I want to describe something that happens to some missionaries in the mission field. They start to worry about everything. They feel guilty about everything. And they find it hard to be happy. Here we are preaching how the gospel makes us happy and we feel miserable! What’s up with that? When I first came into the field I found this so ironic. I found I had to talk to a lot of missionaries about letting go of what they couldn’t be or do, and be happy with what they were, and did. It seemed I was teaching about letting go of imperfection constantly.
I wrote this to all the missionaries after feeling like I was seeing perfectionism growing along with the misery that comes with it:
“Don’t be surprised when you need a savior. What do I mean by that? We preach Christ to others but then Satan cleverly promotes thoughts that you and your mission should be perfect. If you have a bad day, a negative or prideful thought, you have to work at loving something or someone, just know you have a Savior for that. I find that when I am late, didn’t say something quite right, something didn’t go quite as I had planned, etc. and I realize once again that life or I am not perfect, I just whisper to myself, “I have a savior for that.” You have a savior for all the imperfect things of life, even when there is grief, mistakes, and sorrow involved, not just sin. Use the savior; let him carry you, comfort you, clean you. Let him worry for you; give it to Him, and then life and your mission will be perfect through Him. Remember, “You have a Savior for that.”
I found this was actually great advice for me too after I had been on my mission for awhile. I started to be very burdened down by all of the things I wasn’t able to get done, do or overcome. Mission life is so demanding, and the expectations are so great that perfect seems to be in order. But really perfectionism is a tool of the adversary to take us away from Christ, for everyone.
The spirit invites us to act and we feel great as we obey those promptings. The difference is the adversary prompts us to beat ourselves up over what we’re not, and not doing. We never feel the spirit or come closer to Christ when we are beating ourselves up over not being perfect. That is a great check to know if something is from God. If it brings you closer to Christ and you feel the spirit it is of God, if you feel bad, depressed or anxious, it’s not of God.
I finally received this inspiration from the Lord that helped me really teach this principle better: We read in the scriptures, “Be ye therefore perfect.” We kind of think that means look perfect; be busy, do a lot of stuff, have a clean house, sign up for things, (for a missionary it’s all in the numbers; have a lot of lessons, new investigators and baptisms.), and we naturally start thinking our value is based on those things. These are all things we can see so it’s easy to start thinking that this is what perfect means; all of the stuff on the outside of us and how we look. When we focus on the way things look on the outside we actually become worried, prideful, judging and anxious.
I think when Christ said be ye therefore perfect He was actually talking about the inside of us. Be loving, kind, merciful, forgiving, selfless, grateful, etc. The Lord looks on our heart, so we should look on our heart as we think of our value.
When I can get the missionaries to look at their heart what they see is beautiful. They are out here serving the Lord, willing to sacrifice 18 to 24 months of their life. They want to be good. They are trying so hard. They have righteous desires. They love, help, serve, sacrifice, and cry for each other and their investigators. They are so beautiful.
The Lord looks on our hearts. That is the work He is doing; on our heart. When we look at our hearts to judge ourselves by I think we have hit the Mark; Christ, in a much more accurate way. When we are looking at our heart to judge where we stand and what we need to change or work on, we feel more in partnership with God. We are not just running as fast as we can to do more, achieve more, and make more things look perfect. We are aware of our heart and what is going on there and we know that is where the work of God really happens.
What does this have to do with the atonement? I have learned as I see my heart and I want to make changes there, it is very difficult. I have learned that I can work on my behavior, I can try to change the way I act, but to truly change me; my heart, that is the work of God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is sacred work.
You may be asking, really? I don’t change myself, God changes me? I just work on my behavior and God changes my heart? Yes really. I don’t know how it works; I just know it’s true. Take me for instance. When I had 5 little children within 6 years of each other and 2 of them felt like 10 kids combined I was out of my element, and a little tired. I loved them so much I wanted to always act perfect with them, but I just couldn’t. I wanted to always speak nice, be super patient, and just have love at all times. Well, it just wasn’t happening. I found myself feeling frustrated, speaking harsh, or acting short probably by the end of every single day. I worked on this for YEARS! Every day I would pray that I would just be so loving and patient every second of the day and never feel impatient or stressed. I worked on it, I repented, I worked on it, I repented, I prayed all the time. And probably every day I felt frustrated and impatient by the end of the day.
I remember one night just giving up. I kind of got really honest with the Lord (that’s code for frustrated), and said, “You are not helping me! I’ve been praying for you to help me change and you’re not helping ME do it. I just can’t change me. I give up. If you want me to change you’ll just have to do it yourself. Will you just please change me, I can’t.” I remember feeling absolute desperation, being at the bottom, and just feeling like no matter how much I acted nice or worked on my behavior my heart wasn’t changing. Even repenting and feeling sorry didn’t change me. I knew I wasn’t going to change my heart and I just gave up and asked Him to do it.
Within a week I noticed I felt different. It was profound. I felt patient all day. I felt calm. I felt love when everything was hectic and I was dead tired. The Lord changed my heart. He made me different. I had worked and repented and finally learned humility, and He consecrated my afflictions for my gain.
I felt I had discovered the big secret of how the atonement works to change me. The atonement is a power, but I have to ask, to access the power. I have to repent and ask to be changed by Him. Not ask for Him to help ME change myself, but ask for Him to do the changing.
Now in my life I don’t mess around. When I see something I don’t like in myself I just go right to it. I just talk openly with God about what I’m seeing that I can feel isn’t right and ask Him to change me. I confess His hand and His power and I repent and keep trying, and then He does His work. And it is so much faster than YEARS. And to be honest these changes in my heart are so sacred to me because they were so much work for Them and for me.
I am so grateful to know the Lord looks on our heart, our good desires, our loving attitude, our generosity. No matter what is happening around us or how things look to others, if we can understand our heart is what is important to the Lord and He has provided the way for us to have a change of heart, then we will truly understand the gospel of Jesus Christ and find happiness in living it.
Ps One more note about perfectionism. I have heard this quest for being perfect as described like, “I have to do so much and then the Lord will make up the rest”. I think this feeling of having to work alone to do a pre-set amount and then the Lord will make up the rest can be very discouraging. I have heard Brad Wilcox describe this work of perfection in a different way as- Christ paid the whole price for justice, there is no work we do to satisfy that demand, and our part is to repent and appreciate and become someone who can live with God again. That was the WAY short version. Read His Grace is Sufficient for the better version. My version is what I can understand and it goes like this. “I am trying everyday with Christ’s help to have a heart that is right with Him. He invites me to act. Feeling the spirit is usually an invitation to act and is probably outside of my comfort zone, since growth happens outside of our comfort zone. With His help I can be strengthened to accept the invitation to act. That strength can be physical, emotional or spiritual help depending on how I am feeling and what the act is. I look back on my life and know any good thing I am or have become has only happened through His grace. It has only happened because His grace reached out and changed my heart and made me different. I give credit to every single good change in my life to my great Lord and Redeemer.”