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.

4 thoughts on “Why we’ve got perfection and the atonement all wrong

  1. Thank you Dan. I have always loved how you teach the atonement – how you simplify it – how you bring it to the forefront of my life and help me achieving a healthier perspective of the Savior.

  2. Excellent job Dan! Your insights continually amaze me.

    “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.”

    — Galatians 2:21

  3. Dan, thank you for writing again. Your posts and books have brought me a great deal of comfort when I struggle with reconciling my feelings with some of those I attend church with. I joined the Church when I was 52, and struggled alot with Doctrine. What you have written has made me feel not so alone in those struggles. Thank you for that…

    I completly agree with your statement that so many do not understand the meaning of “perfection”. For years I have expressed that it is referring to completeness, not absolute perfection as we know it today. There are so many people out there that take words that were translated hundreds of years ago, and try to make them fit into our modern vernacular. It leads them sideways and gives a false understanding of the true picture. I absoulutly love how you described it, that is how I have felt for a very long time.

    Please dont stop sharing your thoughts because of the words of others. People lash out when you say things that shake their comfortable world. I find it interesting that as the Church moves closer to Christ, people are screaming apostasy! Their comfortable little worlds are being shaken, and they are afraid.

    Keep up the great work, I hope you get feeling better and are taking care of yourself in these tumultuous times. Thank you again.

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