect? What is the perfect home? The perfect body? The perfect hair? hahahaha! In this case “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and we must remember that the beholder is heavily influenced by their immediate culture. Today’s “perfect body” looks quite a bit different than the “perfect body” of the renaissance.
We get caught up in what we think that perfection is, and that is why this commandment is so troubling. Thankfully, President Nelson addresses this commandment in a way to bring us both enlightenment and hope. If you are struggling with the concept of perfection, then I encourage you to read it!
Today, I’m going to study a few quotes and concepts I liked from the talk.
One – We Misunderstand the Commandment
President Nelson stated:
“We all need to remember: men are that they might have joy—not guilt trips! We also need to remember that the Lord gives no commandments that are impossible to obey. But sometimes we fail to comprehend them fully.” – Russell M. Nelson
I love every sentence in this quote. We aren’t here to have guilt trips.
I’m guilty of the guilt trip!
But seriously, I am. I think that I might have shared this experience before on this blog, but I feel like it is a good time to share it again. Several years ago I was struggling with something – I can’t remember what it was specifically, but it was all just me. I know that it was some kind of “perfectionism” that was making me feel addled and depressed.
One morning, before going out for a run, I said my prayers. I knelt in my closet and “prayed.” I admitted to the Lord that I was sorry – for who I was: too fat, too messy, too forgetful, too quick to scream at my kids…blah blah blah. You know how it goes (maybe…maybe you don’t know how it goes). I prayed for a while, but it was kind of terrible. And after I closed my prayer, I didn’t feel better. I didn’t feel uplifted. I didn’t feel like I had just communed with the Lord.
It was morning, my husband had to get ready for work soon, so I scooted out the door and on my run.
I was still feeling pretty deflated, and I wondered why didn’t I feel better when I said my morning prayers? Why wouldn’t the Holy Ghost comfort me?
Thankfully, Heavenly Father was patient with me. He gently rebuked me. I had this small spiritual impression. It’s hard to put it in words, but the closest I can get is: Because the Holy Ghost will not bear false witness.
All of the terrible things I was saying about myself WERE NOT humility. It was self-loathing. And the Holy Ghost wouldn’t condone any of it. Closing that so-called prayer in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ was a form of using His name in vain. I couldn’t feel good about that “prayer” because it was a lie.
I mean, imagine if I had felt the witness of the Holy Ghost after giving that prayer -that I was indeed too “imperfect” to be loved. Yikes! Yuck! My misunderstanding of the command to be perfect – my confusing that command with “perfectionism” led me to guilt-trips and self-loathing – which are not at all in line with what a God of love will give us.
Two – Mortal Perfection
President Nelson, in his talk, teaches about perfection in two ways: Mortal Perfection and Eternal Perfection. We can think of mortal perfection as a process – where an act can indeed be perfect from time to time. President Nelson gives a few examples:
“In this life, certain actions can be perfected. A baseball pitcher can throw a no-hit, no-run ball game. A surgeon can perform an operation without an error. A musician can render a selection without a mistake. One can likewise achieve perfection in being punctual, paying tithing, keeping the Word of Wisdom, and so on. The enormous effort required to attain such self-mastery is rewarded with a deep sense of satisfaction.” – Russell M. Nelson
Interestingly enough, even in the examples that President Nelson cited, it is hard to recreate and repeat “perfection.” Even the most gifted pitcher cannot throw a no-hitter every time. Even if he masters his art and his craft, over time his shoulder will degrade. He won’t be perfect throughout his whole career. In fact, there will probably only be moments of sublime, perfect brilliance.
A surgeon may perform many surgeries without error, but he won’t perform all of them without error. It just won’t happen. She may be a brilliant surgeon – the best surgeon in her field, but you will still have to sign waivers that you understand the risk of surgery before you get on that table.
A musician may, after much practice, render a selection without mistake. I can understand this. There are songs I can play on the piano with my eyes closed. But then, every once in a while – even with the simplest song, I hit a wrong note.
We can master some things in life, but 100% perfection, even in the things that we can master is not possible. It’s just not how this universe works! In fact, I kind of think of some of these things as parabolic – the pitcher for example. There is an arc to his career. At some point the pitcher might be perfect, but with time our bodies degrade, our minds slow down, and he will reach a peak and then performance will suffer.
