Perfecting the saints without perfectionism

Last week, I wrote about the Sunday School lesson I taught to the youth on the importance of commandments. This week, my co-teacher continued the discussion. The lesson was technically titled “How can I help others understand my standards.” I was thinking how I would teach such a lesson, and I would have centered it around Elder Uchtdorf’s quote from Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.

The lesson took a different direction though. My fellow teacher seemed to want to finish some of the discussion points from last week. He seemed to want to make clear that some commandments are non-negotiable, and was setting up a punchline about how the law of chastity is super-mega important. When he asked “which commandment do you think is most important?” I stole the punchline from him and answered, “Well, Jesus said there were two,” and I had a student take it from there with “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, might, mind and strength. The second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” He appreciated the comment, but didn’t want to back down from his original direction: “But does that mean that we can just do whatever we want, and forget all the other commandments?”

I know this brother really cares about the gospel, but I really think that we don’t need to explain away Christ’s answer. It is profound, because it counters the Pharisees knee-jerk reaction to specify a most important commandment, and we still seem to have a knee-jerk reaction to clarify as well. We think any gospel with an “escape route” is a lazy gospel, replacing grace for hard work, deserved guilt, and relentless commandment keeping.

Another question the teacher posed was whether “judge not” was a commandment or not. Did it have a place next to keeping the Sabbath day holy, and not murdering? Just to clarify, we had a discussion going on– I promise I wasn’t answering all the questions, promise. But I chimed in that yes, I think it is a commandment, and yes, we should take it very seriously. But I think we all break this commandment, perhaps on a daily basis. God has a certain set of commandments he sets– we can find them in the baptismal interview questions– that are required for membership in his Church. We may break them sometimes too, but these are just the “minimum.” Other commandments like not judging and loving your enemy are likely lifelong lessons. They also keep you humble, because you realize that you aren’t perfect. These aspirational commandments are just as real and just as important, but if we were excommunicated every time we judged someone, we wouldn’t have a church.

It’s easier to keep the commandments 100% of the time

The next story that my colleague shared was a story from a talk by Clayton M. Christensen entitled “Decisions for Which I’ve Been Grateful.” The story was also shared later by Thomas S. Monson in general conference, and it’s a story I also enjoy:

The fourth decision I made for which I am very grateful was also one that I made when I was at Oxford. You may have noticed how high they had to raise this podium – I am 6’8″, and when you are tall you don’t have to be very good to play basketball. So I tried out for and made the Oxford Varsity basketball team. We had a great team. Those guys were the best friends that I’ve ever known in my life, and we went through the regular season and were undefeated. Then we went into the British equivalent of what we would call here the NCAA basketball tournament. We marched through each of those games in a fairly easy fashion until we came to the final four, and then kind of cluelessly I looked at the schedule to find out when the games were scheduled, and to my horror saw that the final basketball game was scheduled to be played on Sunday in Bristol. And I was devastated because I had made a commitment to myself when I was 16 that I would never play basketball on Sunday. I went to the coach truly conflicted because these guys, we had worked our guts out all season long and I was the starting center, and the guys on the team were the best friends that I’ve ever had in my whole life and I needed to help them win this goal that we had all practiced for. And yet I’d made this commitment to Heavenly Father. So I told my coach about this conflict and asked him what I should do. And he was just incredulous. He said, “We have worked so hard for this. I can’t believe you’re even asking.” He said, “I don’t know who your god is, but mine, let me tell you what he’s like. He lets us by on things like this. And Clay, just this once, just this once, play this game and then go off and do whatever you have to do with your god and make peace with him and never do it again.”

Well, then we played in the semi-final game, and my friend who was the back-up center got up-ended on a rebound and fell down on his shoulder and dislocated his shoulder, which then increased the pressure for me to play that game. So I went back into my hotel room after that game and knelt down and asked Heavenly Father if it would be all right, just this once, if I played that game on Sunday. As I started my prayer, really before I could even utter a word, Heavenly Father put a full-sentence answer in my mind, and it was “Clayton, what are you even asking me for? You know the answer.” I sat up on the bed and looked at the door and I said, “You’re right, I know the answer.” So I went to my coach and I told him how sorry I was, but I just couldn’t play on Sunday. Then I went to the Bristol ward meetings that day, and prayed that God would bless my teammates that they would win, and they did, which means, I guess, I wasn’t that important to the team. But you know, as time has passed, and that was a decision I made now almost 30 years ago, it looms as one of the most important decisions I have ever made because it would have been very easy to say, in general, keeping the Sabbath day holy is the right commandment, but in my particular extenuating circumstances, it’s okay, just this once, if I don’t do it. And the reason that decision has proven so important to me is that my whole life has turned out to be an un-ending stream of extenuating circumstances, and had I crossed that line just that once, then the next time something came up that was so demanding and critical, it would have been so much easier to cross the line again. And when I have been subsequently confronted with opportunities to look at pornography or not pay my tithing, or compromise on others of God’s commandments, this lesson that I learned has been very important. The lesson is it really is easier to keep the commandments 100 percent of the time than it is 98 percent of the time. If I could paraphrase Alma 34:34, that same spirit that possesses our souls before something “just this once,” possesses our souls after we do it as well, and if we do it just this once, doing it again becomes so much easier. And that’s why that decision has loomed to be so important in my life, and I am grateful that I drew the line in a safe place, and never crossed it.

I get the principle. Rationalizing is dangerous, because you just admitted there are moment when commandments are negotiable. Once you come up with one reason why you can break a commandment, you can open a flood gate. You may call it the voice of reason: wasn’t the coach’s answer reasonable, and Clayton seems to come off as a self-righteous religious fanatic? Perhaps to some; perhaps the coach was absolutely exasperated. But others perhaps see the amount of integrity Clayton had for his beliefs, and that he takes them absolutely seriously.

I don’t doubt that this is a true gospel principle. But I felt the need to posit a hypothetical audience listening to this talk: let’s say there is someone who is struggling keeping a certain set of commandments. They feel they only keep the commandments 70% of the time (not that we go about keeping track of percentages like that, but you get the idea). When they hear this talk about 100% obedience, he gets absolutely discouraged, and decides to not keep any commandments anymore.

I think this is a real problem, because I experienced this myself. You feel like a hypocrite or a failure, because you have a commandment that you just can’t get right. You either start to give up on yourself, or harbor bad feelings towards God and religion in general. I wanted the youth to know that those aren’t the feelings the gospel is meant to promote, and we shouldn’t give in to that perfectionist narrative. No one can really keep 100% of the commandments after all.

Looking for devils

The final point my colleague made made me a little uncomfortable. He drew two smiley faces: one with a halo and another with horns and a tail. He pointed out that the coach in this story was trying to convince Clayton to pick Satan’s way. Choosing to play on Sunday was a choice for Satan.

Temptation is a real thing, but I felt like painting the coach as a servant of Satan is not a good habit to get into. Not everyone has the same moral obligations that we have as Latter-Day Saints, so please, refrain from painting those outside the church as secret agents of the devil.

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