“Are we expected to achieve perfection in this life?” Ensign, Aug. 1986, 39–41
Gerald N. Lund, director of curriculum and instruction, Church Educational System. First, we need to ask a more fundamental question: “Do we have to be perfect in order to achieve exaltation?” Whether we answer this question yes or no depends on how we define the word perfect. One definition of perfect is “never having flaw or error.” In this sense, only one person in all of human history—our Savior—has been perfect. Not once in all his mortal life—not as a child, not as an adult—was he out of harmony with the Father’s will. In this sense, we clearly do not have to be perfect to be saved. Otherwise, there would be no hope for any of us, for as Paul said, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23.)
But perfect can also mean “having all flaws and errors removed.” A better way to state the original question might be: “Do we have to be perfected to be exalted?” Here the scriptural answer is a resounding yes. In numerous references, the Lord says that no unclean thing can enter into his presence. (See 1 Ne. 10:21; Alma 7:21; 3 Ne. 27:19; Moses 6:57.) Obviously, then, we must repent of those flaws identified as sins and become clean before we can be exalted. But what of other flaws—those that don’t qualify as sins but are nevertheless imperfections?
The Prophet Joseph Smith said that our very faith rests in knowing that the attributes of God, such as his love, mercy, power, and knowledge, are all held in perfection. (See Lectures on Faith, lecture four.) An imperfect God would indeed be a contradiction in terms. At some point, then, if we are to become like God, we must be perfect, without any flaw or error.
But must we achieve that state in this life? Here the prophets have spoken plainly. In the great sermon known as the King Follett discourse, the Prophet Joseph taught:
“When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the Gospel—you must begin with the first and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. 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 of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, p. 348; italics added.)
President Joseph F. Smith confirmed this idea:
“We do not look for absolute perfection in man. Mortal man is not capable of being absolutely perfect. Nevertheless, it is given to us to be as perfect in the sphere in which we are called to be and to act, as it is for the Father in heaven to be pure and righteous in the more exalted sphere in which he acts. We will find in the scriptures the words of the Savior himself to his disciples, in which he required that they should be perfect, even as their Father in heaven is perfect; that they should be righteous, even as he is righteous. I do not expect that we can be as perfect as Christ, that we can be as righteous as God. But I believe that we can strive for that perfection with the intelligence that we possess, and the knowledge that we have of the principles of life and salvation.” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed., Salt Lake City, Deseret Book Co., 1939, p. 132; italics added.)
Elder Joseph Fielding Smith spoke with equal clarity on the same subject:
“Salvation does not come all at once; we are commanded to be perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect. It will take us ages to accomplish this end, for there will be greater progress beyond the grave, and it will be there that the faithful will overcome all things, and receive all things, even the fulness of the Father’s glory. I believe the Lord meant just what he said: that we should be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. That will not come all at once, but line upon line, and precept upon precept, example upon example, and even then not as long as we live in this mortal life, for we will have to go even beyond the grave before we reach that perfection and shall be like God.
“But here we lay the foundation.” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., comp. Bruce R. McConkie, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1954–56, 2:18; italics added.)
While these statements make it clear that full perfection is not achievable in mortality, each also suggests that we should always strive for perfection in our lives. Perfection is our eternal goal; it is what we must eventually achieve if we are to become like our Father. A purpose of mortality is to come as close to perfection as possible before we die.
That brings us to the second part of the original question: How can we keep perfection as our goal without becoming so discouraged or depressed with our failings that we lose hope and give up trying to perfect ourselves? I would like to suggest seven practical ideas that can help us maintain the balance between eternal goals and mortal realities.
1. Remember that one of Satan’s strategies, especially with good people, is to whisper in their ears: “If you are not perfect, you are failing.” This is one of his most effective deceptions, for it contains some elements of truth. But it is deception nonetheless. While we should never be completely satisfied until we are perfect, we should recognize that God is pleased with every effort we make—no matter how faltering—to better ourselves. One of the most commonly listed attributes of God is that he is long-suffering and quick to show mercy. He wants us to strive for perfection, but the fact that we have not yet achieved it does not mean we are failing.
2. Feelings of failure are natural and common to most people. Elder Neal A. Maxwell put it this way:
“I speak, not to the slackers in the Kingdom, but to those who carry their own load and more; not to those lulled into false security, but to those buffeted by false insecurity, who, though laboring devotedly in the Kingdom, have recurring feelings of falling forever short. …
“The first thing to be said of this feeling of inadequacy is that it is normal. … Following celestial road signs while in telestial traffic jams is not easy, especially when we are not just moving next door—or even across town.” (Ensign, Nov. 1976, p. 12.)
