Friday, March 27, 2015

Be Ye Therefore Perfect

The Savior was just beginning his mortal ministry when he delivered “the greatest sermon ever given,” known to us as the Sermon on the Mount (Thomas S. Monson, April 1975). His teachings introduced a higher law than the Law of Moses and his authority astonished those that heard him preach (Matthew 5-7, 7:28-29). Among the guidance he gave to govern our lives was the charge to, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Taken at face value, this commandment is a concise summary of all the commandments and the divine plan of God for our happiness, immortality and exaltation. The Family: A Proclamation to the World explains that our physical bodies and our experiences on earth are given to us so that we might, “progress toward perfection and ultimately realize [our] divine destiny as heirs of eternal life”.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by so large a task, particularly when we attempt to limit the Savior’s command to our own strength and our own timelines, as if it were some sort of academic exercise. When we slow down to consider the matter, there are at least three ways we can follow this ultimate commandment every day—and none of them happen instantly or in isolation.

First, we can take the Lord’s charge in context and understand that we are to be perfect in the thing which Christ had most recently taught. Just prior to the command to be perfect we read:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love they neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:44-45).

Loving God with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves are the first and second great commandments, respectively, and laws upon which all others rely (Mathew 22: 34-40). As our Father in heaven loves all people perfectly, so in time must we learn to love as He loves. We are blessed in this endeavor to have the support and the challenges that come with building loving relationships with our families first, as well as others around us. We had a family before we were born and will be reunited with our loved ones after death if we make and keep temple covenants. Because the need to love perfectly will never subside,the journey we make with our families toward perfection spans far beyond our mortal existence.

Despite the help we receive from others and freedom from the constraints of time in our pursuit, clearly perfection requires effort from us. Paul admonished the Corinthians to, “examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves…. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:5-11). Paul’s admonition challenges us to strive to become a more perfect being, more than but still very much a person filled with love, faith and a sound identity.

Paul's admonition refers to a broader sense of perfection where we are expected to not only love or believe or do perfectly but to be perfect beings. This is the source of perfect angst in many Sunday School classes, but such is the natural consequence of our own limited comprehension. Again we benefit from the realization that our pursuit will be neither short nor lonely. Speaking of perfection in this way, Elder Russell M. Nelson explained:

The term perfect was translated from the Greek teleios, which means ‘complete.’ … The infinitive form of the verb is teleiono, which means ‘to reach a distant end, to be fully developed, to consummate, or to finish.’ Please note that the word does not imply freedom from error; it implies achieving a distant objective.
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 (“Perfection Pending,” Ensign, Nov. 1996, 86, 88).

The Prophet Joseph Smith likened the pursuit of perfection to climbing a ladder as we learn each of the principles of the gospel. “But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before will have learned them,” he added. “It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave” (Teachings: Joseph Smith, 268).

Our great work is aided in this life by scripture guides that point the way. As Paul taught the Corinthians to “examine yourselves”, so Alma encouraged the people of Nephi to have personal interviews with themselves and provided some of the questions they might ask:

And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?

Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body? (Alma 5:14–15)

Dozens of other guides for personal measurement dot the scriptures and include, but are not limited to, the Ten Commandments, the scriptural gospel (faith, repentance, baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end), the Articles of Faith, and the Beatitudes, which the Savior uses to preface the call to perfection.

Of course, self-evaluation itself is seldom easy and requires honest soul-searching, personal pondering, sincere prayer, and a genuine relationship with the Savior. In a 2013 devotional, BYU statistics professor Shane Reese warned that a critical part of measuring ourselves is ensuring fairness in our assessments:

While some who try to make assessments of themselves will not hold themselves to a high enough standard, it is my experience that most are more inclined to be far too tough on themselves… As we make measurements of ourselves, we must be fair. In a generation that is dominated by knee-jerk reactions that can be sent around the globe in microseconds and by the instantaneous measurements that are meted out through social media, we are often lured into making judgments without data. The virtual world that comes with the miracles of technology have a side effect of masking “things as they really are"
(Jacob 4:13).