Michael Jordan might have been a perfect basketball player. And he might still be good now. But how would he fare in the NBA at this point? Much of mortal perfection is like a parabola.
I realize that there may be exceptions to what I’m writing here. But I feel like it is worth exploring – because I get caught in the “perfectionism” trap. It is worth me remembering that we aren’t always getting better. Sometimes we do, and then sometimes for reasons beyond our control, we don’t “progress” anymore. We reach our zenith and then start to fade. It isn’t a depressing thing. It’s just a fact of life.
President Nelson did describe this as mortal perfection, after all.
Three – Striving and Mortal Perfection
President Nelson stated:
“Scriptures have described Noah, Seth, and Job as perfect men. No doubt the same term might apply to a large number of faithful disciples in various dispensations. Alma said that “there were many, exceedingly great many,” who were pure before the Lord.
This does not mean that these people never made mistakes or never had need of correction. The process of perfection includes challenges to overcome and steps to repentance that may be very painful. There is a proper place for chastisement in the molding of character, for we know that “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.”
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.” – Russell M. Nelson
Now this is interesting.
We just need to do the best that we can. I didn’t ever know Noah, Seth, or Job personally, but when I read that paragraph, I couldn’t help but think of some of the people who I do know.
In fact, my first thought was of a patriarch and his wife that I knew in my last stake. He is a good man, and maybe it would be described of him (AND HIS WIFE!) that they were “perfect.”
He is a simple man, a kind man. He is a barber, a father, a patriarch, a grandfather, a husband, a gardener, a sealer in the temple. Often I would see him on walks with his daughter in town. He isn’t really all that special if you just saw him on the street. In fact, he’s kind of short and plain. You would walk right past him.
He gave both of my daughters patriarchal blessings, and both times he admitted to mistakes that he made – even as the patriarch! All of this to help us understand the magnitude of the blessing that each of my daughters would receive.
Yes he has made mistakes, but he has humbly gone to the Lord to overcome them. He accepts the loving chastening and rebuke of the Lord. He tries, he strives to keep every duty and every law. He is doing the best he can.
Even though it is hard for me to describe anyone as perfect – because of my own ideas of what “perfection” is – based on this description given by President Nelson, the patriarch I just described to you is just that.
Which means, maybe a lot of us are, too.
NOTE: this does not mean that we do not need the Atonement! It is the striving and the Atonement that perfects us! I think that maybe it just means we can have more confidence in the Lord!
One more thing – this quote also makes me think of the nature of all mankind – including the Savior – we learn line upon line, precept upon precept. Perfection is a process. It isn’t something we will do out of the gates. Over time the patriarch from our old stake has become more and more of a perfect person. This is not because he is just magical or talented. It is because he has allowed the Lord to work a process in him that has taken years.
The Lord will work this in all of us. If we will strive and do our part, then the the Lord will teach us line upon line, precept upon precept. He will refine us, prune us, purify us. And then, over time, we will be something good and worthy to be called “perfect.”
Maybe if we just remember that it is a process, we won’t get so wrapped up in the frustration of not being perfect yet. If we remember it is a process, we will trust God as He guides, teaches, and perfects us.
Four – Teleios
It is helpful for us to remember that the Bible was written a long time ago. In fact, Jesus uttered His command in Matthew 5:8 – to be perfect even as our Father in Heaven is perfect – over 2,000 years ago.
Think about that for a second. 2,000 years ago. In Jerusalem. He said it, most likely, in his language, which I’m guessing was Hebrew. Not sure how He said it. The New Testament, we know was written in Greek.
And the Greek of the New Testament was 2,000 year-ago-Greek, not necessarily what they speak today. For my purposes, I like to remind myself – they weren’t speaking English! It wasn’t 21st century American English! This was a different time. It might be helpful for me to suspend what I think that perfect means based on today’s sensibilities and culture. It might be helpful to think of what the Savior meant by this declaration, rather than what I think it means based on my current circumstances.
President Nelson taught:
“Recently I studied the English and Greek editions of the New Testament, concentrating on each use of the term perfect and its derivatives. Studying both languages together provided some interesting insights, since Greek was the original language of the New Testament.
