You're perfect. Don't believe me? By the end of this post I hope you'll see why.
Today we're going to explore a more meaningful way to view (and talk about) perfection. I am passionate about this topic because we've all experienced the toxicity that accompanies Sunday School lessons on "perfection."
"But wait, Tim!" someone says, "Jesus told us to be perfect, didn't He?"
Oh yes, He did.
I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect.
(3 Nephi 12:48)
But apparently we fumbled the ball when we began to equate "perfection" with "flawlessness." Are they the same?
What if we have inadvertently used the Lord's words to create a Petri Dish for scrupulosity?
Has our "worthiness" fixation spread from the bishop's office like cancer, crippling our faith in Christ as we reorient the gospel to be about becoming "perfect" people?
And so our lessons and talks are filled with spiritual botox and collagen fillers; we spend our money on plastic surgeons to impress the angels with our face-lifts and tummy-tucks. ("I'm a perfect tithe payer! So can you be, too! God must love us obedient tithers!")
No big deal, right? Well, it is sort of a huge problem; have we seen the hefty price tag on perfectionism?
I wonder if our quest to achieve some Greek-inspired ideal of "perfection" speaks more to our own sense of self-righteousness than it does to receiving the image of Immanuel in our countenances.
(And yes, I did that for alliteration, but also because Immanuel means = God With Us ("I'm good enough with God"); whereas the spirit of perfectionism is the opposite ("I'm not good enough even with God")).
So let's address the following:
1. What is "perfection"?
2. What did Christ mean when He asked us to "be perfect"?
3. How do we actually, you know, become "perfect"?
"Words are a source of misunderstanding"
How does the dictionary define perfection? "The quality of being free from all flaws or defects; faultless."
So is that the standard our Savior expects us to meet?
The word perfection comes from the Latin perfectus and perficio (they sound like Harry Potter spells). The words mean "to finish; to bring to an end."
Okay, so already we are seeing that the modern connotation of "perfection" is completely different than what it was 1000 years ago when the monks were scribbling in Latin in their illuminated manuscripts.
Whose definition is correct?
Does God have "flaws"? If we apply the Latin meaning to God, is He "finished"?
The Greek word used in the New Testament manuscripts, which is translated as "perfect," is actually "teleos" ― which means "to be complete."
So is that what Christ actually meant?
Be ye therefore [complete], even as your Father which is in heaven is [complete].
Maybe instead of asking if we're perfect, we should start asking if we're "complete."
(As an aside, the popular interpretation as to why Christ added himself to the Perfect-List when He appeared to the Nephites in the Book of Mormon, that it was because He had received his resurrected body, doesn't add up. Do we really think Christ was talking about the "completion" of having a glorified body when we'll all be resurrected, regardless?)
Philosophical Perfection 101
Let's ask the greatest philosophers who have ever lived what it means to be perfect.
Plato. Perfection is excellence is every aspect.
Hmm. Would Christ himself satisfy this definition, when we're told "he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him" (Isaiah 53:2).
Plato was all about beauty. So hard pass here; it doesn't appear that Christ was telling us to "be excellent" (sorry Bill and Ted!).
Aristotle. I think we're getting warmer with Aristotle, who taught perfection comes in three forms:
1. That which is complete and contains all requisite parts.
2. That which is the greatest good that nothing of the kind could be better.
3. That which achieves its purpose.
We'll come back to #3 because it is tickling my senses about "fulfilling the measure of our creation."
Thomas Aquinas. The great Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas spent a lot of ink on this subject. He boiled perfection down to its essence:
1. There is perfection found in a thing itself ("its substance"); and
2. There is perfection found in a thing that serves its purpose.
Take the example of a hammer.
(1) There might be a hammer that is, in itself, a perfectly crafted hammer that could not be improved upon. It is forever the best and brightest hammer that could ever be created. (You're welcome, Mjölnir.)
(2) But wait! What if you needed a wrench for the job at hand? In that case, who cares if your mighty hammer won all the beauty contests?
Thus a thing can be perfect and utterly useless.
The Paradox of Perfection
Now we're going to go down a rabbit's hole for just a moment.
We encounter a problem (or, I should say, a paradox) when we think of perfection in terms of God.
Why? Because the greatest perfection is imperfection! (I love philosophy.)
This paradox was described by Empedocles, who argued that in order for a thing to be "perfect" it must necessarily have the attribute to be improved upon (to progress).
Take the example of the hammer. We might think we have a perfect hammer, but that precludes any improvement to its design. It means we can never, ever, ever, ever grow beyond that exact hammer.
In other words, we're stuck with the hammer as-it-is forever, and that would render the hammer imperfect.
This begs the question: is perfection achieved when a thing reaches its pinnacle; or is the quality of perfection found in a thing having no pinnacle because it can progress eternally!
