COMMENTARY: The Real Meaning of Perfection

Painting of Jesus Christ by artist Jon McNaughton
Marc K. Ensign has been active in community and business affairs for many years, and lives in Paradise.

Have you ever thought how strange it is that God raised Jesus from the dead but didn’t heal His wounds in the process…that Christ’s glorified and perfected body retains the wounds he received on earth?  Could it be that since His wounds are part of what made Him who He is, they must remain for Him to be complete?  Yes, the pain and suffering are gone, but He is who He is because of what He endured.  Remember it wasn’t until His disciples saw the wounds in His hands and feet that they knew it was Him. In considering this, we ponder the thought that perfection is not necessarily the absence of flaw or weakness, but something else…

Let’s read again the well-known words from the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapter 5, verse 48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”  What did the Savior mean?  In an effort to understand more completely the context of this admonition, let’s look back a few verses.  In verses 43 through 45 we read: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy. but I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven…”

Why does Christ’s instruction to love all men, even our enemies, conclude with this reference to perfection?  ‘Perfect’ is a translation of the Greek word ‘teleios’ used in the original manuscript.  A term common to the vernacular of Christ’s day, teleios means ‘complete, finished, or fully developed’.  The even more fitting Hebrew meaning is ’to carry out instructions’ or ‘fulfill an obligation’.  With this simple word substitution, however well intended by the translators of the King James Bible, the priority may have changed from selflessly loving others as Christ counseled, to for many of us, the anxious personal pursuit of a perfect life.

There is one virtue that completes, finishes and fully develops us, considered to be the crowning achievement in both time and eternity, and that is charity.  Charity does not come by flawless living but by turning our thoughts and hearts to God and others.  Paul’s description of charity in the 13th chapter of Corinthians says nothing about our own perfect performance.  In fact, it tells us that, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels…and though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”

Painting of Jesus Christ by artist Jon McNaughton

Those who learn to love as the Savior admonished become the elect of God.  When the love of God is in our hearts, we have approximated perfection as close as we can in this life.  And that love liberates us from the misery and discouragement of pursuing the false idea that perfection demands the elimination of all flaw or weakness.

Nature provides a timeless parallel: Nature is perfect, but there is not actually a ‘perfect’ creation. There are dips and flaws, and variations both great and small.  As songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

In an address posted on churchofjesuschrist.org, Elder Gerrit W. Gong suggested, “Understanding the Savior’s freely given atoning love can free us from self-imposed, incorrect, and unrealistic expectations of what perfection is.  Such understanding allows us to let go of fears that we make mistakes, fears that we are not good enough, fears that we are a failure compared to others, fears that we are not doing enough to merit His love.  The Savior’s freely given atoning love helps us become more forgiving and less judgmental of others and ourselves. This love heals our relationships and gives us opportunities to love, understand and serve as our Savior would.”

Elder Gong continues, “His atoning love changes our concept of perfection which is often misunderstood to mean never making a mistake.  Perhaps you or someone you know views perfection in this way.  Because such perfection always seems out of reach, even our best efforts can leave us anxious, discouraged or exhausted.  We unsuccessfully try to control our circumstances and the people around us.  We fret over weaknesses…”

When we live our lives this way, we are not free to devote our time and attention to the needs of others, but remain in the self-imposed bondage of perfectionism.  One of the unique paradoxes surrounding charity is that it cannot be obtained by ‘seeking after our own.’  When we are more worried about our own perfect performance than the needs of others, we have chosen ourselves as our primary focus, thereby impeding the expression of charity.  Instead of love, we live in fear.  Fear of failure, or fear of never being good enough.  Fear never allows us to set aside our self-absorption so that charity can flourish.  In 1 John 4:18 we read “with fear you are not made perfect by love.”  The Lord is asking us to let go of our insecurities and trust Him, letting His perfect love abide with us instead.  Only then, are we made perfect.

In infinite compassion, Christ’s wounds remain to show us that we too, with our wounds and imperfections will be accepted.  If you take the missteps in your life away, then you must also take away the achievements, because they are the product of such missteps…the line-upon-line lessons gained in the classroom of trial and error.

Those New Testament Prophets who lived and walked with the Savior, and knew Him best, understood the role of charity in making men like God.  Consider again this thought from Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.” Bond means “the witness to, guarantee, or assurance of.”  The witness to, guarantee, or assurance of a perfect man is and always will be the charity he possesses.  It will be our love that exalts us…not our other achievements.

Marc K. Ensign

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7 Comments

  • Marc K Ensign October 24, 2021 at 5:24 pm Reply

    Author’s Note: Notwithstanding evidence to the contrary, it was the Protestant reformer John Wesley who argued that ‘perfect’ was a biblical term, supporting the emphasis of his day on personal accountability and strict obedience. This strand of thought entered the American holiness tradition, and many Christians have been struggling with guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and fear ever since.

    In a stark yet enlightened reversal, Wesleyans today do not believe in a perfectionism that means “without error”, but in being ‘perfected in love’ in which individuals are transformed as a result of God’s grace into mature, growing, and healthy beings governed by love rather than self-interest. I believe this more accurately represents both the origins of the Christian tradition as well as its future.

  • Joseph Smith October 25, 2021 at 11:04 am Reply

    It’s difficult for me to take your “commentary” pieces seriously anymore. It’s 2021. Aren’t we evolved enough at this point to stop believing in things that defy every law of science?

    If I came up to you this afternoon, Marc, and told you that Jesus or God appeared to me and commanded me to…whatever…but I was the only person that witnessed this – you’d think I was crazy. Right? It’s strange to me, that a seemingly intelligent person such as yourself could see through the teachings of your youth and errors of mom and dad.

    Oh well.

    • Marc K Ensign October 25, 2021 at 6:07 pm Reply

      This is a faith-based article, Joseph. It was not intended to appeal to everyone. My parents taught me well, and I will be forever grateful to them for their faith and wisdom.

  • Dave October 25, 2021 at 3:18 pm Reply

    Why is Jesus depicted as Caucasian?

    • Marc K Ensign October 25, 2021 at 6:08 pm Reply

      Dave, the painting is an artist’s rendition, nothing more.

  • Carson October 28, 2021 at 9:26 pm Reply

    Marc,

    Thank you for this commentary. I have been thinking about this every day since it was published. Perfectionism is something that I struggle with and it honestly leads to fear and near-crippling anxiety. Your words have been a boon.

    One day I hope to run into you and shake your hand and thank you in person, but for now this comment will have to do.

    Thanks,

    Carson

    • Marc K Ensign October 29, 2021 at 8:21 am Reply

      Thank you for the kind words Carson.

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