“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Many of us are familiar with this scripture. Many find different ways to interpret it according to what we can handle. To be perfect like God? Is that even possible? Because the majority of us cannot even conceive of such a thing, we justify it away. We say that maybe Jesus is not talking about being perfect in this life, in a mortal body. Or maybe he was talking about something else entirely, like becoming perfectly obedient to certain things. Maybe he was just giving us some hopeless goal to try and strive for, while in our hearts we wonder if we even really need to take it seriously. I think many of us have come to embrace the lie that perfection, in this life at least, just isn’t possible. I’d like to talk about why it is possible. For everyone.
First, a little reinforcement from a modern prophet. The Savior really did mean for us to be perfect, like he is (3 Nephi 12:48). “This is the commandment which is before us. Regrettably we have not reached perfection. We have a great distance to go. We must cultivate the faith to reform our lives, commencing where we are weak and moving on from there in our work of self-correction, thus gradually and consistently growing in strength to live more nearly as we should. With faith we can rise above those negative elements in our lives which constantly pull us down. With effort we can develop the capacity to subdue those impulses which lead to degrading and evil actions.” (Gordon Hinckley, “God Grant Us Faith”) It is our objective to do our best to attain exactly the kind of perfection we imagine. He did not mean for us to skip over these particular scriptures until we were closer to the end of our lives. He means for us to be working at it now.
Another angle considers the meaning of the word perfect. “A footnote [in Matthew 5, King James Version] explains that the Greek word translated as perfect means ‘complete, finished, fully developed.’ Our Heavenly Father wants us to use this mortal probation to ‘fully develop’ ourselves, to make the most of our talents and abilities. If we do so, when final judgment comes we will experience the joy of standing before our Father in Heaven as ‘complete’ and ‘finished’ sons and daughters, polished by obedience and worthy of the inheritance that He has promised to the faithful.” (Joseph Wirthlin, “The Time to Prepare”) If perfect simply means finished or complete, doesn’t that seem like a more realistic goal? That way, all we really have to do is learn all that we have come to learn. When our mortal semester is over and final exams have been taken, we’re free to move into the next life with all of the knowledge we have obtained. James gave a practical standard by which mortal perfection could be measured. He said, “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man.” (James 3:2)
But I think the Savior is talking about something far deeper and more pure than we may realize. And I think it’s attainable. Scriptures have described Noah, Seth, and Job as perfect men. (see Genesis 6:9; Doctrine & Covenants 107:43; Job 1:1) No doubt the same term might apply to a large number of faithful disciples in various dispensations. Alma said that “there were many, exceedingly great many,” (Alma 13:12) who were pure before the Lord.
“The perfection that the Savior envisions for us is much more than errorless performance. It is the eternal expectation as expressed by the Lord in his great intercessory prayer to his Father—that we might be made perfect and be able to dwell with them in the eternities ahead.” (Russell Nelson, “Perfection Pending,” emphasis added)
The key to perfection is being perfected in Christ. We can’t do it ourselves. “The great chasm we must cross to follow Him and do to the works that He did and greater is to realize that we are not able in and of ourselves to be perfect, as He was. But we do have the ability to be perfectly and flawlessly obedient—as Christ was. The beauty and power of Christ’s plan is that as we obey him, he will provide all that we lack. He will close the great chasm we cannot cross by changing us so that we meet the standard of righteousness.” (John M Pontius, The Triumph of Zion) So as we try to be obedient, as we do our best, we get more ability to be good and to be more obedient. As we make the effort, we are rewarded with more ability to be what we envision, until through his grace, we just may find that we are more like him than we ever imagined we could be.
So when people say things like, “We aren’t expected to be perfect in this life,” I reject that idea, because I think the truth is, we are expected to be perfect. We are expected to be working at it now. And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather get to that comfortable place before I leave this earth.