Teachings of Presidents
Chapter 21: Striving for Perfection

“Chapter 21: Striving for Perfection,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee (2011), 195–205

“Chapter 21,” Teachings: Harold B. Lee, 195–205

Chapter 21

Striving for Perfection

How can we strive to fulfill the commandment “Be ye therefore perfect”?


President Harold B. Lee taught the importance of following the example of the Savior as we strive for perfection:

“I am convinced that the Master was not merely thinking relatively when he said, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ [Matthew 5:48.] … Would you suppose the Savior was suggesting a goal that was not possible of attainment and thus mock us in our efforts to live to attain that perfectness? It is impossible for us here in mortality to come to that state of perfection of which the Master spoke, but in this life we lay the foundation on which we will build in eternity; therefore, we must make sure that our foundation is laid on truth, righteousness and faith. In order for us to reach that goal we must keep God’s commandments and be true to the end of our lives here, and then beyond the grave continue in righteousness and knowledge until we become as our Father in Heaven. …

“… [The Apostle Paul] pointed to the course by which perfection comes. Speaking of Jesus, he said, ‘Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.’ (Hebrews 5:8–9.) …

“… Let then no day pass but that we learn from the great lesson book of [Christ’s] life his way to a perfect life and walk therein to our eternal goal.”1

Teachings of Harold B. Lee

How does an understanding of what we lack help us become perfect?

[There are] three essentials that are necessary to inspire one to live a Christlike life—or, speaking more accurately in the language of the scriptures, to live more perfectly as the Master lived. The first essential I would name in order to qualify is: There must be awakened in the individual who would be taught or who would live perfectly an awareness of his needs.

The rich young ruler did not need to be taught repentance from murder nor from murderous thoughts. He did not have to be schooled in how to repent from adultery, nor from stealing, lying, defrauding, or failing to honor his mother. All these he said he had observed from his youth; but his question was, “What lack I yet?” [See Matthew 19:16–22.]

The Master, with His keen discernment and the power of a Great Teacher, diagnosed the young man’s case perfectly: His need and his lack were to overcome his love for worldly things, his tendency to trust in riches. And then Jesus prescribed the effective remedy: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” (Matthew 19:21.)

In the Apostle Paul’s dramatic conversion, when he was physically blinded by the light while on his way to Damascus … , he heard a voice that said to him: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” [Acts 9:4.] And from the depths of this humbled Saul’s soul there came the question that is always asked by the one who senses that he needs something: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” [Acts 9:6.] …

Enos, the grandson of Lehi, tells of the wrestle he had before God, before he received a remission of his sins. We are not told what his sins were, but he apparently confessed them very freely. And then he said, “And my soul hungered. …” [Enos 1:4.] You see, that awareness and feeling of great need, and that soul-searching, brought him face to face with his lack and his need.

This quality of sensing one’s need was expressed in the great Sermon on the Mount when the Master said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3.) The poor in spirit, of course, means those who are spiritually needy, who feel so impoverished spiritually that they reach out with great yearning for help. …

Every one of us, if we would reach perfection, must one time ask ourselves this question, “What lack I yet?” if we would commence our climb upward on the highway to perfection. …

How does being born again help us become perfect?

The second essential for perfection that I would name is found in the conversation the Master had with Nicodemus. He discerned as Nicodemus came to Him that he was seeking to have the answer to what many others had asked Him: “What must I do to be saved?” And the Master answered, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Then Nicodemus said, “How can a man be born when he is old? …” Jesus answered, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3–5.)

A man must be “born again” if he would reach perfection, in order to see or enter into the kingdom of God. And how is one born again? That is the same question that Enos asked. And you remember the simple answer that came back: “Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen. And many years pass away before he shall manifest himself in the flesh; wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole.” [Enos 1:8.]

Brother Marion G. Romney and I were sitting in the office one day when a young man came in. He was getting ready to go on a mission, and he had been interviewed in the usual way and had made confessions of certain transgressions of his youth. But he said to us, “I’m not satisfied by just having confessed. How can I know that I have been forgiven?” In other words, “How do I know that I am born again?” He felt he could not go on a mission in his present state.

As we talked, Brother Romney said: “Son, do you remember what King Benjamin said? He was preaching to some who had been pricked in their hearts because of ‘their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men. And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ. …’” (Mosiah 4:2–3.)

Brother Romney said to him, “My son, you wait and pray until you have the peace of conscience because of your faith in Jesus Christ’s atonement, and you will know that your sins then have been forgiven.” Except for that, as Elder Romney explained, any one of us is impoverished, and we are wandering in a fog until we have had that rebirth. …

You cannot have a Christlike life … without being born again. One would never be happy in the presence of the Holy One of Israel without this cleansing and purifying. …

How does living the commandments more completely help us become perfect?

