Our church has a tendency to promote perfectionism. It’s no wonder. Christ told us to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” And to make sure we have a proper understanding of all the many different facets perfection holds, we are reminded of them week after week. Pray. Read your scriptures. Think pure thoughts. Be charitable. Don’t lie. Honor thy father and thy mother. Come to church. Magnify your calling. Minister to others. Go to the temple regularly. Do your family history. I could go on, but you get the point.
Fact. If I were to focus on one item on that laundry list of goals, I might have a shot at getting pretty good at it by the time this life is through with me. I don’t know if I’d be able to claim perfection in that one aspect, but perhaps I’d come close. The thought of becoming perfect as a whole leaves me panicked. But isn’t that what the Savior commanded us to do?
In my preparation for this talk, I came across another one given just over a year ago–one that had somehow fallen off my radar. I’m almost sure I heard it when it was first given by Elder Holland last October, but I couldn’t remember it when I read it again. It’s entitled “Be Ye Therefore Perfect–Eventually,” and I highly recommend it to any of you who might be feeling overwhelmed by the Gospel. Read it in its entirety. It’s a wonderful message that says so much of what I was feeling as I was approaching my own talk.
Of particular note is this passage. “Jesus did not intend His sermon on this subject to be a verbal hammer for battering us about our shortcomings. No, I believe He intended it to be a tribute to who and what God the Eternal Father is and what we can achieve with Him in eternity. In any case, I am grateful to know that in spite of my imperfections, at least God is perfect—that at least He is, for example, able to love His enemies, because too often, due to the “natural man” and woman in us, you and I are sometimes that enemy. How grateful I am that at least God can bless those who despitefully use Him because, without wanting or intending to do so, we all despitefully use Him sometimes. I am grateful that God is merciful and a peacemaker because I need mercy and the world needs peace. Of course, all we say of the Father’s virtues we also say of His Only Begotten Son, who lived and died unto the same perfection.”
Again, a big part of me was tempted to just stand up and read Elder Holland’s talk verbatim over the pulpit, even though it wasn’t the talk I was assigned to speak on today. I might have let it pass me by when it was first given, but it’s cemented in my memory now. Please go back and read it if you need reassurance. It’s one thing to have me stand up here and deliver a message, but to have one of the Quorum of the Twelve give a talk like that during general conference deserves not to be forgotten.
When I am overwhelmed, I often go into what I call “decision lock.” Faced with so many tasks and so much to do, I mentally go into the fetal position and sit around doing nothing instead. I might watch movies or play video games or simply stare out the window, all the while berating myself inwardly for everything I’m unable to get done.
This is antithetical to the Gospel. God doesn’t want us so depressed we give up. He wants us simply to try. Try, and He will make up the difference. That’s the amazing thing about the Atonement. President Nelson said, “You who may be momentarily disheartened, remember, life is not meant to be easy. Trials must be borne and grief endured along the way. As you remember that ‘with God nothing shall be impossible,’ know that He is your Father. You are a son or daughter created in His image, entitled through your worthiness to receive revelation to help with your righteous endeavors.”
“With God, nothing shall be impossible.” To me, that’s one of the most heartening messages I can hear. I remember on my mission feeling overwhelmed at times. So often we’d hear we were supposed to follow the Spirit in making decisions about what we were to do and when, but I worried I would do the wrong thing. What if I got the wrong message? What if I messed up and interpreted the promptings the wrong way?
If there’s one thing I learned during those two years, it’s that as long as your heart is in the right place and you’re really trying to do the right thing, God will take that energy and turn it into something positive. This doesn’t mean that you won’t put your foot in your mouth sometimes, or that you won’t have to backtrack occasionally, but if you’ve got a worthy goal and you pray for guidance on how to reach it, God will help you get there, or else He’ll get you to some place even better.
The other day my daughter was trying to write a letter. She’s five, and she had come up with this idea all on her own. I was busy doing something else at the moment, but she stayed at the kitchen table for at least an hour, asking Alexa the spelling of various words. (At some point in the past, one of my kids had taught her that Alexa will spell anything for you, and that you can just say “Alexa, repeat” to get her to say it again. And again. And again.) In any case, she was definitely showing more than a fair share of persistence.
I let her be, focused on the other things I had to get done. But when I passed through the kitchen after a while, I found her at the table, now reduced to tears. When I asked her what the matter was, she said, “I can’t do it, Dad. It’s just too hard.” Once it finally penetrated my thick skull that this was something important to her, I sat down and helped her through the project until she was happy with it.
I don’t mean to say that “With Dad, nothing is impossible,” but when it comes to writing letters, I’m pretty confident in my abilities.
As I’ve thought back on that experience, there are a couple of things I learn from it. First off, my daughter had a resource available to her the whole time that would have accomplished her task quickly and easily. (This is, of course, assuming that I was actually paying attention enough to know she really needed help when she asked me. Thankfully, we can be assured to know our Heavenly Father is always paying attention. He’s never going to absent mindedly grunt at us and hope we just wander away, though He has been known now and then to say “We’ll see” when one of His children ask him a question.)
