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Author: Dan McDonald

Why we’ve got perfection and the atonement all wrong

Why we’ve got perfection and the atonement all wrong

We’ve got perfection through the atonement of Jesus Christ all wrong.  We read the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:48—be ye therefore perfect—and think of “perfect” in the sense of utter perfection, utter purity, utter cleanliness, utter sinlessness.  After all, Jesus admonishes us to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”  This causes us to then look at the atonement all wrong. Sensing the utter futility of this quest for perfection we placate ourselves with mantras such as “the atonement will make up the difference” in the end or that the atonement will somehow transform us and actually make us “perfect” like God … in the end.  I, myself, have been guilty of teaching this in the past, not that these concepts are false. They’re just not complete.

The concepts of perfection and atonement mean something much different to me now.  The word “perfect” as used in Matthew 5:48 is actually more accurately translated as “complete.” The Greek is τέλειοι (téleioi), the same word used in the Septuagint for תָּמִים (tamím) and meaning lacking nothing necessary to completeness. This gives the concept a much more practical and mystical meaning.  It is practical in the sense that perfection is something we have all achieved.  Think of the feeling you have when you bake that perfect batch of brownies, hit the perfect crushing drive off the tee, land the perfect trick on your skateboard or snowboard, hit that perfect note, or annihilate your opponent in PS4 with the perfect series of maneuvers.  But the concomitant state of consciousness that accompanies each of those fleeting feats of perfection drives us more deeply into mysticism.

When I say mysticism I mean that mysterious place where everything comes together and just works. Where we experience a presence, force or power beyond our own, as if we performed or experienced something beyond ourselves or our own natural abilities. We feel empowered. We feel enlightened. We feel complete.  We feel balanced.  We feel we belong.  Let me give you an example of how I was “perfect” recently.

I have a favorite hike in Moab that I took some friends on this October. It was a bright sunny day, not a cloud in the deep blue sky.  It was cool and crisp but, as we sat to eat a simple lunch on a huge, warm rock that was saturated with the sun’s radiant heat, a sense of warmth and comfort prevailed.  The grippy, sandpaper-like rock held us, like it wanted us to linger, not wanting to let us go. The towering canyon walls on either side of us stood like sentinels, warding off all the cares and demands of the outside world.  The sky above us was so blue it almost looked fake, as if some artist from beyond had coded some intense CGI for a movie scene or video game we were all a part of.  And that’s just it.  We were part of something.  And this something was palpable but esoteric and indefinable, real but surreal, and, above all else, connected and complete.  It was perfection.

Perfection is a state of consciousness.  It is a state of being that God intends for us to experience now.  It is that feeling that you “nailed it” or even “this is good enough.”  It’s that feeling of connectedness, unitive, whole, complete.  In a word, at-one-ment.  Say each part of that separately.  At. One. Ment.

Perfection and atonement are far too often seen through a transactional lens, a barter economy of grace where God, in the end, either magically makes up for something we lack or changes us so that we’re good enough and holy enough for his unrealistically high standards of personal purity and cleanliness.  But it’s not that at all.  That’s a view of the atonement that’s tainted by Western, post-industrial thinking (among other things). That’s not the atonement the near-Eastern authors of our scriptures were describing. The atonement is infinite and eternal, meaning that it is ever present.  The Eastern concept of Tao or, in Star Wars terms, “the Force”, describes it better.

Perfection is being complete. It is being enough. It is belonging. It is feeling like you fit.  It is feeling like you’re good enough and that God is clinging to you like the warm rock in Moab was clinging to me on that unforgettable day in October.  It is attainable and experiential at-one-ness.  It is what Jesus prayed for in the great intercessory prayer in John 17 where he prayed that we might all be one as he and the Father were one.  Go back and read John 17 with this new set of eyes and you’ll see what I’m talking about. In fact, re-read all the scriptures from this new perspective and it might open up a whole new set of possibilities for you to more readily accept yourself and experience the unitive love of God, which also is infinite and eternal.  Everything (and everyone) is connected. And if you are connected with and one-ing with God how are you not perfect?

During these scary and trying times it can be hard to feel that at-one-ment with the Tao, the Force, the Spirit, God, the Higher Power, whatever you want to call it.  It is easy to feel helpless, inadequate, and overwhelmed.  This is especially so in our isolation from one another because we were intended to be mediators of God’s presence for one another (inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, Mosiah 2:17, etc.). May I suggest that you reflect back upon the times that you have experienced “perfection”, contemplate where you where and what you were doing, and then actively strategize about how you can adjust your life so that you experience more “perfection” in your life.  Perhaps you can get rid of the practices and habits that lead to stress, disharmony, instability and replace them with the groundedness, peace, stability and equanimity you get through at-one-ing or, for short, one-ing.