And then finally the third essential: to help the learner to know the gospel by living the gospel. Spiritual certainty that is necessary to salvation must be preceded by a maximum of individual effort. Grace, or the free gift of the Lord’s atoning power, must be preceded by personal striving. Repeating again what Nephi said, “By grace … we are saved, after all we can do.” [2 Nephi 25:23.] …

… Now, [this] is one of the essentials if you would live a perfect life. One must “make up his mind” to live the commandments.

The Master answered a question of the Jews as to how they could be certain as to whether His mission was of God or whether He was just another man. He said: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:17.)

The testimony of truth never comes to him who has an unclean tabernacle. The Spirit of the Lord and uncleanliness cannot dwell at the same time in a given individual. “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” (D&C 82:10.) “… Except ye abide my law ye cannot attain to this glory.” (D&C 132:21.) Again and again that truth is repeated in the scriptures.

All the principles and ordinances of the gospel are in a sense but invitations to learning the gospel by the practice of its teachings. No person knows the principle of tithing until he pays tithing. No one knows the principle of the Word of Wisdom until he keeps the Word of Wisdom. Children, or grownups for that matter, are not converted to tithing, the Word of Wisdom, keeping the Sabbath day holy, or prayer by hearing someone talk about these principles. We learn the gospel by living it. …

May I say in summary: We never really know anything of the teachings of the gospel until we have experienced the blessings that come from living each principle. “Moral teachings themselves,” someone has said, “have only a superficial effect upon the spirit unless they are buttressed by acts.” The most important of all the commandments in the gospel to you and to me is that particular commandment which for this moment requires in each of us the greatest soul-searching to obey. Each of us must analyze his needs and begin today to overcome, for only as we overcome are we granted a place in our Father’s kingdom.2

How are the Beatitudes “the constitution for a perfect life”?

You want to know the “steps” by which one can have his life patterned to that fulness that makes him a worthy citizen or “saint” in God’s kingdom. The best answer may be found by a study of the life of Jesus in the scriptures. … Christ came not only into the world to make an atonement for the sins of mankind but to set an example before the world of the standard of perfection of God’s law and of obedience to the Father. In his Sermon on the Mount the Master has given us somewhat of a revelation of his own character, which was perfect, … and in so doing has given us a blueprint for our own lives. …

In that matchless Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has given us eight distinct ways by which we might receive … joy. Each of his declarations is begun by the word “Blessed.” … These declarations of the Master are known in the literature of the Christian world as the Beatitudes. … They embody in fact the constitution for a perfect life.

Let us consider them for a few moments. Four of them have to do with our individual selves, the living of our own inner, personal lives, if we would be perfect and find the blessedness of that inward joy.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Blessed are they that mourn.

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness.

Blessed are the pure in heart. [See Matthew 5:3–4, 6, 8.]

To be poor in spirit

To be poor in spirit is to feel yourselves as the spiritually needy, ever dependent upon the Lord for your clothes, your food and the air you breathe, your health, your life; realizing that no day should pass without fervent prayer of thanksgiving, for guidance and forgiveness and strength sufficient for each day’s need. If a youth realizes his spiritual need, when in dangerous places where his very life is at stake, he may be drawn close to the fountain of truth and be prompted by the Spirit of the Lord in his hour of greatest trial. It is indeed a sad thing for one, because of wealth or learning or worldly position, to think himself independent of this spiritual need. [Being poor in spirit] is the opposite of pride or self-conceit. … If in your humility you sense your spiritual need, you are made ready for adoption into the “Church of the First Born, and to become the elect of God.” [See D&C 76:54; 84:34.]

To mourn

To mourn, as the Master’s lesson here would teach, one must show that “godly sorrow that worketh repentance” and wins for the penitent a forgiveness of sins and forbids a return to the deeds of which he mourns. [See 2 Corinthians 7:10.] It is to see, as did the Apostle Paul, “glory in tribulations … : knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope.” (Romans 5:3–4.) You must be willing “to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light.” You must be willing to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort. (Mosiah 18:8–9.) When a mother mourns in her loneliness for the return of a wayward daughter, you with compassion must forbid the casting of the first stone. … Your mourning with the aged, the widow and the orphan should lead you to bring the succor they require. In a word, you must be as the publican and not as the Pharisee. “God be merciful to me a sinner.” [See Luke 18:10–13.] Your reward for doing [this] is the blessedness of comfort for your own soul through a forgiveness of your own sins.

To hunger and thirst

Did you ever hunger for food or thirst for water when just a crust of stale bread or a sip of tepid water to ease the pangs that distressed you would seem to be the most prized of all possessions? If you have so hungered then you may begin to understand how the Master meant we should hunger and thirst after righteousness. It’s that hungering and thirsting that leads those away from home to seek fellowship with saints in sacrament services and that induces worship on the Lord’s Day wherever we are. It is that which prompts fervent prayer and leads our feet to holy temples and bids us be reverent therein. One who keeps the Sabbath Day holy will be filled with a lasting joy far more to be desired than the fleeting pleasures derived from activities indulged in contrary to God’s commandment. If you ask with “a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest … truth … unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost,” and by its power you “may know the truth of all things.” (Moroni 10:4–5.) …

To be pure in heart

If you would see God, you must be pure. … Some of the associates of Jesus saw him only as a son of Joseph the carpenter. Others thought him to be a winebibber or a drunkard because of his words. Still others thought he was possessed of devils. Only the righteous saw him as the Son of God. Only if you are the pure in heart will you see God, and also in a lesser degree will you be able to see the “God” or good in man and love him because of the goodness you see in him. Mark well that person who criticizes and maligns the man of God or the Lord’s anointed leaders in his Church. Such a one speaks from an impure heart.

