Perfect People Not Allowed

A few weeks before Christmas I drove past a cozy-looking Protestant church in my neighborhood. I noticed a colorful banner staked into the ground — “Perfect people not allowed!” it read — and I felt a yearning tug in my heart. It had been a tiring month, emotionally and physically, and the idea of walking into a church so cheerfully opposed to perfection seemed like just the ticket. I imagined padding in wearing tennis shoes, jeans and a sweatshirt. Soothing music would be playing. Perhaps someone would give me a mug of hot cocoa. I wouldn’t have to say anything, or do anything — just sit with all the other rumply, exhausted, not-perfect people and rest.

(I realize that people probably don’t often give you mugs of hot cocoa at Protestant church services, at least not until you’re done sitting in hard chairs and listening to the sermon. I also realize that what I’ve described above doesn’t approximate a church service of any kind, really, but more closely approaches going to a spa. But this is my fantasy, mmkay, so let’s go with it.)

Our LDS church services aren’t super concerned with letting us rest in our non-perfection. Of course, Mormon churches exist for the benefit of non-perfect people just as much as the Protestant church with the banner. Every single Mormon, from the nervous twelve-year-old girl at the pulpit reciting an Article of Faith to any one of the men sitting up on the stand at General Conference, is a non-perfect person, and we all know this. Or at least we should know this. But our slogans don’t tend toward “Perfect people not allowed.” We prefer action verbs (“Lengthen your stride!”) or punchy, motivational rallying cries that also work for tennis shoe companies (“Do it!” — even punchier without the “Just.”) A familiar phrase that’s been important to me since I was a girl, “Walk tall, you’re a daughter of God”? Even that implies effort. Walking, for example. And good posture. “Curl up in a ball on the Love Sac and take a nap, you’re an exhausted mother of four,” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but oh! On certain days I would be tempted to print that out in vinyl lettering and slap it over my entryway.

All kidding aside, though, there are times I wish our church culture allowed us to admit our imperfections a little bit more. We don’t have to print up any banners . . . although maybe a banner would help some women feel more comfortable raising their hands during Relief Society to share their struggles and sorrows and pain. Me, I’ve always been a big fan of warts-and-all people, be they living or dead. They make me feel less alone in my personal wart-iness, more confident that I can make slow and steady progress in the right direction. I’m teaching the Old Testament in early morning seminary right now and it’s the stories of the prophets who struggle that truly inspire me. When Moses heard the voice of God out of the burning bush, he did not respond with an immediate, “I will go and do the things that the Lord hath commanded.” No, he begged the Lord to change his mind. He cataloged his personal imperfections. He equivocated, he whined, he danced around until God was thoroughly exasperated with him, and only THEN did he grab his walking staff and trudge back to Egypt, probably scared half do death and unsure of success. But he kept on trudging, and occasionally complaining, until he had dragged thousands of Isrealites across the Red Sea. I am no Moses, not even close, but I can relate to his journey, and I find inspiration in the struggle he had to work to overcome.

George Albert Smith is another prophet whose struggle with pain and doubt has inspired me recently. We are studying the words of President Smith in Priesthood and Relief Society this year, and I’ll admit to not knowing much about him until I started reading up a few weeks ago. I had skimmed the new manual, but once I read an article in the Journal of Mormon History detailing his struggle with physical and mental illness during his apostleship, his words took on a whole new level of meaning. (A link to the article, as well as a rousing discussion of whether or not our official church manuals should have been more explicit in describing the nature of President Smith’s struggles, can be found at BCC, here.) Speaking on the subject of faith, President Smith says, “It is this principle [of faith], my brethren and sisters, that points us heavenward, that gives us hope in the battle of life. When we become confused, and find ourselves confronted by obstacles we, seemingly, cannot overcome, having faith in the Redeemer of the world, we can go to Him and know that our prayers will be answered for our good.” Knowing more about the nature of President Smith’s personal struggles sinks his words of testimony to a deeper place in my heart.