Be open to new possibilities. Do what works for you.  Be practical.  Be realistic. Be kind and loving to yourself.  Be open minded, remembering that if the atonement truly is infinite then there are infinite ways in which God intended for you to experience one-ing. Don’t get stuck in your perhaps overly or underly “Churchy” ways. Perhaps you can get rid of your old way of thinking about atonement and perfection and propel yourself into a new state of consciousness that more often brings you the unspeakable peace of which Jesus spoke. You’re good enough–perfect or “complete”–when you’re present, grounded and connected. You just need to feel it. May God bless you with this awareness.



To those of you who feel invisible, consider this. It takes tremendous courage and discipline to be comfortable with being small and ordinary and to delight in being unseen and unrecognized, which are marks of true discipleship. A life of holy but largely unacknowledged influence means you are living as an emulation of the Holy Ghost; that you have taken seriously the charge to always hold His spirit within you. You cannot be big enough to consciously make yourself small without embodying Christ’s spirit. You cannot get to that place of smallness without finding Christ there. The moment you have the courage to let go of the ego’s thirst to be something big or to be something more is the moment that you find Him again. It’s the moment you become big again. (Matthew 23:12.) I hope this has encouraged you somehow.

Ministering isn’t preaching the word. It is living the word.

Ministering isn’t preaching the word. It is living the word.

The point of the gospel has been and always will be incarnation. Mary set the pattern when she literally held Jesus inside her. Jesus, in turn, set the pattern by having the Word made flesh in him. (John 1:1-14.) He came, with the Father inside of him, to reveal the Father to man. He said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” (John 14:7-9.) And now we, as followers of Jesus, as the incarnate temple of God (2 Corinthians 6:16), should, through our actions and behaviors, reveal Jesus to the world. If they’ve seen us, they’ve seen Jesus.

Paul’s epistle in 2 Corinthians 3–verses 2-6 in particular–are some of my favorite examples of this teaching. We see here Paul’s teaching that how we behave matters so much more than what we say. He uses an analogy of our lives being an epistle for God or a “letter from Christ.” (2 Corinthians 3:3 (NIV).) What a beautiful teaching … to live your life in a way that gives other people proof that there really is a God.

Living your life so beautifully that it inspires others to believe in God is the central message of the gospel. It reminds me of Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5:16: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” This takes empathy and being in touch with other people’s real feelings, real fears, real desires, etc.

“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

St. Francis of Assisi

The whole condescension of God illustrates this.  The condescension of God teaches that you cannot truly love someone unless you somehow become them and experience their life vicariously and then love them the way they want to be loved.  Jesus Christ’s love for us is so perfect and complete because, in a literal and figurative sense, he “became us.”  (Hebrews 7:26.)  In fact, “in all things it behooved him to be made like unto” us so “that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.  For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.”  (Hebrews 2:17-18.)  Jesus walked a mile in our moccasins.  Because of that, he has empathy and can love us perfectly.

True discipleship is characterized by empathy-driven love.  It’s love that hits the mark and makes a difference.  It’s love that results in people not only feeling loved by you but, more importantly, loved by God.  It’s love that makes people feel understood.  It’s love that makes people feel like they are not alone.  It’s love and human compassion that meets unexpressed needs and concerns known only to God.

The temple isn’t the holiest place on earth. You are.

Ministering isn’t preaching the word. It is living the word. As St. Francis of Assisi so wisely observed, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

Ministering is loving and understanding from deep within another’s soul.  In its highest forms, it does more than respond to the needs of another. It anticipates them. It does not ask, it acts. And when it acts, it exposes the hand of God, transforming ordinary acts of kindness into miraculous revelations of God’s love.

Of course, we cannot deliver this kind of compassion unless we, ourselves, are transformed and have the love of God inside of us. We do this by accepting our belovedness. You always hear in church how the temple is the holiest place on earth. That’s not true. YOU are the holiest place on earth. You are where God yearns to dwell. (John 17:21-26.) You are the temple of God. (2 Corinthians 6:16.)

Accepting yourself as the beloved of God, despite all your flaws, weaknesses and imperfections, gives you license to extend the same privilege to the others you are called to love. You don’t have to be perfect. In fact it’s your brokenness that will heal others as they identify with you and you identify with them in your common humanity. This is how the word becomes flesh, in deed.


“Mormon” is the new “Pharisee.” Don’t believe me? Just ask the Brethren

“Mormon” is the new “Pharisee.” Don’t believe me? Just ask the Brethren

“Mormon” is the new “Pharisee” … a collective consciousness that tends to love the church more than people. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Brethren.

