Life is Not About “Arriving”
By Darla Isackson
with Colleen Harrison

I relapsed into perfectionism again the other day–before I even got out of bed. Crazy, I know, but here’s how it feels: When I wake up in the morning my stomach is knotted with fear and dread. I’m on trial, and I already know the verdict. In this kind of mood it’s a given that I won’t measure up, so why even try?  Still, others need me, so I get up and get myself going.  I move into my day with heaviness.  I am bombarded with memories of past failures–of how many times I’ve let myself down. No mistake, no matter how innocent, is okay. No falling short is acceptable. That mind set makes it certain I will fall short. Whatever I do will feel like a mistake because it will never be enough.

Perfectionism leads me to nothing but self-flagellation. Elder Neal A. Maxwell cautions us: “What can we do to manage these vexing feelings of inadequacy? . . . We can distinguish more clearly between divine discontent and the devil’s dissonance, between dissatisfaction with self and disdain for self. We need the first and must shun the second, remembering that when conscience calls to us from the next ridge, it is not solely to scold but also to beckon. (“Notwithstanding My Weakness,” Ensign, November 1976, p. 14.)

Gratefully, because the Spirit has taught me the truth previously, I was blessed this particular morning to quickly recognize what I was doing to myself. I saw I was being tempted once more to believe the lie that I’m only acceptable if I act perfectly enough that I don’t need to repent.  (And consequently don’t need the Savior, although Satan keeps that part secret because he knows I would instantly reject that lie if I recognized it.) How stealthily and subtly the adversary of all truth can infect my thoughts with this blasphemous idea.  With all the energy of my heart I recoil from Satan’s efforts to shut me down and stop the hope I have in Christ. I know I am an imperfect mortal. I know I will never live a single day without making mistakes I need to repent of. My acceptability to the Lord does not lie in perfect performance, but in kneeling at Jesus’ feet and acknowledging that He is my only hope. When I do that, the Spirit returns, and so does my joy in living.

The “Be Perfect Now” Myth

Most of my adult life I have been painfully aware of the scriptural commandment “Be ye therefore perfect.” Consequently, I have fallen into the quicksand of perfectionism over and over. Perfectionism does not mean in any way that I actually do anything perfect. It means I am obsessed with thinking I should do everything perfect. That obsession sets me up for misery. It’s like walking a tightrope when I don’t have a sense of balance. I fall repeatedly, but since there’s a net, I quickly recover and climb right up the ladder and start the insane act all over again.

I know it is righteous to strive for perfection, so what is my problem? I sometimes think that Matthew 5:48 “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” is the most problematic, misunderstood scripture in the Bible–at least it has been for me! I was middle-aged before I noticed the footnote to Matthew 5:48 that explains that the word “perfect,” translated from the Greek, means “complete, finished, fully developed.” At which moment in this life am I going to be complete, finished, fully developed? Interestingly enough, even Christ, the only perfect being to take on a body of flesh and bones and live life perfectly, considered himself perfect only after he had finished his mortal life and passed all the tests. When he appeared to the Nephites in his glorious resurrected body, having overcome the world and completed his mission on the earth, he said,  “Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect.” (3 Nephi 12:48, emphasis mine) Only after his earthly mission was completed did he include himself with his Father as a model of perfection.

I remember my relief when I read quotes from Joseph Smith and Bruce R. McConkie clearly stating that it would be a long time after this life before the rest of us could expect to attain perfection. Righteously desiring perfection and letting that desire work in you is a process that gives substance and meaning and purpose to the whole concept of eternal progression. It is the way of experience and learning from our experience to know good from evil and choose good.  It is an adventure and journey of paying attention and growing as we go.  However, it lends nothing but discouragement if I listen to the adversary’s enticement to tack the word “now” onto the scripture “Be ye therefore perfect,” thus turning it into a false doctrine. I agreed with Phil Harrison, when I read in his manuscript, Clean Hands, Clean Heart, “[Perfectionism] is not the admirable virtue I used to think it was, but rather a debilitating frame of mind that constantly drained me of motivation.”

I was so grateful to finally see the truth: only the adversary would set me up for misery by tempting me to believe I must be perfect NOW when it is impossible to be “complete, finished, and fully developed” in mortality. He knows that erroneous belief can make me feel like a flawed failure every day. What better way to accomplish his purposes with well-meaning people who are trying to be righteous! The danger doubles when I recognize that Satan is attempting to eclipse my need for the Savior. Perfectionism is the exact opposite of “I Need Thee Every Hour.” It says, “I’m trying to get so good that I don’t need to bother you at all, Lord,” the self-serving, craving to avoid any need for humility and repentance is very nearly anti-Christ.

The Myth of “Arriving”

I have spent most of my life trying to “arrive,” trying to somehow “get there.” I’ve thought that the next spiritual experience, the next Spirit-filled book by a General Authority,  the next overwhelming feeling of charity, the next mighty change of heart and habit would finally land me in that ideal place where I would no longer struggle, no longer fail.

Colleen Harrison reflected on this dilemma that seems to be common among so many of us:  “We as a people are so enamored of the lie that perfection is a place, a somewhere, that we can arrive at or achieve and then be done with it. We are averse to the idea that instead, it is a state of choice that is always subject to either being retained or lost in each new instant. We would much rather it be more concrete, something absolute, from which we can never fear falling, ever again.