I do understand that dwelling on imperfection and emphasizing the reality of struggle rather than the ways in which one can make positive change has its downside. Not only can wallowing become an attractive temptation, but human nature is such that if we’re not occasionally kicked in the backside, we’re much more likely to plop right down on it and stay there. We need to be shown the ideal in order to understand what we’re shooting for. But we’re also commanded to “mourn with those that mourn,” to “lay our burdens on the Lord,” to humble ourselves and ask for help. I submit that it’s much more difficult to do these things if we’re too afraid of the taint of weakness. It’s a paradox, isn’t it? As President Uchtdorf said in his fabulous talk “You Matter To Him”, we are simultaneously less than we suppose — sinners, the dust, nothing when compared to God — and greater than we suppose — powerful spirits, the Glory of God, bound for exaltation.

“Be ye therefore perfect,” Jesus Christ tells us. Someday, someday, yes. The hope is we’ll keep trudging, Moses-like, toward that goal, a goal that can only be effectuated by Christ’s atoning grace. Until then, it is possible to find strength in one another’s failures and light in our weaknesses, if we’re fearless enough to admit that we have them.

About Angela

(Advisory Board) grew up in Utah, then moved to Minnesota, then came back to Utah, then packed up her husband and four kids and moved to Minnesota--again!-- in the summer of 2010. Although she loves the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she dearly misses Slurpees, Sunday dinners at her Mom's house, and eating a whole entire Cafe Rio pork salad while lunching with her Utah-based Segullah sisters. And yes, she finds it telling that everything she misses about her hometown is somehow related to food. She has an BA in English from BYU, an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, and has taught writing to high school and college students.

25 thoughts on “Perfect People Not Allowed

  1. This is absolutely brilliant. Thank you so much. “Curl up in a ball on the Love Sac…” sounds just perfect to me. The idea of grace is something I wish we heard a little more of in our meetings. The idea of exhaling once in a while and saying, “I’m broken but whole because of Christ” sounds like something we all should do once in a while. We’re mortal, and part of our journey here is being inadequate and “less than”. Thank you, Angela. Hope you get a cat nap today:)

  2. I’m reading Chieko Okazaki’s (former General Relief Society presidency) book called “Lighten Up!”. Its about our struggle with perfectionism and it is really helping me to see the bigger picture and now beat myself up because of the little things. I really recommend it!

  3. That was supposed to be “not beat myself up”. I’m really struggling with this issue if my Freudian slip is “now beat myself up” because I am not perfect. I need to work on that…

  4. Oftentimes those with an outsider complex may feel like they are the imperfect one looking in. I think if we listen that there are plenty of people letting us know that they are human too. But we often just see the image and the smile. There are private battles too. I used to think I was almost perfect and if I wasn’t careful that I might soon be translated(when I was preparing to be a missionary). I must have either been further from perfection than I thought or I took a pretty big fall. At any rate, I know I’m not perfect all too clearly now.

  5. I love this post. I can certainly identify with wanting to just show up and church and be fed. But then there are all those Sundays (and Mondays and Tuesdays and Saturdays and all of the other days we participate in church-related activities) that I am SO glad to be a working part of the church.

    Your subtle comparison of Nephi and Moses helped me realize why I’ve never seemed to love Nephi as much as everyone else seems to. I just don’t identify with that constant “I will go and do attitude.” Despite what he writes in his “psalm,” Nephi never seems to complain or waver or exhibit an weakness. I know that he’s a wonderful example and that he was an imperfect person, but I can identify much more with a hesitant Moses than I can with Nephi.

  6. Thank, Angela!

    Nancy R., (#2)

    I also like Okazaki’s take on this. In particular, this passage helps illuminate what I think Angela is getting at here.

    “He’s not waiting for us to be perfect. Perfect people don’t need a Savior. He came to save his people in their imperfections. He is the Lord of the living, and the living make mistakes. He’s not embarrassed by us, angry at us, or shocked. He wants us in our brokenness, in our unhappiness, in our guilt and our grief.”

  7. Yeah… we Protestants are kind of big on waiting until coffee hour (oops!) to hand you that mug of hot chocolate… if we have any on hand. On the other hand, Lutheran services (I’m a Lutheran pastor’s wife) are only an hour long and we’re happy to ply you with all manner of baked goods and sometimes even better things depending on the church. The only thing is that we’re kind of fond of our coffee (well… except me — I’m an iced chai latté kind of girl) so you might have to bring your own hot chocolate mix.