Even such great men as Moses, Enoch, and Gideon were reluctant to believe they were capable of doing what God called them to do. To their credit, they tried anyway—and, with the Lord’s help, succeeded. (See Ex. 4:10; Moses 6:31; Judg. 6:15.)
3. The Lord himself has warned us about being unrealistic in our expectations. To a young prophet, deeply contrite over losing 116 pages of sacred manuscript, the Lord said: “Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength.” (D&C 10:4.) And after a lengthy and powerful call to repentance, King Benjamin gave this counsel: “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order: for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.” (Mosiah 4:27; italics added.)
4. Remember that the scriptures are replete with examples of great men and women who moved toward perfection through missteps, in spite of failings, and having to overcome their weaknesses. For example, the author of the second Gospel is the same Mark who earlier had left his missionary service, deserting Paul and Barnabus. (See Acts 12:25; Acts 13:13; Acts 15:37–38.) The same Corianton who was severely chastized for being immoral on his mission (see Alma 39:3–5, 11) was later listed among the faithful who helped bring peace to the Nephites (see Alma 49:30). Finally, the people of Melchizedek at one point had “waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness.” (Alma 13:17; italics added.) But “they did repent” (Acts 13:18) and went to join the city of Enoch (see JST, Gen. 14:34).
5. The Lord not only looks at our works, he also takes into account the desires of our hearts. (See Alma 41:3; D&C 88:109; D&C 137:9.) This means that even if we don’t always perfectly translate our good desires into action, these desires will be included in our final evaluation. Elder Bruce R. McConkie described what it takes to be saved:
“What we do in this life is chart a course leading to eternal life. That course begins here and now and continues in the realms ahead. We must determine in our hearts and in our souls, with all the power and ability we have, that from this time forward we will press on in righteousness; by so doing we can go where God and Christ are. If we make that firm determination, and are in the course of our duty when this life is over, we will continue in that course in eternity. That same spirit that possesses our bodies at the time we depart from this mortal life will have power to possess our bodies in the eternal world. If we go out of this life loving the Lord, desiring righteousness, and seeking to acquire the attributes of godliness, we will have that same spirit in the eternal world, and we will then continue to advance and progress until an ultimate, destined day when we will possess, receive, and inherit all things.” (“The Seven Deadly Heresies,” in Speeches of the Year, 1980, Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1981, pp. 78–79; italics added.)
6. “Hanging in there,” in modern vernacular, is one of the most important keys to becoming perfected. This is what the scriptures mean by enduring to the end. Some people live out years of righteousness and then, when life takes a downward turn or becomes boring, tedious, and monotonous, they become discouraged and decide that striving for perfection is no longer worth it. After a remarkable life of faith and commitment, King David lost his exaltation because he did not continue in his set course.
Somehow, some of us get it in our heads that if we are not making great, dramatic leaps forward spiritually, we are not progressing. Actually, for most of us, the challenge of living the gospel is that progress comes in almost imperceptible increments. It is very seldom that we can look back over one day and see great progress. Becoming like God takes years and years of striving, and trying again.
We must also keep in mind that just because we are striving to better ourselves does not mean all problems, challenges, and setbacks will disappear. Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, quoting columnist Jenkins Lloyd Jones, reminded us that life will always have its challenges:
“Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he’s been robbed. The fact is that most putts don’t drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to be just people, most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration, most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is like an old time rail journey … delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.” (Address given to Religious Educators, Sept. 1978, p. 4.)
7. Finally, to overcome the discouragement we feel as we see our failings and imperfections, we should remember that we learn and progress in spiritual things in much the same way we learn and progress in physical things. One is not disappointed when a baby first learns to crawl before he walks. It is the natural order of things. Likewise, no one expects a student to understand calculus until he has first learned the numbers, then the laws of addition and subtraction, and then the mysteries of algebra and trigonometry. President Spencer W. Kimball noted that “working toward perfection is not a one-time decision but a process to be pursued throughout one’s lifetime.” (Ensign, Oct. 1978, p. 6; italics added.) So why is it that we demand instant perfection? Why should we expect to run spiritual four-minute miles until we have jogged hundreds upon hundreds of times around the spiritual tracks of our lives? Why do we expect to work spiritual calculus before we have mastered the spiritual multiplication tables? And why should we be disappointed when we cannot play spiritual symphonies if we have not yet taught ourselves to play the spiritual scales?
Perfection is our goal. But let us not be thrown off course when we do not fully achieve it in this life. And most of all, let us, as we strive for that lofty goal, remember the Lord’s promise to those of us who so keenly sense our weaknesses and inadequacies: “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” (Ether 12:27.)