But in order to gain entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven we must not only be good but we are required to do good and be good for something. So if you would walk daily toward that goal of perfection and fulness of life, you must be schooled by the remaining four “articles” in the Master’s Constitution for a perfect life. These beatitudes have to do with man’s social relations with others:

Blessed are the meek.

Blessed are the merciful.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Blessed are they which are persecuted. [See Matthew 5:5, 7, 9–10.]

To be meek

A meek man is defined as one who is not easily provoked or irritated and forbearing under injury or annoyance. Meekness is not synonymous with weakness. The meek man is the strong, the mighty, the man of complete self-mastery. He is the one who has the courage of his moral convictions, despite the pressure of the gang or the club. In controversy his judgment is the court of last-resort and his sobered counsel quells the rashness of the mob. He is humble-minded; he does not bluster. “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty.” (Proverbs 16:32.) He is a natural leader and is the chosen of army and navy, business and church to lead where other men follow. He is the “salt” of the earth and shall inherit it.

To be merciful

Our salvation rests upon the mercy we show to others. Unkind and cruel words, or wanton acts of cruelty toward man or beast, even though in seeming retaliation, disqualify the perpetrator in his claims for mercy when he has need of mercy in the day of judgment before earthly or heavenly tribunals. Is there one who has never been wounded by the slander of another whom he thought to be his friend? Do you remember the struggle you had to refrain from retribution? Blessed are all you who are merciful for you shall obtain mercy!

To be a peacemaker

Peacemakers shall be called the children of God. The trouble-maker, the striker against law and order, the leader of the mob, the law-breaker are prompted by motives of evil and unless they desist will be known as the children of Satan rather than God. Withhold yourselves from him who would cause disquieting doubts by making light of sacred things for he seeks not for peace but to spread confusion. That one who is quarrelsome or contentious, and whose arguments are for other purposes than to resolve the truth, is violating a fundamental principle laid down by the Master as an essential in the building of a full rich life. “Peace and goodwill to men on earth” was the angel song that heralded the birth of the Prince of Peace. [See Luke 2:14.] …

To endure persecution for righteousness’ sake

To be persecuted for righteousness’ sake in a great cause where truth and virtue and honor are at stake is god-like. Always there have been martyrs to every great cause. The great harm that may come from persecution is not from the persecution itself but from the possible effect it may have upon the persecuted who may thereby be deterred in their zeal for the righteousness of their cause. Much of that persecution comes from lack of understanding, for men are prone to oppose that which they do not comprehend. Some of it comes from men intent upon evil. But from whatever cause, persecution seems to be so universal against those engaged in a righteous cause that the Master warns us, “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26.)

… Remember that warning when you are hissed and scoffed because you refuse to compromise your standards of abstinence, honesty and morality in order to win the applause of the crowd. If you stand firmly for the right despite the jeers of the crowd or even physical violence, you shall be crowned with the blessedness of eternal joy. Who knows but that again in our day some of the saints or even apostles, as in former days, may be required to give their lives in defense of the truth? If that time should come, God grant they would not fail!

Gradually as we ponder prayerfully all these teachings, we will make what may be to some the startling discovery that after all, God’s measure of our worth in his kingdom will not be the high positions we have held here among men nor in his Church, nor the honors we have won, but rather the lives we have led and the good we have done, according to that “Constitution for a Perfect Life” revealed in the life of the Son of God.

May you make the Beatitudes the Constitution for your own lives and thus receive the blessedness promised therein.3

Suggestions for Study and Discussion

  • How can we learn daily from the “great lesson book” of Christ’s life?

  • As we strive to become Christlike, why is it important for us to frequently ask ourselves what we lack?

  • What experiences have helped you understand that we learn the teachings of the gospel by living them?

  • When we realize that we are dependent on the Lord for all the blessings of our lives, how are our attitudes and behaviors affected?

  • What are some of the meanings of the statement, “Blessed are they that mourn”?

  • How can the love of worldly things dull our hunger and thirst for spiritual things?

  • How does being pure in heart help us see the goodness in others?

  • How does meekness help us to be strong?

  • In what ways can we show mercy to others in our daily lives?


  1. Decisions for Successful Living (1973), 40–41, 44.

  2. Stand Ye in Holy Places (1974), 208–16.

  3. Decisions for Successful Living, 55–62.

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior gave us the “constitution for a perfect life.”