Practically Perfect in Every Way

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48)

I stumbled across Kermit the Frog’s disturbing cover of Johnny Cash’s poignant, profound cover of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails while I was thinking about perfection yesterday. These videos affected me. Am I not laboring over an empire of dirt?

Jesus exhorted us to be perfect. The goal of LDSism is to be found spotless and pure at the last day, to have our garments washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart. (Psalm 24:3–4) We long for a place above and away from this lone and dreary world full of thorns and travail and taint. If there is anything virtuous and lovely, we seek for these things. We want to forget the troubles of life and only remember the good. (D&C 58:42) Calgon take us away!

As I observed previously:

… the word perfect comes from Latin perfectus, past participle of perficere, (per, through—facere, to do) which suggests to my mind thoroughly made, or complete. The Greek word teleios translated as “perfect” in the Beatitudes carries the same connotation of completion, integrity, and maturity. It’s interesting how the word’s original meaning has apparently mutated from “complete, mature, and whole” into something like “without flaw”, a subtle but important difference in emphasis.

Hellmut also showed that LDSism takes Matthew 5:48 out of its context (especially since 3 Nephi 12:48 lacks the same context as Matthew 5).

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, 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: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43–48)

Jesus’ words in context exhort us to be kind and loving to all men like God who makes the sun shine on all of his children. He says nothing about being flawless or stainless, even through the dubious contracts and payments of an atoning sacrifice.

Johnny Cash’s video showed me an example of this other kind of perfection, a perfection of compassion in an unideal world of regret and suffering. As Johnny looks back over his life near its end, he has fallen far short of his ideals. He has lost all illusion that his life will ever be perfect, even though he wishes it could have been another way. He is aware of the transience of life. His is a broken heart and a contrite spirit where profound compassion might take root and grow. This is the kind of perfection that I think Jesus was teaching, a perfection of compassion born of experience and maturity, the kind of perfection that I seek.

You cannot grow lotus flowers on marble. You have to grow them on the mud. Without mud, you cannot have a lotus flower. Without suffering, you have no ways in order to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. That’s why my definition of the kingdom of God is not a place where suffering is not, where there is no suffering… (Thich Nhat Hahn, Brother Thây: A Radio Pilgramage with Thich Nhat Hanh)

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7 Responses

  1. Kullervo says:

    Excellent post. I think you’re spot-on. Jesus’s exhortation to be perfect simply cannot mean PERFECT, as in completely wihtout flaw or blemish or failure.

    Even if he does, it’s clearly an impossible commandment. As I understand my new testament, impossible commandments are why we need salvation. We can’t live up tot he law, so we need a redeemer.

    At the same time, I don;t know if I’m in a place where I buy that God, if God exists, gives impossible commandments. At least not impossible commandments like “be perfect,” when he created us not perfect. That’s just crappy, and I don’t believe in a God that is crappy.

    Perfection as in “perfectly acknowledge our weakness?” “be eprfectly compassionate?’ That I can buy. It sure makes a lot more sense than “perfectly avoid coffee and tea and perfectly fulfill the arbitrary requirements of the programs of the Chruch organization. Oh, and alos nevr think bad thoughts. And don’t be lazy. And plant a garden.”

  2. Hellmut says:

    Thanks, Jonathan. In Mormonism perfection appears to be an instrument of control. By contrast in the Sermon of the Mount, perfection is about extending love even to one’s enemies. That’s a huge difference.

    By the way, Kullervo from Sailing to Byzantium has a pretty interesting post about the development of morality as children mature.

  3. I’m beginning to distrust all forms of absolutism. 🙂 I’m not sure that perfection in the way that LDSism imagines it exists. What would it mean to be perfect?

    I assume that a perfect Heavenly Father would no longer be tempted like we are. To be tempted like we are means that he has the possibility of screwing up sometimes. If there is no possibility of failure, then the nature of the suffering of temptation is different and he isn’t tempted like us. But how can he have sympathy for us if he is so above our concerns? If he can perfectly remember being tempted when he was once as man is, then he must still be able to be tempted because to remember perfectly must be something like reliving an experience in every detail. How could God remember perfectly without feeling the temptation? So is God perfect in the sense that he’s never tempted by the things that tempt us, or does he have perfect sympathy for us? I don’t think he can do both. If he can’t do both, then are we justified in pronouncing him perfect overall?

    What I’m trying to get at is that introducing absolutisms seems to also always 😉 introduce contradictions. If we think the implications of some absolute statement through, there always seems to be a point where it defies logic.

    Perfection is just another absolute which cannot have a real existence.

  4. Robert says:

    No one else is going to say it? Okay, then I will: Happy birthday, Jesus!

  5. Rodney says:

    I have found the Japanese concept of “wabi sabi” to be relevant in discussions about perfection. There are many translations and explanations but the first one I ever heard was that of “Perfection in Imperfection.”

  6. Rodney, wabi sabi dovetails nicely into this idea. From the Wikipedia article on wabi sabi: “if an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.”

    “The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is ‘imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete’”

    Johnny Cash’s video embodies both of those statements for me. Who knew that Johnny Cash was so up on Japanese aesthetics? 🙂

  1. April 8, 2007

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