Insights from President Nelson That Will Change How You Understand Perfection in the Church

If I were to ask which of the Lord's commandments is most difficult to keep, many of us might cite Matthew 5:48: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."

Keeping this commandment can be a concern because each of us is far from perfect, both spiritually and temporally. Reminders come repeatedly. We may lock keys inside the car, or even forget where the car is parked. And not infrequently, we walk intently from one part of the house to another, only to forget the reason for the errand.

When we compare our personal performance with the supreme standard of the Lord's expectation, the reality of imperfection can at times be depressing. My heart goes out to conscientious Saints who, because of their shortcomings, allow feelings of depression to rob them of happiness in life.

We all need to remember: men are that they might have joy—not guilt trips! We also need to remember that the Lord gives no commandments that are impossible to obey. But sometimes we fail to comprehend them fully.

Our understanding of perfection might be aided if we classify it into two categories. The first could pertain uniquely to this life—mortal perfection. The second category could pertain uniquely to the next life—immortal or eternal perfection.

Mortal Perfection

In this life, certain actions can be perfected. A baseball pitcher can throw a no-hit, no-run ball game. A surgeon can perform an operation without an error. A musician can render a selection without a mistake. One can likewise achieve perfection in being punctual, paying tithing, keeping the Word of Wisdom, and so on. The enormous effort required to attain such self- mastery is rewarded with a deep sense of satisfaction. More importantly, spiritual attainments in mortality accompany us into eternity.

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."

Scriptures have described Noah, Seth, and Job as perfect men. No doubt the same term might apply to a large number of faithful disciples in various dispensations. . . .

This does not mean that these people never made mistakes or never had need of correction. The process of perfection includes challenges to overcome and steps to repentance that may be very painful. There is a proper place for chastisement in the molding of character, for we know that "whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth."

Mortal perfection can be achieved as we try to perform every duty, keep every law, and strive to be as perfect in our sphere as our Heavenly Father is in His. If we do the best we can, the Lord will bless us according to our deeds and the desires of our hearts.

Eternal Perfection

But Jesus asked for more than mortal perfection. The moment He uttered the words "even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," He raised our sights beyond the bounds of mortality. Our Heavenly Father has eternal perfection. This very fact merits a much broader perspective.

Recently, I studied the English and Greek editions of the New Testament, concentrating on each use of the term perfect and its derivatives. Studying both languages together provided some interesting insights, since Greek was the original language of the New Testament.

In Matthew 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.

Our Savior's Example

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."

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.

The Lord's entire work and glory pertains to the immortality and eternal life of each human being. He came into the world to do the will of His Father, who sent Him. His sacred responsibility was foreseen before the Creation and was foretold by all His holy prophets since the world began.

The atonement of Christ fulfilled the long-awaited purpose for which He had come to the earth. His concluding words upon Calvary's cross referred to the culmination of His assignment—to atone for all humankind. Then He said, "It is finished." Not surprisingly, the Greek word from which finished was derived is teleios.

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Get more inspiring insights from our prophet in Perfection Pending and Other Favorite Discourses.

This book features a compilation of 21 talks by President Russell M. Nelson from General Conference and BYU devotionals.

In one volume you'll read President Nelson's comments and counsel on such subjects as listening, making right choices, enduring to the end, applying the Atonement, and making covenants. With his positive attitude and customary wit, President Nelson gives us hope toward an eternal life with our Father in Heaven, if we will but endure. 

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