Second, there are certainly times when the tasks I’ve chosen to tackle are far less relevant and important, in the grand scheme of things, than I might wish. I remember when I was about six or seven, my Uncle Randy came to stay with my family for a few days. He was the absolute coolest, mainly because he got up early with me and watched Saturday morning cartoons. He was the first actual adult to ever do that, and I was amazed. Afterward, I asked him why other adults didn’t do the same thing. They had all the time they wanted, why were they letting those cartoons slip past them week after week?
“Sometimes they forget,” is what he told me at the time. “It just doesn’t seem as important to them, maybe.”
I vowed then and there that I would never forget how important Saturday morning cartoons are, and yet here I am, letting countless cartoon watching opportunities slip through my fingers like so many grains of sand. Six-year-old me would be very disappointed, but the takeaway I get from that memory is that sometimes what can seem so important at one stage of our lives transforms over time until we see it for something else. When we go to God, frantic with impatience that we be helped with this or that challenge right this minute, how many of those challenges are actually just as important as Saturday morning cartoons?
As we get closer and closer to Christmas, my thoughts are increasingly drawn to the season and the meaning behind it. To me, one of the central messages of Christmas is hope. Hope that we can be forgiven of our sins and return to live with a loving Heavenly Father. That child lying in a manger is the epitome of hope in many ways, a promise yet to be fulfilled. There were years of experiences yet to be endured. Yes, we all immediately think of the obvious one that waited for Christ in Gethsemane and on the cross, but don’t forget the smaller ones so similar to those we go through ourselves each day. Making friends. Navigating your first job. Even puberty. I don’t know what a perfect adolescent life looks like, but let’s take a look at a slice of life from when He was twelve years old. It’s described in Luke 2.
41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover.
42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.
43 And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.
44 But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance.
45 And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.
46 And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.
47 And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
48 And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.
49 And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?
50 And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.
51 And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.
52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.
We give a lot of leeway for that “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business” statement, but I know that if I was on a trip when my son was twelve and he wandered away from the group, and it took me four days of scouring the city to find him, I’d be more than a little irate when I finally had him in tow again. Relieved, yes, but upset? Undoubtedly.
What I mean to say is I don’t think I have a full understanding of what a perfect, sinless life looks like, because if someone described that behavior to me and asked if their son had made a few mistakes in that example, I’m pretty sure I could rattle off a couple off the top of my head. I’m not trying to say Christ didn’t lead a sinless life, but rather that we typically think of Him only in his fully grown, mature state. He goes from the babe in a manger to the savior of all mankind with no stop in the middle, most of the time.
But the middle is where all of us find ourselves day in, day out, the entirety of our lives. Remember, for Jesus to increase in wisdom and stature, logic dictates He must not have been perfectly wise when he was a teenager. Somehow, He got through it, and He did it with the same tools you and I have available. Prayer. Fasting. Persistence.
He didn’t give up.
We do ourselves no favors when we simply picture the Savior in His exalted, glorified state. We lose the opportunity to relate to Him on a much more personal level. When my daughter looks at me and my ability to write, I think she has a hard time picturing me struggling to hold a crayon myself at one point.
Elder Bednar said, “There is no physical pain, no spiritual wound, no anguish of soul or heartache, no infirmity or weakness you or I ever confront in mortality that the Savior did not experience first. In a moment of weakness we may cry out, ‘No one knows what it is like. No one understands.’ But the Son of God perfectly knows and understands, for He has felt and borne our individual burdens.”
In Elder Eyring’s talk, Try Try Try, he focuses on the importance of picking ourselves up and trying again. Of persisting, even when things seem bleakest. To me, the reason we can try try again is because we have hope.
So how do we develop hope? For that, we can turn to Mormon:
“For I judge that ye have faith in Christ because of your meekness; for if ye have not faith in him then ye are not fit to be numbered among the people of his church.
“And again, my beloved brethren, I would speak unto you concerning hope. How is it that ye can attain unto faith, save ye shall have hope?
“And what is it that ye shall hope for? Behold I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him according to the promise.
“Wherefore, if a man have faith he must needs have hope; for without faith there cannot be any hope.
“And again, behold I say unto you that he cannot have faith and hope, save he shall be meek, and lowly of heart.
“If so, his faith and hope is vain, for none is acceptable before God, save the meek and lowly in heart; and if a man be meek and lowly in heart, and confesses by the power of the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Christ, he must needs have charity; for if he have not charity he is nothing; wherefore he must needs have charity.”
Faith, Hope, and Charity are three legs of a stool, each of them connected to each other. To improve in one, we can focus on improving any of them. The best way I can think of to illustrate this is to show how it’s worked in my own life. As I strengthen my faith, I am naturally drawn to be more obedient to the Gospel, which teaches us that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. This encourages me to strengthen the feelings of charity I have. As I am more faithful and more full of love toward others, my hope in salvation increases in turn. I live a more confident life, more secure in the knowledge that the course I am living is in line with God’s course for me.
