[Spiritual Languages] Mistakes, Messes, Screw-ups, and Other Forms of Perfection

We have this unique Latter-day Saint doctrine that Jesus had to learn line upon line, just like we do. [1] That is all fine and good, but here’s the problem. We also believe that Jesus was perfect, and these two ideas just don’t mesh. If you do not know everything you are liable to make mistakes, and mistakes mean imperfection. Don’t they?

When we were in Egypt before our tour guide took us to see the pyramids of Giza we were taken to see several other cool but far less impressive pyramids first. On our way to Giza he told us the reason why was because tourists always wanted to know how the pyramids were made and how long it took to make them. He explained that answer couldn’t be given without first taking into account the other pyramids that went before them. Instead of seeing all these pyramids as separate projects interspersed across hundreds of years he explained that it was really one, massive, cross-generational building project, culminating in the great pyramids. Without those previous, messy pyramids there would have been no “great” ones. They were one.

I’ve wondered a lot about the concept of perfection, as, (based on how much it gets brought up in church and conference), I think we all have. It was in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus says to be perfect as God is perfect, but there is an interesting word in there that we often overlook. This commandment was not given in a vacuum; it was given after a long sermon in which Jesus explained what God values. These values are meant to be provocative. Jesus is explaining what God is like by taking the assumptions and values of the world and turning them on their head and saying, “There! This is what God thinks! This is what God is like!” The Sermon on the Mount is meant to be disorienting. Taking this in to account it may be wise for us to take a second and focus on that word “as”. When Jesus is saying to be perfect he may not mean flawless. Flawless is what the world thinks of when it thinks of perfect. But is that what God thinks of?

We don’t get many examples of what it means that Jesus learned line upon line. The gospels are so short they are mostly a highlight real. But there are two stories that give us a tiny glimpse. One is when Jesus tries to heal a blind man and the first time it doesn’t work. [2] We don’t tend to tell this story very often, and when I have heard it told it’s always been to explain that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing but for whatever reason healed the man this way. We avoid the most obvious answer, and the one that is well within keeping of our own doctrine: that Jesus was learning and the first time it just didn’t work, so he had to try again. The other is the story of Jesus and the gentile woman whose child was possessed. At first Jesus refuses to help because this woman didn’t fit into his mission as he then understood it, but the woman persists and Jesus, amazed by her faith, complies. [3] Again, I have heard this story retold and twisted around in multiple ways to try and explain that Jesus set this whole thing up with every intention of helping the woman. What I have never heard is what the text and Jesus himself indicate—that he changed his mind.

This idea might make us uncomfortable; sometimes people are outraged by it. But if Latter-day Saints feel uncomfortable we should ask ourselves why? We believe that Jesus had to learn and grow. In the Doctrine and Covenants it explains that this growth process is actually definitive to who Christ is! Yet we are still deeply discomfited with the idea that an adult Christ may have had to learn. May even have made mistakes. But why? Is it because of our understanding of perfection…or our misunderstanding of it?

One of the most common ways that the spirit is described is as a guide, which is clearly is. But we often, if not always, take this to mean that the spirit’s job is to help us to go the “right” way. This is based on an assumption that God has a path that has been meticulously planned for us and that our job is to just let go and let God, through the spirit, guide us down it. This necessarily means that all other paths are wrong. It means that for every decision there is one right answer, but God won’t usually explicitly tell us what it is, so we need the spirit to guide us. And if things don’t work out? If we meet with pain and disaster? Then we berate ourselves for not having been in tune, or God for not being more clear when we were trying so hard. Or maybe this is exactly how God wanted things to work out and we need to be more humble? I am not saying this sarcastically or flippantly. These experiences are agonizing. Sometimes so much so that hearts and minds are left shattered, and individuals and loved ones are left picking up pieces trying desperately to make some sense of what’s left. Mistakes are not always a little thing.

But we are children of God. We talk about that a lot and how that means that we are special and have meaning. Which is true. But, as we’ve discussed, it also means that we are creators. It means that we are born with the ability and responsibility to create baked into our DNA. How can we possibly do that if everything of meaning in our lives has already been planned and mapped out for us and our job is to just let go and let it happen? Our mission in life may not be to mindlessly accept a mission, but to craft it as co-creators with God. And that process means making mistakes. In fact, as multiple studies in neuroscience have found, mistakes are integral to the process of learning. Without them our understanding is shallow and limited.

This matters because it means that mistakes may be part of the perfection that Christ was talking about that day on a hill when he so relentlessly turned the world on its head. When he said to be perfect as God is perfect, he may not have meant “because” (which is usually the word we interchange with “as”), but “in the way”. He had just given a sermon in which he laid out what it would look like to follow God, and that to the world it looks far from perfect; it looks ridiculous. In other words, what perfection looks like to God may not be what it looks like to us. We know even more of this now from the Doctrine and Covenants and King Follett. God became God because of a long process of learning that came before. Gods are created through mortal experiences, and mortal experiences are messy.

