“Be ye therefore perfect” (Matt. 5:48), our Savior’s admonition in the Sermon on the Mount, is of great concern for many of us as we try to reconcile our lives with this important counsel.
Yet the teachings of Jesus Christ are for those of us who are imperfect. To the Pharisees’ question about why He ate with publicans and sinners, Christ replied: “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick” (Matt. 9:12). What a blessing to know that the focus of his work is with imperfect people!
Those seeking the easy path may say, “I want to be perfect someday, but not now. Maybe I’ll be ready when I am older.” This kind of reasoning allows them to avoid getting out of their comfort zones today or tomorrow or the next day. But attainment of perfection requires more than merely thinking about it or wishing for it. We must act.
Though each of us has different abilities and talents, all of us are given agency to decide what and how much we are willing to do to develop them and to improve upon our weaknesses. This agency is best applied through a simple, prayerfully thought-out decision to work on our weaknesses before they are tested rather than waiting to decide daily between good and bad influences in our paths. Such a decision fortifies our resolve to act wisely in the face of temptation.
Let us consider several scriptural teachings that can keep us moving toward the goal of eternal perfection set by Jesus Christ. Remember, attitude, desire, and consistency are important as we seek to obey his teachings.
1 Matt. 5:6 “Hunger and thirst after righteousness.”
Perhaps many of us have never really known physical hunger, though we are keenly aware of our desires to eat on a daily basis. Thirst is also common to our physical needs, and so we can relate to the Savior’s telling us to thirst after righteousness. We should expend the same effort to be righteous that we would expend if we were trying to satisfy deep physical hunger or thirst.
Can we say that we truly hunger to be righteous, honest, and Christlike? Or are we passive in our pursuit of righteousness? Our basic attitudes about life, values, and the gospel of Jesus Christ affect the daily decisions that shape our mortal existence and influence our standing in eternity. Our Savior has stated it simply and plainly: if we desire to be with him, we are to “hunger and thirst” after the thoughts and deeds that will help us become like him.
2 Matt. 5:16 “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works.”
Each of us possesses an inner light, the light of Christ (see Moro. 7:16–19). We can affect the brightness of that light by our thoughts and actions. There is a strong suggestion in Matthew 5:16 [Matt. 5:16] that we, by controlling our thoughts and actions, can choose how we affect the lives of those around us.
Are we willing and happy to follow the Savior and his teachings? Today, as we meet others and interact with them, will our words and actions influence them for good?
We are all teachers, whether we want to be or not. We are examples for good or for evil; the choice is ours. That is why each of us should strive to make our works more Christlike and more uplifting to the numerous people we see and associate with daily.
3 Matt. 7:12 “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”
We are taught in this scripture how we should relate to others. Things that hurt and upset us would likely hurt and upset someone else. We should treat others as we would like to be treated. A feeling of responsibility for others is the first step we take toward unselfishness and maturity.
Parents, grandparents, and teachers can show children by word and by example how to treat others. The kindness and courtesy practiced in our homes can help teach our children how to deal lovingly and maturely with family members. This is good training for the time when they, too, will be parents.
When we exemplify Christlike qualities, we bless everyone with whom we come in contact. And when we find life difficult, often the best way to forget our own problems is to help others solve theirs. A listening and sensitive ear can help them see their challenges more clearly and help lighten their load.
4 Matt. 6:9 “Therefore pray ye.”
When our Savior gave us his sweet, simple model of prayer, it was in a context that made plain our need to pray consistently and humbly (see Matt. 6:5–15).
Personal prayers and, where possible, family prayers are crucial to all striving for perfection. Prayer is a precious period of time when we are able to exclude the world and pour out our hearts to a loving and understanding Father in Heaven.
Our prayers offer an opportunity to give thanks for what we have as well as to pray for our wants. Some years ago when I was receiving a loan, the banker said as he handed me a check, “The only time I see you is when you need money.” He was correct! Could our Father in Heaven feel similarly? Does he hear from us only when we need something?
It is strange that in our praying we seldom ask for a change of character but always a change in circumstances. Some of the challenges we face may, in our Father’s eternal perspective, be exactly what we need at this time in our lives. Perhaps we would be wise to pray for faith and strength to endure and grow in character and spirit.
5 Matt. 5:41 “Go with him twain.”
What is our attitude toward service? Is it something we give thinking only of the good of the receiver? Or do we secretly wish to be paid, in one form or another, for each service or deed we do?
Home teaching and visiting teaching give us hands-on opportunities to go the extra mile. But some of us don’t move the first mile, so we seldom have to think about the second one. Countless hidden treasures are to be found in service. Many testimonies have been given of its benefits, and many conversions have resulted from it.
One missionary couple, for example, lived in an area where most of their neighbors were not members of the Church. One day the husband saw a neighbor shingling his roof, so he went over to help. As they worked together, they talked, and before long the man became interested in the gospel and asked for the missionaries to teach him. He and his family were baptized. Great things can come from small acts of service, often in unexpected ways.
Our willingness to give Christlike service affords us opportunities to go beyond the first mile to activate, teach, and love those in need. In service there is constant opportunity to bless the lives of others.
People will be happy to about the same degree that they are actively involved in trying to help others. This truth is tied to the Savior’s teaching that “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).
6 Matt. 18:21 “How oft shall … I forgive him?”
Forgiveness offers many opportunities to move farther along the road to perfection. This is particularly true when we feel that we have been wronged or slighted.
