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I believe perfectionism is part of Satan’s counterfeit version of the gospel. President Joseph F. Smith described one of Satan’s methods: “Satan is a skillful imitator, and as genuine gospel truth is given the world in ever-increasing abundance, so he spreads the counterfeit coin of false doctrine” (ibid., p. 36). Here’s an example: he adds the word “now” to the “Be ye therefore perfect” scripture in Matthew 5:48 and ignores the footnote that defines “perfect” as complete, finished, fully developed.” Perfectionism is an example of “precepts of men mingled with scripture” that never brings enough truth to sustain the light. Through perfectionism the adversary can change the comforting gospel of Christ into something persecuting and misery-making.
What Is Perfectionism?
The dictionary says, “a perfectionist is a person who is not content with anything that is not perfect or nearly perfect; a person who believes that it is possible to lead a sinless life.” That is the best recipe for unhappiness I can think of because it places impossible and unrealistic expectations on ourselves and everyone else. Satan tells us it is possible to be perfect now if we just think harder, try harder, work harder, and do more. He also tells us that other people should too, and it is our job to help them be perfect.
One damaging lie of perfectionism is that we can get good enough and sinless enough not to have to bother the Savior for His help. If we recognize this counterfeit gospel as anti-Christ, Satan changes his tune and tells us that it takes near perfection to get good enough to be worthy of the Savior’s help.
Perfectionism assumes we can perform our way to heaven, a sure formula for discouragement. Any time I’ve believed that lie, even for an hour, I’ve felt miserable. First the adversary whispers that I “should” get good enough to fix everything and everybody. When I totally fail, and realize I can’t even fix myself, he moves into the next part of his discouragement program, whispering that I am incapable, inept, inadequate and not able to do anything right. Those voices are NOT coming from the Lord. Such thoughts are self-abuse, nothing more. They come from the adversary who falsely claims you can self-abuse yourself into being better. Abuse never motivates progress, whether it comes from outside voices or inside voices. Satan is the great abuser, so we can always be sure of the source of abusive thoughts.
A dangerous weapon in the adversary’s perfectionism arsenal is that he can make covenants and commandments seem like curses because they bring us face to face with our limitations. If we listen to the adversary, we miss the point that limitations are meant to turn us to the Savior for strength. The very fact that I “can do nothing” without the Lord (John 15:5) can motivate us to love Him more because He promises “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13).
The Light of the Gospel Dispels the Darkness of Perfectionism
Satan’s counterfeit gospel of perfectionism is opposite from the true gospel of Christ, which leads unfailingly to the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance (Galatians 5:22-23).
Light and truth bring peace. God is love, light, and truth. Whenever I get caught up in perfectionism, I need to say, “Lord, help me see this in a different way, Your way. Help me to see the truth.” His voice, even while chastening, is encouraging, supporting, building, hopeful. Healing comes when I turn to Christ and reject the false beliefs of perfectionism that make me feel confused, dark, threatened, and miserable. Satan wants to make me miserable and doesn’t care how. Anytime I feel miserable I can be sure I’m in his darkness and need to turn to the light. The path of light includes becoming totally honest with God, pleading for His help, saying, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” (Alma 36:18). Just as He redeemed Alma the younger from his hell, Christ will deliver me from mine, and you from yours.
How Perfectionism Messes Up Our Parenting
One of the most dangerous areas of “no mistakes allowed” perfectionism is parenting. If I believe my job with my children is to make sure they make only perfect choices, I’m in trouble, and they’re in trouble.
My husband Doug was raised non-Mormon in the Salt Lake Valley. He and his friends used to call members of the Church “Latter-day Pharisees” because of the emphasis they often put on outward performance. In a few of his LDS friends’ homes Doug saw parents trying to get perfect obedience to the commandments by coercion; for a while various members of these families seemed to be on wild goose chases of “faithful” performances with no emotional connection with each other or the Spirit. The result in such homes was often the children rebelling and leaving, straying far from the Church and their families.
The Lord motivates with love, not unhealthy guilt, shame, blame, and impossible “shoulds.” For example, if we “should” control a child’s every thought and move, that control would be possible. The very fact that it is impossible tells us the “should” is a lie. When we are miserable in our parenting or otherwise, it means we are not seeing things from God’s viewpoint; we are not seeing His truth. We need a paradigm shift to see His way. I tell myself, “If there was truth in this negative thought I wouldn’t feel darkness. Help me know the truth. Help me see the light.”