That process is a cycle. If I focus instead on increasing the charity I feel toward others, it still increases my hope. Hope in humanity. Hope for the future. This in turn inspires me to more accurately see the influence of God in the world, which in turn increases my faith. President Eyring said, “The Lord has opportunities near you to feel and to share His love. You can pray with confidence for the Lord to lead you to love someone for Him. He answers the prayers of meek volunteers like you. You will feel the love of God for you and for the person you serve for Him. As you help children of God in their troubles, your own troubles will seem lighter. Your faith and your hope will be strengthened.”
As we help others, we help ourselves develop faith, hope, and charity. Have you ever wondered why the family is the basic building block of the church? Perhaps one of the best benefits of a family is having people to help and assist–serve–close to hand, all the time. To force ourselves to forget ourselves and help others. But because families are so constant, it can be easy to start to take them for granted. Often families are the easiest people to lose our temper with, to speak our mind even when we might be better served staying silent, and to treat abominably. You can get a lot of practice doing the things God wants you to perfect, just by spending time with your family, which is another reason why we’re asked first to try solving a problem on our own and then with the help of our family before we turn to the Church for assistance. I know sometimes we dismiss service done around the home as nothing more than self interest, but I would actually argue some of the most important service we can do in our lives takes place there as opposed to a church building, a wood project, or a soup kitchen.
But the family equation doesn’t only work the one way. As we are helping our family, our family is helping us. The decision to have a third child was not an easy one for my wife and me to make. Many things in life have come easy for me, but I couldn’t seem to reach a clear answer for this question. My biggest concern was that I would overextend myself. That I would get to a point where I just wasn’t able to give the amount of love and attention to each of my children that I felt they deserved.
This is a question that has different answers for every couple. I’m sure there are some in the audience who might be tempted to roll their eyes at someone debating whether they could handle a third child or not, as they themselves look at their football team’s worth of offspring. I only ask that you remember we all have different strengths, and I have long known that handling a large number of children would be a stretch for me.
In the end, after some rather miraculous answers to prayer, we pushed forward and had a third child, five years ago. That’s where the happily ever after is supposed to kick into the story. The answer is given, the child arrives, and it’s all smooth sailing from then on. In this case, however, the road was not so easy for me. That first year and a half were a struggle. There were many times that I felt overwhelmed. I was pushed in so many ways beyond my comfort zone. I was very grateful through all of that time that I had prayed about that decision ahead of time, and that I could fall back on the revelation I had received that it was the right course of action.
These days, of course, I wouldn’t trade my third child for the world. She’s a blessing to our lives and brings so much joy into it. But I think it’s important to remember there were perhaps more reasons to add her to our family than to simply bring another child into the world. I needed those experiences to grow in the areas God knew I was weak. It’s hard to remember that when you’re in the middle of a trial, of course. Sometimes you just have to tuck your head down and keep moving, putting all your faith in the hope that it will turn out for the best.
Christmas combines faith, hope, and charity into one united whole. Our love for others, our hope for the future, and our faith in salvation. And the best thing of all? To do better in any of these areas, all we really have to do is try. To do nothing more than want to do better and start taking steps–any steps–to do so.
As much as I love this time of year, the holidays can also make me insanely stressed. There are so many things going on at the same time. And yet year after year, I somehow look back at each December once I’m at the end of it, and it always turns out to be one of my favorite months. In some ways, I think that’s precisely because it’s difficult for me to get through, since the reason it’s difficult is I’m thinking more and more of others during that month than I am of myself.
How to bring my family closer together. How to celebrate the fun but remember the Savior. How to bring a spark of excitement and joy to the eyes of my children. It’s the same principle that makes me generally dread going to service projects before hand, and yet thoroughly enjoy myself once I’m there and afterward, when I’m headed home.
Not all of us are blessed with supportive families by birth, but I believe we can create a family around us. My closest family relations by blood are eight and a half hours away from us, down in Philadelphia. Yet when I moved to Maine, I found myself taken in and accepted by friends. I’ve built a support network around me, both inside and outside of the church, and I try to support them all the way they in turn support me.
President Eyring said, “When you meet someone, treat them as if they were in serious trouble, and you will be right more than half the time.” Often it’s easy for us to look around at other people’s problems and wonder why they struggle so hard. If only our test were like their test, wouldn’t life be so much simpler? Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we’re all feeling that way. That we all have strengths and weaknesses, and that God has designed this test to be challenging for each of us. Life is a tailor made experience, not to be easy, but to be difficult. We grow stronger by facing resistance. Let us try, then, to help each other on this path.
CS Lewis said in The Weight of Glory, ““It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
At this Christmas time, I hope we all can look to the example of Christ and have hope for the future. May that hope blossom into faith and charity is my prayer for each of us, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.