The great commandment “in the law” is, in summary, “Love God and everyone else.” However, the great culmination of Christ’s penultimate sermon (The Sermon on the Mount) is a powerful commandment outside the law – a commandment that cannot be fulfilled simply by obedience to the law. This foundational command is contained in Matthew 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which art in Heaven is perfect.”
Ancient Judaism and much of historical Christianity has addressed this commandment in one of two ways:
1) by applying a legalistic meaning (“never make a mistake/commit a sin”) and, based on the impossibility of that definition alone, adding layers of insulation in laws and rules to regulate action;
2) turning it into a suggestion – something one cannot hope to achieve but a nice platitude regardless. (“Try not to make mistakes/sin, but realize it doesn’t really matter in the long run.”)
While this sounds fine – and even laudable – to most people, it totally destroys the power and beauty of the command itself. It is my conviction that someone simply cannot understand the atonement (and the full grace that makes “atonement” possible) if they accept and internalize this apostate definition of perfection.
The footnotes to Matthew 5:48 make a critical definition distinction – one that changes the entire meaning and empowers the command in an amazing way. Footnote (b), which is attached to the word “perfect”, defines it from the Greek thus: “complete, finished, fully developed.” This means that the verse can be read as follows:
“Be ye therefore complete, finished, fully developed, even as your Father which art in heaven is complete, finished, fully developed.” What an amazing difference!
This definition changes fundamentally how our quest for perfection should be understood and approached – and, at the most basic level, lies at the heart of nearly every aspect of the atonement (grace, repentance, faith, works/fruits and, perhaps most importantly for many – especially women – guilt, shame and spiritual/emotional freedom). It makes repentance (change) a process of taking the naturally incomplete, unfinished, partially developed “fallen” (wo)man and becoming complete, finished, fully developed – NOT an effort to never make mistakes.
If you take nothing from this post but one message, take the fact that you do NOT need to feel ashamed and guilty and overwhelmed by your “incomplete, unfinished, partially developed” state. It simply is the result of the Fall – the result of Adam’s transgression, if you will, for which we are told we will not be punished. The world teaches that such a state is irreconcilable with God – that it creates a great chasm too wide to allow us ever to access God in His glory and “be perfect, even as He is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 says otherwise – that it can be done – and the practical way to do so is provided, as well. That practical process will be the main focus of a series I am calling “Foundations of Becoming”.
What implications does this definition of perfection have – both for Mormons and other Christians (and those of other religions)?
That is the beauty and depth of the Atonement–to bring us all at-one, or, in other words, whole, integral, complete. It is within the grasp of all of God’s children willing to apply it, to ask for it, to seek the grace, to receive the grace, whatever, and it is fundamentally a theology of hope and liberation from doubt and sin, rather than one of guilt or despair.
The most important thing I learned on my mission was the distinction between knowing that God can do a miracle and that he will do it for, by, and through me. The same applies here–once we have a living testimony of the perfectibility of man, we may find much of our faith in humanity restored.
Church, kirk, ecclesia, circle: all these words mean “a group of persons surrounding or gathered-out around a common center of interest”.
Most of the prophetic time periods in Scripture are based on the star polygons that result from placing “points equidistant on the perimeter of a perfect circle”. The sums of the interior angles of the resulting 5- & 6- and 8- & 9-pointed regular polygons equals “time, times, and half a time”.
In this regard, the “Church” is founded upon “perfection”, and I think the “Church” should strive to be “equal and perfect”, taking the above geometries as a similitude.
Certainly perfection is the end-result of our terrestrial and celestial progressions. Through Christ following the resurrection, we will be perfected. It is this eventual state of mankind that I think Christ was probably speaking towards. It is certainly a realistic and achievable command, and it pretty much amounts to “trust in me”, methinks.
I meant, “I think we in the ‘Church’ should strive to be ‘equal and perfect’ with respect to one another as though we are the ‘points equidistant around the perimeter of a perfect circle’.”
I taught a lesson on this topic in Relief Society. As women we tend to become obsessive in striving to become perfect and instead we become perfectionists. Perfectionism is a disease.
Elder Cecil O Samuelson –
For over 20 years I was a professor and practitioner of medicine, and I have a concern that I know is shared by other General Authorities. A matter of great concern for some of you is the issue that mental health professionals describe as “perfectionism”. Interestingly, often those who struggle the most with issues of perfectionism are among the most talented people. They have often been excellent students, model children, and outstanding young people. Some, however, become so obsessed or consumed with their every thought, action, and response, that they may become far too extreme in their own perceptions of what is expected of them.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a medical condition characterized by severe self-criticism and self-doubt, often accompanied by anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive behavior. It can lead to appetite and sleep disturbances, confusion, problems in relationships, inability to concentrate, procrastination of important tasks, and if left untreated, major depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide.
Elder Russel M Nelson gave a talk in Conference in October of 1995 here
In Matt. 5:48, the term perfect was translated from the Greek teleios, which means “complete.” Teleios is an adjective derived from the noun telos, which means “end.” The infinitive form of the verb is teleiono, which means “to reach a distant end, to be fully developed, to consummate, or to finish.” Please note that the word does not imply “freedom from error”; it implies “achieving a distant objective.” In fact, when writers of the Greek New Testament wished to describe perfection of behavior—precision or excellence of human effort—they did not employ a form of teleios; instead, they chose different words.
Teleios is not a total stranger to us. From it comes the prefix tele- that we use every day. Telephone literally means “distant talk.” Television means “to see distantly.” Telephoto means “distant light,” and so on.
With that background in mind, let us consider another highly significant statement made by the Lord. Just prior to his crucifixion, he said that on “the third day I shall be perfected.” Think of that! The sinless, errorless Lord—already perfect by our mortal standards—proclaimed his own state of perfection yet to be in the future. His eternal perfection would follow his resurrection and receipt of “all power … in heaven and in earth.”
When I realized that the perfection described in Matthew was “achieving a distant objective” and that it was something that could not be completed in this life it was like a burden was lifted. I could strive for perfection and there were things that I could be perfect at here in this life (like baking the best mint brownies ever) but I did not have to worry about being the kind of perfect that was commanded because it is a process that I will not complete in this life.