Confused? As Karel De Gucht explained, "You cannot have perfection without imperfection because one of the most impressive qualities of a person is their ability to improve. That means something cannot be perfect unless it can also get better. So if it is perfect, it must also therefore be imperfect at the same time."
LDS cannon has a unique perspective on this idea; we are taught that God is perfect but He is also "added upon" with glories upon glories, forever without end, which we call "eternal increase."
God doesn't remain the same, static being (though we are told he "changes not") because He is, in fact, increasing in His glory and kingdoms.
Think of it this way: I was 28 when I became a father. I was the same person before-and-after my daughter's birth ― same name, same weight, same social security number ― and yet I was not the same person anymore because I had a new child, a new role, a new responsibility.
So while I was the same, I was different.
If God continues to increase, then His perfection cannot refer to a static, unchanging quality.
Perfection as a verb, not a noun
Take another look at this verse:
And above all things, clothe yourselves with the bond of charity, as with a mantle, which is the bond of perfectness and peace.
"What makes a church "true"? Is it as true as saying, This apple is true, or this cheesecake is true? Well if the apple fulfills the measure of its creation, maybe that makes it "true"? Cheesecake, well that's an entirely different animal I suppose as so many out there are cheap imitations. But a true church: [how] does it fulfill the measure of its creation?"
I want to suggest that keeping the Celestial Law is nothing more or less than a thing "fulfilling the measure of its creation" (see, D&C 88:25).
Could it be as simple as that?
Are we "perfect" when we fulfill God's purposes for us?
Thought experiment: Now that I am craving cheesecake, let's take the example of a chef. Is a "perfect" cook someone who makes Michelin-starred meals?
Well, that can't be right, because no matter how "good" their filet mignon is, isn't there always the possibility (in a universe of infinite variety, worlds without end) that someone will come along and make it better?
So we miss the mark when we think of "perfection" as something being "the best." After all, when we have eternities upon eternities ahead of us, how dare we claim we've peaked!
In order for us to judge something to be "the best" (say, the best pepperoni pizza) in the entire universe throughout all time, it presupposes two things:
(1) We have arrived at the end of all things forever so that nothing comes after; and
(2) We have sampled every pizza in existence across all worlds and all possible worlds.
(I think we're beginning to see why God calls things "good" and not "the best.")
Because you could round up all the cows on earth ― all the cattle that roam upon a thousand hills ― and tell me, "I've sampled all the milks; this one is best; this cow produces the perfect milk," and I'll say, "Sorry, this milk may be the best one here, now ― but I'm going to create a cow in the next life that produces the creamiest chocolate milk anyone has ever dreamt of; and then, just when you think it's perfect, I'll cross-breed it with a dulce de leche steer and blow your mind."
It's a promise.
A Better Way
Considering the infinite variety and diversity of God's creations (worlds without number!), how arrogant are we to believe anything we have, or are, or do, can be the best? Our search for perfection is a fool's errand.
Going back to our Michelin Star chef, a better way for us to approach perfection, I think, is to not focus on the food but on the act of serving each other a delicious meal.
A mother or father preparing food to feed their hungry children fulfills the measure of their creation, regardless of whether it is frank-and-beans or asparagus in a hollandaise sauce or cold cereal from a box.
When we focus on the food ("the object"), rather than on their sacrifice ("the action"), we start to debate what parents should-or-shouldn't-be feeding their children; this invites contention as we disagree on what is "best."
Imagine parents arguing at the park over which kind of juice they should give their children, until battle-lines are drawn between those that think it is okay to give their kids high-fructose-corn-syrup Sunny D, and those who think it has to be 100% orange juice, and others who demand it be full of pulp to "build character."
God must shake his head when we bicker and when we create unsustainable and unreachable standards of perfection.
Give your kids juice! Or milk! Or water! Who cares?!
Because we don't fulfill the measure of our creation based on our beverage selection; we fulfill it when we love each other.
Charity is the Bond of Perfectness
God is love. His children are made of the same stuff as Him; we are designed for charity ― we are built to be vessels that carry the pure love of Christ to the furthest reaches of the galaxies, to every creature under heaven.
While we might have faith to move mountains, and give our bodies to be burned, and though we have all knowledge and speak in tongues and understand all mysteries . . . if we have not charity, we are nothing.
Ouch. Nothing? Is that too harsh?
Well, if the measure of our creation is to love, then not having charity is like being a hammer when the Lord designed us to be a wrench. We're something, alright, but nothing God can use.
The culminating and highest expression of who we are is manifest in, and only in, our love.
So we're left with the million-dollar-question: Why does God ask us to love? How are we made "perfect" in love? What's it all for?
Ah, I am glad you asked. In the following parable, The Ballerina, I hope you will sense the answer.