The other day I was eating lunch with a friend and we started talking about the idea of perfection and how we understand it and approach it within our culture. He believed it to be impossible to be perfect, but that it is possible to be perfect in regards to small and simple things.
I conceded his point, agreeing that yes, there are some things that can either be definitively done or left undone. For example, I could attend all three long hours of church (which would be quite a feat) every Sunday of every week and accomplish perfect attendance. I have now been perfect at a small task.
So I agree that there are some things that can simply be checked off – achieved or omitted. But I believe that perfection is far more intricate and goes beyond the mere scope of completing a task with wonderful consistency. I believe perfection cannot be found except as a product of an accumulation of many things – virtues and connections with those around us. And ultimately, perfection isn’t about avoiding sin, but rather, I think, that holiness and perfection deal more with that which we include in our lives opposed to that which we exclude from them. Avoiding sin can be done by any lump on a log. It bespeaks safety, inaction, timidity, even cowardice in the face of life’s challenges. The gospel invites us to expand, not contract, our realm of experience and knowledge. The atonement hasn’t been given to only be used in cases of dire emergency like a “get me out of jail card”, rather the atonement has been given to consistently and constantly give us life and draw us closer to Christ AND our fellow man. It is to be used every day to alleviate the suffering from sin and to help us gain knowledge and, even more importantly, compassion and love. From the parable given by the Savior in Luke chapter 7, we learn that he who is forgiven much feels an even deeper love for the Savior than he who has been forgiven less. It is critical, I think, to recognize that the woman is forgiven because “she loved much”.
However, it is important to juxtapose this parable with that of the man who was forgiven a great debt by his king in Matthew 18. In this story we do not see an outpouring of love following forgiveness, but rather anger as the forgiven man refuses to excuse the meager debts of those around him. Sin by itself is never beneficial – but sin accompanied by the repentance and the healing grace of the atonement leads to more compassion and, what one friend taught me, “mercy of the fallen”.
Recently I learned a saying with which I wholeheartedly agree: the path to happiness is not found in the path of avoiding unhappiness. I believe that just as trials and sadness are necessary precursors for joy, so is sin a precursor for perfection. Sin teaches us by experience the beauty of purity, cleanliness, and being whole. Through sin we learn how beautiful our Savior’s atonement truly is – that we, despite however wretched we may be (we are all sinners), can truly be made whole after having experienced such pain of heart and soul. In that space of forgiveness, we in turn learn to forgive and to love. In essence, we cheat ourselves if we simply try to avoid sin, but we perfect ourselves when we seek to incorporate godliness and learn better how to respond to the inevitable sin in our lives.
And that’s the point – whatever it is we endeavor or seek to do, we will be found wanting in some regard. No matter how much we do or how well we perform, we can’t earn heaven. Heaven is a place reserved for those of a particular divine nature and the tasks we have been given serve as possible catalysts or stepping stones to help shape us into such a person which I feel is shown in the Lord’s statement in D&C 29, “I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal.” I believe those who will be best prepared in the heavens to come are not necessarily those who lived a life more devoid of sin than the other, but rather those who have learned best how to repent.
There’s a strange perverted obsession with the notion of perfection and it eats away at many of us as well as a syndrome of “sin-aversion” (but that’s a topic for another time). If not careful, such a desire to be “perfect” can lead to a sense of entitlement which one might infer from the hymn “Come, Come ye Saint” when it says, “Why should we think to earn a great reward if we now shun the fight?” In “The Great Divorce”, C.S. Lewis talks of the wonderful mercy that we are not given that which we rightfully deserve – we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of our God and have earned hell for ourselves. Yet, despite our wickedness before Him who is most pure, we are offered mercy and forgiveness upon the condition of change and repentance – sin cannot stand in the presence of God, but repentant sinners can.
It is my wish that we would seek less to become perfect and focus more on improving ourselves – our relationships with our families, friends, and communities. Just as it says in D&C 128:18, “we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect”. I don’t believe this is speaking solely in reference to our deceased, but to the relationships of the whole human family. That isn’t to say we should simply give up on the goal of perfection – but that perfection itself shouldn’t be the goal, rather, better emulating the life of Christ and His endless charity in all facets of our lives.
Now I wish to speak plainly and clearly so as not to be misunderstood. Perfection does not include sin – in the words of C.S. Lewis there can be no compromise for hell in heaven. But I think too much of our mental capacity is spent on avoiding and distancing ourselves from certain elements of this world which causes us, inextricably, to also distance ourselves from our loved ones who might be struggling, or cause others to distance themselves from us when we are struggling.
Hong Zicheng said within the Ts’ai Ken T’an, “Soil that is dirty grows the countless things. Water that is pure has no fish”. CS Lewis writes, “There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to him and bad when it turns from him”. Perfection isn’t found in the absence of sin, but the seeds of perfection are found in the presence of compassion and mercy which have stemmed from sin and steered us further on to love and forgive those who will one day compose our heavenly family.