Teach Children to Repent, Not to “Be Perfect Now”
It is a false belief that if children choose wrong it means their parents have failed. God knew absolutely that every one of us would make wrong choices when He gave all His children agency and that is why he gave us a Savior. God stood firm against Satan’s plan of making everyone do everything right. What irony, then, when parents think that is their job!
The Lord has made it very clear in the scriptures that a parent’s job is not to keep their children from every sin, but instead “we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26).
Moses chapter 6 offers a soul-stirring message on the Atonement and the plan of salvation. After saying that children are whole from the foundation of the world, we are told, “And the Lord spake unto Adam saying: Inasmuch as thy children are conceived in sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good. And it is given unto them to know good from evil; wherefore they are agents unto themselves, and I have given unto you another law and commandment. Wherefore teach it unto your children that all men, everywhere, must repent, or they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God” (Moses 6:55-57).
Doesn’t that scripture make it clear that because children have agency, they will need to be taught repentance? And that we are commanded to teach them to repent? Verse 58 says again, “Therefore I give unto you a commandment, to teach these things freely unto your children . . .”
We need to consistently remember that “no mistakes allowed” was Satan’s plan, not God’s. God’s plan is to teach repentance and live repentance. However, Satan’s plan is still alive and well in the gospel of perfectionism. Author and counselor Peggy McFarland said, “When parents mess with agency they are in trouble with God. Satan was kicked out of heaven for that offense.”
We Can’t Bear Fruit Apart from the Vine
One of the worst things about perfectionism is that it convinces us we should be able to bear fruit by our own best efforts, apart from the “vine” of the Lord’s power. Whenever I try to do anything of spiritual significance by myself, not relying on the strength of Christ, I will fail. Jesus said, “I am the vine, ye are the branches; He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit; for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).
An Ensign article, “Vine and Branches,” points out that the vine feeds the branches, gives water to the branches, lifts, supports, and anchors the plant. Elder Jeffry R. Holland said, “Christ is everything to us and we are to ‘abide’ in Him permanently, unyieldingly, steadfastly, forever. For the fruit of the gospel to blossom and bless our lives, we must be firmly attached to Him, the Savior of us all, and to this His Church, which bears His holy name. He is the vine that is our true source of strength and the only source of eternal life. In Him we not only will endure but also will prevail and triumph in this holy cause that will never fail us” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “Abide in Me,” Ensign, May 2004, 32).
The counterfeit gospel of perfectionism leaves us in the chaos, struggling, striving to get good enough to fix everything when it is impossible to do so. There is such sweetness and safety in surrendering to the power of Christ. Relief washes over us when we realize we don’t have to take it all on ourselves and can give up striving that is futile without divine guidance.
Christ gives us a safe place whenever we recognize His power and our own “nothingness” and turn to Him. The truth is, we are in a fallen state and can only be “lifted up” by Christ. Moses found he couldn’t even lift himself off the ground when he was “left unto himself.” And he said, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10). Only Christ can save us from our “nothingness” and He does it because we mean everything to Him.
Perfectionism Leaves No Room for Human Weakness
It is vital to understand the difference between sin and weakness. The Ensign article “It Isn’t a Sin to Be Weak” gives the best explanation I’ve ever read, and has been a Godsend to me. The author, Wendy Ulrich, defines sin as a choice to disobey God’s commandments or rebel against the Light of Christ within us. Weakness, she explains, is the limitation of our wisdom, power, and holiness that comes with being human with physical flaws and predispositions. She says, “In our weak, mortal state we suffer physical and emotional illness, hunger, and fatigue. We experience human emotions like anger, grief, and fear. We lack wisdom, skill, stamina, and strength. And we are subject to temptations of many kinds.” How well I relate! Somehow, I’ve always fought against all these realities of being human and tried to repent of weakness.
Can We Repent of Weakness?
Sister Ulrich continues, “We cannot simply repent of being weak—nor does weakness itself make us unclean. We cannot grow spiritually unless we reject sin, but we also do not grow spiritually unless we accept our state of human weakness, respond to it with humility and faith, and learn through our weakness to trust in God. . . . Even when we sincerely repent of our sins, obtain forgiveness and become clean again, we remain weak. . . . But limitations and inadequacies are not sins and do not keep us from being clean and worthy of the Spirit” (Wendy Ulrich, “It Isn’t a Sin to Be Weak,” Ensign, April 2015, 30-35).
