I love how much emphasis our church places on self-improvement. From childhood on, we’re told to do our best, seek out the greatest art and literature, get the finest education we can, and strive to be better all the time. We’re told that everyone has God-given gifts, and that we should develop our talents. It’s a good message. In fact, I can’t think of another organization that takes excellence so seriously. Maybe the Olympics. But even they specialize only in athletics.

We believe in, and follow the New Testament Christ, whose admonition was, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) And we take that directive to heart, forgetting that it doesn’t have to happen by 5:00 pm, nor does “perfect” even mean flawless in the first place. In the original Greek, teleios means complete, or mature, something we become through Christ’s atonement.

Too many of us (hellooo guilty here) grab onto that scripture and begin pushing ourselves to attain perfection as fast as we can. We jump right into Satan’s trap, which we don’t recognize because excellence looks like a good thing. Shouldn’t super excellence be an even better thing? A favorite tool he uses is The Depressing Comparison. He urges us to compare ourselves with others, nearly always a losing proposition. And then, when we fall short, Satan convinces us we’re beyond hope or help God could never accept us in our fallen state, so why even try to access the blessings of the atonement? Despair, depression, inactivitySatan is happy with any one of those results

Christ’s doctrine doesn’t tell us to run faster than we are ableit’s the Culture of Accomplishment that sends this message. Yes, the church promotes excellence, education, and good deeds. Yes, it teaches us that whatever level of intelligence we gain in this life will rise with us to the next. But Christand our leadershave never promoted this notion of failure if you aren’t flawless. We heap that burden upon ourselves by listening to the wrong whisperings.

Dieter F. Uchtdorf once told us in a General Conference talk, “It is said that any virtue when taken to an extreme can become a vice. Overscheduling our days would certainly qualify for this. There comes a point where milestones can become millstones and ambitions, albatrosses around our necks.”       

It’s easy to bypass moderation and take virtues too far. We’ve all seen it. Ambition can turn into greed, self-confidence can become arrogance, boldness can escalate to anger. The highly organized can become obsessive, the humble can fail to recognize their worth. Insistence on excellence can become relentless perfectionism. Strong leaders can become domineering, friendliness can become nosiness. You can almost name any strength, and see it exaggerated into a vice that can cripple a soul, harm families and jeopardize employment.

And every one of us has talents that, if left unmonitored, can derail into the realm of unhealthy extremism. I’ve found the best solution is to focus. Like the phrase, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” we need to remember that temple sealings are actually the purpose of life. And then measure all our strivings to see if they even apply to that. If we use our strengths and gifts to build the kingdom, we keep covenants that ensure blessings. We steer clear of behavior that almost enslaves us and distracts us from our real purpose.

If we find ourselves being harsh internal critics, we need to remember where such ideas originate. God wants us to repent when we sin, but that means forward progress, not eternal condemnation.

And many of us who have ingrained the false doctrine (yes that is what it is) that everything has to be done perfectly, need to remember that sometimes things just have to be done.

We all have reasons to be gratefulGod has blessed every one of His children with gifts, talents, and opportunities. We honor those gifts by developing them, but also by being in control of them, rather than letting them control us. Mark Twain said it well: “Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.”

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