“We are such ‘all or nothing’ creatures. It nearly devastates us to deal with the idea that our environment won’t ever be all or nothing. If only we realized that what we’re wishing for is that very condition of no choices that Lucifer himself proposed long ago.

“He wanted earth life to be a perpetual summer of perfection–no ebb and flow, no seasonal ups and downs for him, thank you. . .

“And yet everywhere we look, the creation of God mirrors the eternal truth of life’s transcendent, pulsating rhythm–ever wavering and yet ever progressing.

“The seasons are only one example. Our very heartbeat  . . . Is yet another. I will never forget when I discovered that without the ups and downs on the screen of a cardiogram or electroencephalogram monitor, the person being monitored would be dead. Life’s very presence is reflected in the heights and depths printed on the tape emerging from those machines. The last thing anyone would want to see is a straight line.” (Colleen Harrison, He Did Deliver Me from Bondage, p. 86)

What About the Mighty Change of Heart?

Colleen continued by sharing that according to her study of the prophets and the scriptures, even a “mighty change of heart” does not bring us to a place of “arrival,” at least not in mortality:   “As we have rehearsed again and again, [even] the mighty change of heart does not bring us to a state of perfection, but rather convinces us of our own powerlessness to be perfect, and turns us to know and trust Him who is perfect enough for us all.  The word repentance means literally to “turn again.” As that process of turning again to God and to the principles of truth and righteousness becomes more and more consistent and continuous, our lapses from it grow shorter and shorter. They go from being years, months, weeks, or even days in length to only hours, eventually minutes, and ultimately nothing more than the turn of thought, which is discarded instantly.” (He Did Deliver Me from Bondage, p. 83)

Even those “sealed up by the Holy Spirit of Promise,” still make mistakes and still need the Savior’s atoning power. Explaining this, Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote: “The prophets and apostles from Adam and Enoch down, and all men, whether cleansed and sanctified from sin or not, are yet subject to and do in fact commit sin. This is the case even after men have seen the visions of eternity and been sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise.

“Obviously the laws of repentance still apply, and the more enlightened a person is, the more he seeks the gift of repentance, and the harder he strives to free himself from sin as often as he falls short of the divine will . . . It follows that the sins of the god-fearing and the righteous are continually remitted because they repent and seek the Lord anew every day and every hour.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Vol. III, pp. 342-343)

When I wake in the morning with such reassurance in my mind, remembering God’s love for me and that only “one thing is needful” I start the day with peace, instead of knots in my stomach. I know that any mistakes of commission or omission that I might make today, can be remitted as I turn to the Savior and accept his loving Atonement.

I would assume that Elder McConkie’s words quoted above apply even to those who accomplish what the scriptures call “entering into the rest of the Lord” while still in mortality. And believe me, that rest sounds very appealing! Though we can learn to entertain the Spirit more and more, to rest in the Lord more and more of the time, in mortality no one is ever free of temptation, weakness, or the possibility of making unwise choices.

The Charity View of Perfection

Chieko Okazaki, in her talk entitled “The Power of Charity” (Deseret Book, 1992) suggested that the Savior’s words “Be Ye therefore perfect” were part of the “Sermon on the Mount” and referred to the Father’s perfection at loving. She suggested that Jesus was encouraging us to follow the Father’s great example of how to love [which Jesus did so perfectly that the ultimate love–charity–is called the pure love of Christ]. This idea seems to be borne out by the Apostle Paul when he said, “And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (Colossians 3:14). Peter adds: “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves; for charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).  It’s wonderful to think that charity can “cover” my imperfect efforts at cooking, gardening, balancing my checkbook, managing my time. Somehow it is a great comfort to me to ponder that the perfection the Lord asks me to seek, is perfection at loving–especially since charity is a gift of the Spirit that comes not from will power, but from praying with all the energy of my heart.

The ONLY Road to Perfection: Come Unto Christ

We may also look at “perfection” as “holy, without spot,” cleansed of sin through Christ’s redeeming blood. Here is the way we can taste of the sweetness of perfection while we are still in mortality.  Moroni 10:32 explains that way, and reminds of where we must look for that joyful hope: “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.”  We accept baptism, and by accepting the Atonement of Christ, are cleansed of our sins, perfect in that moment. We repent daily and come to the sacrament table weekly to renew that baptism covenant and retain a remission of our sins. Only through Christ can we be clean, without spot.

We come to the Savior with all our weaknesses, all our inadequacies, all our sins, like a condemned prisoner comes before a king, begging for mercy.  If our hearts are genuinely, sincerely broken and contrite, Jesus, the Christ symbolically covers us with the robe of his own righteousness.  He is to us what Joseph, who was sold into Egypt, was to his guilty brothers.  Remember Joseph’s reaction to his brothers’ genuine, sincere plea for help? (See Genesis 45.)  He forgave them their past sins against him and covered them in the safety and bounty of his own righteousness. 

Moroni 10:33 continues:  “And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot” (Moroni 10:33). Jesus IS our only hope on the pathway to perfection. Only through recognizing our need for Him can we stay on that path.