God Offers Forgiveness for Sin, but Grace for Weakness
In her article, Sister Ulrich offers two charts: one listing distinguishing characteristics of sin and weakness (Ensign, April 2015, 33), and another distinguishing constructive guilt (Godly sorrow) and humility from the unhelpful counterfeit of shame (Ensign, April 2015, 35.) I can’t possible summarize all the important points made on those charts, so I hope you will look them up. I have returned to this article over and over because of my need to clarify and internalize the differences in my life. Perhaps the most important point to me, was that God responds to repented sin with forgiveness, but responds to weakness with grace. The Bible Dictionary explains that grace is an enabling power from God to do what we cannot do on our own and that, “The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ.” Grace is the godly remedy by which Christ can “make weak things become strong.” Grace is the only way we can “be perfect in Christ.” However, Joseph Smith and others have reminded us that perfection is a process that continues long after this life.
A study of Moroni chapter 10 helps us see how this process works. Verse 32 and 33 offer a good summary: “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. 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.”
God gave us weakness and made it impossible to be perfect without Him so we would be humble and turn to Him (see Ether 12:27). Human weakness plays an important role in the essential purposes of mortality which Sister Ulrich defines as “to learn by experience to distinguish good from evil, grow in wisdom and skill, live values we care about, and acquire the characteristics of godliness.” She concludes, “Nowhere is God’s love, wisdom, and redemptive power more evident than in His ability to turn our struggle with human weakness into the invaluable godly virtues and strengths that make us more like Him.” We can keep out perfectionistic tendencies at bay if we remember these important principles.
Is There Any Reason to Resist the Lord’s Constant Invitation to Help and Heal Us?
The Lord offers a comforting, ever present call, “Come unto me” (Matthew 11:28). Why would we ever resist? Perfectionists think they have to do it themselves. Even when we’ve put that issue aside, do we sometimes think if we come to Him He will just tell us to do more when we are already so “heavy laden”? Let’s read that invitation in context: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Truth tells us that no matter the task, when we are yoked with Him any burden is light because His power is with us. I could give so many examples in my life when my burdens weren’t taken away but were made incredibly light when I turned to the Lord and became “yoked” with Him.
Comfort Is His First Response
We also need to look at scriptural patterns where comfort and consolation come first, when people “come unto Him”—before assignments, more commandments, etc. For instance, in 3 Nephi:10 the world had crashed down around the people with “deaths and destructions by fire, and by smoke, and by tempests, and by whirlwinds, and by the opening of the earth to receive them” (3 Nephi 10:14). The survivors of all that destruction suffered three days and nights of total darkness. I’ve only been in total darkness for a few seconds in a cave and it was frightening! Were these people traumatized? Did they need comfort, consolation, compensation, and healing? Yes! And that is what they received, one by one, as Christ blessed and healed them and their children; only later did they receive assignments and instructions. Comfort and consolation is usually given first when we “Come unto Him.” What comforting motivation to come unto Him. And remember, the people who were visited by the Savior were not perfect, only “more righteous” than those who died.
Disciples aren’t perfect people, but people who trust God, love Christ and realize their complete dependence on divine help. In an article called, “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon,” Matthew S. Holland said, “Like Joseph Smith, you need not lead a perfect life in order to be a powerful instrument in God’s hands. Mistakes, failure, and confusion were part of Joseph’s life and mission, and they are going to be part of yours too. But do not despair. Do not be tempted to think that ‘all is lost.’ All is not lost and will never be lost for those who look to the God of mercy and live. You have a Brother who watches over you, ready to rescue you and advance your service with arms far stronger than your arms—far stronger, in fact, than all other arms of the flesh combined. Those arms are there to sustain and bless you, ‘in every time or trouble’ (D&C 3:8), no matter how alone and discouraged you may feel. Therefore, as you move forward with your life, trust in those arms and ‘be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid . . . for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee’ (Deuteronomy 31:6). Joseph discovered this and changed the world. You can too” (Matthew S. Holland, Ensign July 2015, 40, 45).
We can moment by moment refuse to listen to Satan’s counterfeit gospel of perfectionism and embrace the true Gospel of Christ. The true gospel of Christ invites us to enter into His rest and receive His forgiveness and His grace. Hope in anything but Christ is false hope. He is the only source of solace, safety, sanctification, and salvation. He is, after all, the Savior!