The spirit is a guide, but that doesn’t mean that its role is to help us avoid mistakes. In fact, one of its most important functions may be to help us to face them. Let me make something very, very clear: I am not saying that the spirit leads us to sin and hurt each other. But that is also kind of the point. We have conflated the idea of sin and mistake so much that we often can’t tell the difference. Sin is when we put ourselves before everything else no matter the cost to others. It is when we understand and claim to believe in something and we choose not to be faithful to it. (And we all have done this.) Mistakes are what happen when we don’t know; when we lack experience. They are what happen when we are trying to do the best we know how and what we know isn’t enough, but we have to make a decision anyway. Mistakes are what happen when we have blind spots but don’t know it yet. The spirit’s role may not be to protect us from this ignorance. It may be to stand with us as we walk into it, and help us to face its repercussions head on so that now we can learn things we couldn’t before. The spirit’s job isn’t to make us flawless. It is to help us understand. To help us to be perfect in the way God is perfect. But maybe, hopefully, our sacred, spirit-supported mistakes are as much part of that perfection process as the exalted being we hope to be at the end of it.

[1] D&C 93

[2] Mark 8: 22-25

[3] Matthew 15: 21-28

10 comments for “[Spiritual Languages] Mistakes, Messes, Screw-ups, and Other Forms of Perfection

  1. I love “The spirit is a guide, but that doesn’t mean that its role is to help us avoid mistakes. In fact, one of its most important functions may be to help us to face them”. Thanks Mary! So, so much food for thought here.

  2. There is a lot to think about here. I love it. I think the phrase fill the measure of our creation applies here. I wonder how things would change if we taught children and youth about the value of mistakes more and the prohibition of sin less. I find myself having to undo this teaching in myself as I face the realities of life.

  3. My understanding of Mormon doctrine is that all sentient being are progressing, including our Heavenly Parents and Christ. I suspect that Christ learned a lot during his earthly sojourn. So how is Christ perfect?

    He is perfect with compared to us regular mortals. What would be the point of eternity, if we all couldn’t progress?

    During the Joseph Fielding Smith and BRM era there was a push to water down this doctrine, to bring us more in line with conservative Christianity. I don’t know where the Church beliefs about HP and Christ are now, but I like the pre-BRM ideas.

  4. I believe that part of the problem with the easy-way-to-interpret the scripture of perfection, could come down translation errors and to the evolution of the meaning of perfect. I wouldn’t be surprised as we went from a society with stone tools, to metallurgy, to machine precision tooling, that the definition of perfection became more precise.
    I remember a conversation I had with a friend where she expressed that when she was a Goddess that she would have a planet with mermaids. As I thought about that later I came to the conclusion that she wouldn’t, because she would be perfect like God is perfect, and He doesn’t have a planet with mermaids (an assumption I have no evidence for). But this has gotten me thinking about what perfection is, what counts for perfection, and what doesn’t. I suspect that there is variety within perfection.

  5. As much as I disliked BRM’s writings and speeches, he did teach one thing that I am grateful for. I believe it has also been voiced by other Church leaders. That is, that perfection will not be achieved in this lifetime. It is a process that takes place over the eternities. Maybe I am unduly optimistic, but I believe that this idea is gradually taking hold in Mormon culture. I personally see a lessening of the “toxic perfectionism” that has plagued us, and a gradual realization that in coming to Earth for our probationary mortal life, it is by making mistakes that we learn to become like God. Thomas Edison once remarked that he didn’t so much invent the light bulb; rather, he learned 10,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb. That is a good description of the process that happens as we learn perfection.

  6. Most or all of us spent a good bit of our childhood studying mathematics (and much more studying other topics). This gives us a facility for and comfort with abstract thought that we wouldn’t have otherwise, and that’s generally a very good thing. But few if any of Jesus’s listeners were so privileged. So when they heard words like “perfect,” “infinite,” or even “true,” their minds probably didn’t jump to the stark, absolute abstractions that our minds jump to. And He didn’t intend them to.

    In short, we overthink being “perfect.”

    (Then there’s the minor detail that the Greek word translated as “perfect” doesn’t mean “flawless” or “free from error” at all. President Nelson addressed this back in the October 1995 General Conference.)

  7. Lovely. Part of our progress will be in recognizing that ALL of us will fail and get things wrong. Church leaders are not exempt. Moving beyong prophet worship to deeper grace for all–including prophets–will help everyone.

  8. Perfection as applied in scripture can have many different definitions. In the sense that Christ was using it he meant in moral relevance. The command to be perfect was in the sense of being of perfect morality, of being without sin. In order to be saved at the great day of judgment we need to get to where Jesus and Heavenly Father are in that they are perfect in relation to the laws of morality and sinlessness. Christ wasn’t speaking in the secular sense of perfection where every attribute is intrinsically perfected such as being able to perfectly paint a picture, or to know every answer in all things with exacting precision. God does not “require” us to be that type of individual to be saved. The perfect kind of being God requires us to be, in order to be saved, is one who no longer has a desire to sin and no longer lives in any degree of sin. This is the “perfect” Christ is referring to in scripture- in Moroni-

    32 Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.
    33 And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.

    To become perfect means to become holy, without spot (without sin)

  9. The Temple tells us (three times in fact) that we are here to “distinguish good from evil” through our direct experience so that we can become like God. I believe that. I learned it in the Temple. What that means is this is no test. We aren’t checking to see if you will be obedient. That means there is no failure and “sin” or mistakes take on a whole different meaning. In order to learn good from evil you have to experience good from evil: as a victim, a distant observer, and as a perpetrator. This seems much more in line with a loving Father that is trying to get us to progress, than an angry tyrant that is ready to cast you in the hell.

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