There may be countless occasions in life when we are tempted to harbor unkind feelings toward someone else. We must respond as the Savior did in speaking of his tormentors while on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Let us as freely forgive and forget!
If we allow ourselves to feel offended, we are subject to unhappy feelings about others, about life, and, consequently, about ourselves.
Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge our future. We should strive to avoid discussions of who or what is right or wrong and spend our energies instead in removing the motes from our own eyes (see Matt. 7:3–5). Truly forgiving one another requires a high commitment to the principles of Christianity. We must keep personal pride under control and put forth an extra measure of love for the person or persons involved.
7 JST, Matt. 7:1 “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged.”
If we exercise unkind and unrighteous judgment, we will find our Christian values becoming distorted. Each of us should be trying to catch someone doing something right rather than trying to catch someone doing something wrong.
Unfortunately, it is much easier to be critical than to be correct. But judging others generally feeds negative feelings and puts up barriers to our own progress. None of us lives life so perfectly that we can presume to be altogether above the kinds of weaknesses we see in others. We should be quick to praise and slow to criticize—and we should avoid the pitfall of engaging in unrighteous judgment.
8 Matt. 6:21 “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Each of us has a lifetime—although no one knows the length of that span—to determine where our real treasure is. It may be money, clothes, jewels, recognition, self-gratification, or a multitude of other things we seek throughout our lives. The only treasure worth seeking—the only one we can keep eternally—is righteousness.
There is a vast difference between simply wishing we were righteous and wanting this with all our hearts, wanting it enough to forsake all else. But our pursuit of perfection must be a constant endeavor if we are to overcome the forces seeking to turn our values toward earthly things.
By the standards of the gospel of Jesus Christ, some of our treasures of righteousness should include scripture knowledge, temple attendance, family strength, Church service, and missionary efforts.
The real measure of our wealth is how much we would be worth if we lost all of our money. That worth depends on how we live, not on what we have. As President Brigham Young once said: “We all occupy diversified stations in the world, and in the kingdom of God. Those who do right, and seek the glory of the Father in Heaven, whether their knowledge be little or much, or whether they can do little or much, if they do the very best they know how, they are perfect” (“Discourse,” Deseret News, 31 Aug. 1854, p. 1).
9 Matt. 6:33 “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.”
Priorities are very important as we work toward attaining perfection. We each have limited time and resources, and we each have the challenge of deciding where we will use our energies and place our attention. In meeting this challenge, we should not mistake activity for achievement.
We all need Jesus Christ as our guide on the road to perfection. One of life’s greatest challenges is learning to make our own good works reflections of the influence and blessings of the Savior. The way to do this is to seek the things that would be of value to him. “Seek not for riches but for wisdom, and behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you” (D&C 6:7).
The word seek in this verse suggests active involvement in the righteous endeavors that have the greatest eternal worth. Yet some of us seem willing to give only of our “spare” time to our families and to Church service while saving for our personal pursuits most of the productive hours left over after we fulfill work obligations. In doing this, we risk losing the things that will be most precious to us in eternity, particularly our families.
Family home evening offers an excellent opportunity to seek the things of eternity with those we love the most. Our Church leaders have admonished us to spend more quality time—this means giving our full attention—with our families. (Review, for example, specific counsel on this topic in just one recent general conference, in April 1994. This counsel includes addresses by Elders Boyd K. Packer, L. Tom Perry, and Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. See Ensign, May 1994, pp. 19–21, 36–38, and 88–91). Getting together on a regular basis for family home evening is not always easy, but these meetings offer some of our best opportunities for teaching our loved ones and improving communication with them.
10 Matt. 7:20 “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
Many of us ponder what our fruits really are. Each of us might wonder if we will eventually be asked to account for them. I believe that this accounting will be in what we have become and what we have helped others—particularly our families—to become.
I have had the privilege of meeting with thousands of missionaries who have committed their lives to helping others enter the waters of baptism and begin personal journeys toward perfection. It is thrilling to hear a missionary say, “I’m grateful that my parents loved me enough to read the scriptures with me each morning.” We find time to do what we really want to do, and when our choices are based on eternal values, the fruit is sweet indeed.
It is true that we cannot choose how we are going to die, or when, but only how we will live each day we are on this earth. The fruits of our personal choices, when these choices are dictated by our unwavering desires and efforts to follow the Savior, will be sweet to us on a daily basis. Joseph Smith taught: “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 255–56).
Perfection: The Continuing Quest
We undoubtedly won’t achieve perfection in this life, but it is imperative that we continue to try. If we do not, we will unwittingly pass up eternal blessings or opportunities that could have been ours.
Years ago, when one of our daughters needed to be at school at five o’clock in the morning for a special pep club practice, I agreed to wake her at four o’clock. I awakened her at that time—or thought I had—and then settled back into bed for a few minutes rest.
At six-thirty my wife wondered if our daughter had gone and asked if I would check. I found her still in bed; she hadn’t moved! I awakened her again, and as she looked at the clock and then at me, she asked, “Didn’t I go?”
If we are not diligent, we may find ourselves asking a similar question when it’s too late to make up for lost time.
Each of us has agency to decide how happy our present and future will be. What a waste for us to wait to decide each issue as we proceed through life! How much better it would be if we decided now—realizing that we will continue to overcome our imperfections—to follow the course chosen by Joshua: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15).