In Matt. 5:48, the term perfect was translated from the Greek teleios,which means “complete.” Teleios is an adjective derived from the noun telos, which means “end.” 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.” In fact, when writers of the Greek New Testament wished to describe perfection of behavior—precision or excellence of human effort—they did not employ a form of teleios; instead, they chose different words.” – Russell M. Nelson
Don’t you love this! to reach a distant end. To be fully developed. To consummate. To finish.
And to be sure that we understand, President Nelson reiterates – it does NOT imply “freedom from error” but achieving a distant objective.
That takes some of the IMPOSSIBLE pressure off of us. When I think of reaching a distant end, being fully developed, etc. Then I think again of the patriarch that I wrote about earlier. He is headed toward that development, that end that the Lord wants all of us to reach. He is on the path to perfection. Not because he is free from error, but because I think that when our Patriarch from Midway completes his sojourn on earth he will have achieved his distant objective.
We can do this, too.
In fact, when I think about perfection this way, I think of so many other people, too. I think of my grandma. I think of my mom. I think of my dear friends and examples. I think of the women I’ve known and been friends with that have experienced trials and faithfully navigated through those trials. I think of women who have achieved mortal perfection in various ways (like making pies, for example – which I believe is probably one of the best things to achieve mortal perfection in!), and yet they are striving, moving forward, they will achieve that distant objective.
When I think of perfection this way, I get excited! I am hopeful. I am inspired to keep on walking, striving, and learning line upon line, here a little and there a little.
Five – We Need the Savior
All that I have already written is based on an assumption – we need a Savior. Without the Savior, we have no real hope for either mortal or eternal perfection. Without a Savior, there is no purpose in striving. There is no purpose in endurance. Because, without a Savior, no matter how disciplined we are, we would never be able to reach the distant end; to achieve the distant objective.
We Need an Atonement. And Christ offers it to us. President Nelson taught:
“Moroni taught how to gain this glorious objective [to be a perfect]. His instruction stands in any age as an antidote for depression and a prescription for joy. I echo his plea: “Come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; … love God with all your might, mind and strength … [Then] ye may be perfect in Christ, … holy, [and] without spot.” – Russell M. Nelson
We come unto Christ – first in the waters of baptism. And after that, our striving, our choice to make AND KEEP covenants, our weekly renewal of these covenants are all ways that we come unto Christ. As we progress on the path that He lays out before us, we are coming unto Him. We don’t have to master anything in a day, week, or year. We have a lifetime to do our best – by taking one slow step at a time. As Nephi taught:
“Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” – 2 Nephi 31:20
Six – Chin Up!
It’s nice to study a talk about perfection and not feel overwhelmed, depressed, and discouraged. I feel stoked! I feel happy! I feel like I can actually do this! I feel like there are loads of people who have actually done this.
President Nelson taught:
“We need not be dismayed if our earnest efforts toward perfection now seem so arduous and endless. Perfection is pending. It can come in full only after the Resurrection and only through the Lord. It awaits all who love him and keep his commandments.” – Russell M. Nelson
Yes, the path toward perfection and eternal life are “arduous.” I’m struck by the description of those who partook of the tree of life in Lehi’s dream:
“But, to be short in writing, behold, he saw other multitudes pressing forward; and they came and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree.” – 1 Nephi 8:30 (emphasis added)
Our distant objective is distant. It will require work and repeated, daily effort. In fact, when we reach the end, I think that we’ll probably be like those in described above – we will fall down and finally partake of the proverbial tree of life.
But we’ll make it! We will partake! We will be perfected in Christ! We will reach that distant objective!
We can let this hope propel us forward during difficult times. And we can ignore the temptation of Satan – who wants us to misunderstand the commandment to be perfect, thinking it is just impossible.
I’m grateful to know that we are led by a prophet who understands the commandments of God – regarding perfection. I know that misunderstanding this command is a subtle way that Satan tries to knock us off the path of perfection and joy. I’m grateful to know that President Nelson not only understands these commands but teaches us in a gentle and hopeful way. I’m grateful for living apostles and prophets who can help us to understand the mysteries of God.