What are we to infer about ourselves when modern prophets urge us to leave our immature religious practices (which were probably really cultural practices) and conduct ourselves in a higher and “holier” way centered on the commandment to love?  (See President Russell M. Nelson, “Minstering” (April 2018); Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “Be With and Strengthen Them” (April 2018).)

When God’s prophets say one thing, the people of the church are almost certainly doing the opposite.

When modern prophets say “we should mature personally” that probably means that what we’ve immaturely passed off as our “religion” is not really true religion at all. (Id.) When modern prophets say we need to “ris[e] above any mechanical, function-without-feeling routine to the heartfelt discipleship articulated by the Savior at the conclusion of His earthly ministry” it probably means that our idea of religion has been too mechanical and more focused on the functions of the church rather than any deep spiritual connection with God and others, that we have strayed from true Christianity. (Id.)

When modern prophets say “we want more care and concern” that probably means we’re not really good at genuinely caring about others.  (Id.) When modern prophets explain that changes in the church are motivated by a desire to be “more gospel-based” that probably means that what we’ve been doing in the past is more culturally-based—that what we’ve passed off as the “gospel” isn’t really the gospel at all! (Id.)

How can I be so bold? There’s one thing you can be sure of.  When God’s prophets say one thing, the people of the church are almost certainly doing the opposite. As God told the prophet Isaiah long ago—and, yes, he was referring to us, too—“These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” (Isaiah 29:13 – NIV.) Why do you think Isaiah saturates the Book of Mormon? He’s talking about “us” not “them!”

Isaiah by (Jean-Louis-) Ernest Meissonier
(c) The Wallace Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Isaiah pointed out that we have transformed religion into something that is largely cultural and not grounded in any deep spiritual connection with God. It is based upon human social constructs that have lead us astray.

In other words, with our rock star prophets we think that talking about their talks is actually walking the walk!  It’s always been that way with us.

Observing a different aspect of the same general phenomenon, the prophet Ezekiel elaborated on the cognitive dissonance that has always characterized cultural Israel and that so aptly describes the predominant “Mormon” culture and Mormon Consciousness in the church today. God told Ezekiel that prophets, by definition, are ones who are “followed” largely in hearing and adored by a people who confer rock star-like status upon their beloved cultural icons and then behave like stubbornly selfish asses:

“As for you, son of man, your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.’ My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice. When all this comes true—and it surely will—then they will know that a prophet has been among them.”

(Ezekiel 33:30-33 – NIV.)

In other words, with our rock star prophets we think that talking about their talks is actually walking the walk!  It’s always been that way with us!

Ezekiel by Michelangelo

Indeed, for most of our history, both ancient and modern, we Israelites have struggled to transcend a cultural consciousness that really amounts to no more than ritualistic tribalism, a collective consciousness grounded in a shared story, shared traditions, shared icons, and shared rituals that, as a culturally-perceived whole, more closely resembles patriotism than any deep and abiding spirituality grounded in love and internal transformation. Our people are prone to confuse the means with the ends (Mark 2:27), conflate the message and the messengers, look beyond the mark (Jacob 4:14) and see loyalty to cultural ideals and icons (like Joseph Smith) as being synonymous with righteousness and genuine spirituality. (See John 9:28-30.)

What Jesus said of the Pharisees could be rightly said of us:

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life…. but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.”

(John 5:39-42 – NIV.) We, like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, think scripture study, temple attendance and church attendance IS righteousness when Jesus so very clearly taught an alternative consciousness. (See Matthew 25:35-37; James 1:27.)

The Good Samaritan by Pelegrin Clavé y Roqué

But just when the predominant consciousness believes (in their dualistic, binary, us-against-the-world way) that through scripture study, prayer, fasting, and temple attendance “all is well” in the familiar and comfortable cultural church they have created for themselves, (2 Nephi 28:21), God sends an annoyer and disturber like Jesus to disrupt the status quo and challenge the predominant consciousness.

In our day, it seems that none other than President Russell M. Nelson and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are playing this role, telling us, among other things, that it’s time for a “better way” … to be more “mature” and live the “true, pure, and simple gospel of Jesus Christ,” (President M. Russell Ballard, “The True, Pure, and Simple Gospel of Jesus Christ” (April 2019)) which is grounded and centered in loving kindness. They are urging us to see loving kindness and compassion as our purpose. ( Elder Quentin L. Cook, “Great Love for Our Father’s Children” (April 2019) (“Love of the Savior and love of our fellow men and women is the primary attribute and motive for ministering and the spiritual purposes we were charged to undertake by our beloved prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, in the adjustments announced in 2018.”).)