Elder Uchtdorf taught that our ability to progress depends a great deal on our relationship with ourselves:

It may seem odd to think of having a relationship with ourselves, but we do. Some people can’t get along with themselves. They criticize and belittle themselves all day long until they begin to hate themselves. May I suggest that you reduce the rush and take a little extra time to get to know yourself better. Walk in nature, watch a sunrise, enjoy God’s creations, ponder the truths of the restored gospel, and find out what they mean for you personally. Learn to see yourself as Heavenly Father sees you—as His precious daughter or son with divine potential. (Ensign, November 2010, 22)

As we learn to examine ourselves we can make better choices that make our efforts more effective and efficient and bring us closer to the Savior and His perfection. No matter how well we become at evaluating and improving however, it is a serious mistake to think that we can reach our final destination—that we can become perfect—without help that only our Savior can provide.

The scriptures teach that those who inherit the Celestial Kingdom and live forever in the presence of God are just people who put forth considerable effort to develop faith to overcome life’s challenges and their own natures. Yet, ultimately, all of them are, “made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood” (D&C 76:52-69).

Lest we are ever tempted to take too much credit, Isaiah, speaking Messianically, lays it out this way:

For I will send my servant unto you who are blind; yea, a messenger to open the eyes of the blind, and unstop the ears of the deaf; And they shall be made perfect notwithstanding their blindness, if they will hearken unto the messenger, the Lord’s servant (JST Isaiah 42:19-20).

Finally, the third way we can understand the Savior’s charge to, “be ye therefore perfect,” is to look at the precedent of law and use a little math.

The laws of God and many governments on earth dictate that two or more people bound by covenant or contract, such as marriage, can become one unit in the eyes of the law. A husband and wife can share a bank account, make significant medical decisions for each other and inherit property upon the death of their spouse.

Similarly, a company or other organization may benefit or be held responsible for the actions of a single employee bound to them by a contract of employment, even if that contract is implied. In the eyes of the law, individuals bound by covenant or contract can be seen as one unit-- one family or one organization.

This is important because all of us can enter into a covenant with Christ through baptism. As a bride takes on the name of her groom, so we covenant that we are willing to take upon ourselves the name of the Son, and in so doing we become as one unit with the only man in the history of the world that was and is and will always be perfect and perfectly worthy to live in the presence of God (D&C 20:77). As both the bride and the groom must agree to be married, so Christ too was baptized, bidding his astonished cousin to, “suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).

And now the math. Because a married couple may be seen as one unit, they often share assets and liabilities-- they both own the house and are responsible for the mortgage. If instead of cash and debts we dealt in the currency of righteousness and sins, all of us are debtors. King Benjamin explained:

And now, in the first place, [God] hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him. And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted to him, and are, and will be, forever and ever (Mosiah 2:23-24).

We cannot enter God's presence with the impure debt of sin and unity with Christ alone cannot wipe away that debt. This becomes clear if we conceptualize our sins as a negative number and Christ's perfection as 0, as in free from all sin. No matter the size of our debt these numbers cannot yield a positive outcome.

Paul taught that, “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Therefore, “it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice” (Alma 34:10).

Again, conceptually, infinity plus or minus any number is still infinity. With Christ, sins of any collective magnitude do not diminish the value of his Atonement nor his capacity to forgive and strengthen each of us. He asks only that we fulfill our end of the baptismal covenant that binds us to Christ, washes our debts away with his His infinite surpluses, and allows us to be perfect today.

The primary importance of our unity with Christ as the means by which we may become perfect is illustrated in the Savior’s experience with Mary and Martha in Luke chapter 10. While Mary learned at the feet of the Savior and came closer to Him, Martha was “cumbered about much serving” and rushing, perhaps somewhat frantically, to be the perfect hostess for her guest. When Martha finally appealed to Jesus to encourage her sister to help, the Savior responded with love: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:40-42).

How do we respond to the charge to be perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect? Do we fill our schedules with activities that find us rushing frantically from one activity to another or do we take the time to get to know ourselves and build relationships with our Savior, our families, and those we serve? Are we harsh in our measurements of ourselves or do we strive to do our best and see our efforts as the Lord sees them? Do we trust in our Savior and cling to the covenants we have made or are we casual in our observance of the gospel and blinded by our own pride?

It is my testimony that we can live up to the Savior’s command to be perfect as we make and keep baptismal covenants today, strive for constant improvements until our journey is complete through the grace of Christ in the eternities to come, and do all we can to love one another and build positive relationships with those around us, particularly our families. We are, after all, bound to them as well and mutually bound to Christ— success for one of us, or for someone we home teach, or for those we serve-- is a success for all of us.

Indeed, as Paul taught the Romans, “the Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:16-17).