The Mormon Consciousness is so immaturely focused on the church instead of the gospel we continue to be like the toddler who plays with the box and packaging instead of the gift inside of it!

They are saying we need to put away our immature traditions and get on with real gospel living. Not only is President Nelson urging us to jettison the name “Mormon” he is also slimming down the church infrastructure, loosening its reigns, and urging us to adopt a more mature consciousness grounded and centered in love, not structure and method. As my wife has wisely pointed out to me, the name change, alone, is bigger than you think. It represents an emerging shift in the predominant consciousness of the church designed to disrupt the predominant Mormon Consciousness.

Despite these recent efforts, the predominant subculture—what I have called the “Mormon” culture or the “Mormon Consciousness”—remains as defensive and intransigent as ever.  The outside-in, structure-based Mormon Consciousness is so entrenched, in fact, our leaders “worry that the spiritual purposes of these adjustments might become lost in the excitement about the changes themselves.” The Mormon Consciousness is so immaturely focused on the church instead of the gospel we continue to be like the toddler who plays with the box and packaging instead of the gift inside of it!

What you have experienced in the church is not necessarily the Lord’s way but its cultural counterfeit.

But the emerging subculture is changing the established order. This emerging subculture within the church is what I would call the “Christian” culture or the “Christian Consciousness,” and this subculture is putting ever-increasing pressure on the Mormon Consciousness. If you consider a “church” to be a collectivity of consciousnesses then you could say we have several churches within the church. We now have “Mormons” and “Christians” within the same church!

I see President Nelson leading the push towards the emerging Christian Consciousness. While, candidly, I remain skeptical about whether the Mormons within the church can rise above the patriotic-tribalism that has always plagued its culture (dating back to even before our perennial Pharisee phase), I think the leadership of President Nelson should give hope to many who struggle to thrive within the predominant Mormon Consciousness. What are the implications of these changes?

For one, you can take comfort knowing that what you have experienced in the church is not necessarily the Lord’s way but its cultural counterfeit.  You are not alone, nor are your misgivings and concerns about the Pharisaical Mormon Consciousness a figment of your imagination.

It means you should have courage to speak up, using the words of the prophets and apostles to influence discussions in Sunday school, Relief Society and priesthood meetings, which are prone to be driven by the predominant Mormon Consciousness that President Nelson and his cohorts are trying to alter. It means you should have courage to try thinking and acting in new ways that are not grounded in tradition. Be unconventional. Be nontraditional.

Have courage to reject the traditions of your fathers (Helaman 15:7), which, by the way, include a very unhealthy Lamanitesque persecution complex. (Compare Mosiah 10:12). Bear your testimony differently. Don’t just ape the standard homage to the church being “true” (whatever that means) and your adoration of Joseph Smith. Keep it centered and grounded on the true gospel, as President Ballard has urged.

Have courage to interpret the scriptures differently than the traditional Mormon Consciousness does. When the Mormon Consciousness in your neighborhood or ward engages in leader worship, which is a Pharisee-prone acute departure from our love-centered purpose (Matthew 23:6-12) have courage to point it out. It pollutes the environment.  We don’t need to inhale that air.

Pray differently—don’t give the showy Mormon prayer/talk that feels compelled to adulation of all the traditional sacred Mormon relics and icons. Keep your prayers short, simple and love-focused (Matthew 23:14). Let go of the belief that rituals and rules work like magic spells that make you righteous just for observing them. (Luke 18:10-14.) Rule keeping is not righteousness. (Matthew 19:16-22.)

To love as we have been encouraged to love means we need to open up our closed systems, our closed theologies, our closed minds. Line-drawing like “member” and “nonmember” “active” and “inactive” has to stop.

We need to let go of piousness and our acute focus on rote routines and rituals. You can’t embrace another when your arms are folded and your head is bowed.

Since the Mormon Consciousness is the predominant cultural consciousness in the church right now—especially in certain parts of Utah—it is very difficult for those embracing the Christian Consciousness to survive. The Mormon Consciousness and Christian Consciousness tend to see things so differently that going to church can be full of triggers and very painful for the latter. And, because they are so much like their Pharisee forbears, the Mormon Consciousness is not above actively persecuting those who see and think differently than they do in the name of defending what they perceive to be doctrine, protecting the church or expressing their distorted perception of love. (See John 10:31-33; Luke 4:29.)

Because of this, I know many very good people who are leaving the church because they feel that there is no room for them or their ideas. But please don’t give up!  Things are changing. We need you. We need your voice! We need you to stay strong, stay in, and be part of the change. Love is worth fighting for.

For more ideas and discussion on this and other related issues, please read my books Gethsemamnesia and Built to Love, available now in paperback.