    And we wouldn’t bat an eyelash if you came in jeans either. :)

  8. Love the post.

    Another Lutheran here – kept thinking when i read your post about how you might in your mind have walked into a Lutheran Church in Garrison Keillor’s book. – ;)

    Totally agree w/Jen – only im just a part of congregation. – ;)

  9. Ditto. Totally agree. And like Anne Marie, I wish we talked about grace more in our worship. I tend to think of this overemphasis on perfection as more of a cultural artifact than a doctrinal or scriptural paradigm. I mean, the doctrine teaches us to strive for perfection, but doesn’t really mention this any more often than it reminds us that the “healthy need no physician, but they that are sick.” A very pervasive attitude, though–and one that can sometimes make it challenging to be authentic in our struggles. And really, if it doesn’t feel safe to be authentic about our challenges while at church, then where would it feel safe?

    I live now in what could probably best be described as an inner city ward, a pretty diverse inner city ward, too–and seriously, no one would bat an eye if anyone came in torn jeans. But, I think about congregations where there would be plenty of eye-batting, and wonder how the truly down-and-out would feel walking through the doors.

  10. Thank you for this. Today as I stressed and fought with myself I wondered if apostles ever have these kinds of emotional dearths- I’m moving in the right direction, but still the clouds hang down. So I’m grateful that you shared about Pres Smith, I’m going to read the link.

    Laura, I just moved from an inner city branch to suburbia. It’s another world and one that I’ve found painful for the suffocating perfectionism. This sisterhood is so much more vibrant and living when we cast off that facade and lean on each other!

  11. I wonder how much depends on your ward. I know you’re not in Utah anymore. Is it better, the same?

    I think my attitude changed when I was RS pres and knew more of the sisters struggles. Our ward is pretty special in its ability to accept even smoke-smelling members.

    But I think you point out a real problem. When we don’t feel we can be accepted as we truly are, it becomes harder to want to put our feet to the ground and walk in the right direction.

    I think what I love most about this group of women (and the few men) here at Segullah is the openness and honesty. Maybe that’s easier to share when our bodies are absent!

  12. Jen and Tracy, I’m so glad when our Lutheran friends pipe up in the conversation. Whenever we’ve gone to my son’s Lutheran preschool programs (they take place during services) there are always TONS of yummy baked goods afterward and they are much appreciated.

    Mark, I love that Okazaki quote. Thanks for taking the time to post it.

    Jendoop, I really agree with this: “This sisterhood is so much more vibrant and living when we cast off that facade and lean on each other!” It’s true that different wards can have much different flavors as it pertains to perfectionism. I’ve been in homogeneous suburban wards that have also have contained a number of individual women willing to tell their painful stories, though, but I think that came mostly from people knowing each other well and trusting each other.

    And Laura, I totally agree that our issues with perfectionism in the church are more cultural than based on deep doctrine. It just takes a long time for culture to shift. And there are some who don’t want our culture to shift, too, and a part of me understands that. I think of our use of the word “sinner,” for example — a common word in other Christian religions that people use to describe themselves, but one we don’t often employ. There’s a part of me that thinks it would be freeing and helpful to refer to ourselves as sinners more often. There’s another part of me, though, that finds the word a little defeating: if we’re constantly reminding ourselves that we’re sinners, perhaps that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? It’s a small thing, certainly, the way we use a word. But it has powerful cultural reverberations.

  13. Its interesting to me that the scripture on being perfect in Matthew 5 (note: its part of the Sermon on the Mount which was given to his disciples – modern translation: members of the Church) immediately follows some of His counsel on our relationship with others. Specifically the tough relationships.

    Since the scripture on being perfect states – “Now therefore” – doesn’t that tie it to or reference the previous verses which are about relationships? Is that where our best efforts on perfection should be focused? Our love for; our treatment of; our vision of, etc… others?

    Clarify for me please you English majors and professors.

  14. I really enjoyed reading this post. This past Sunday I had to speak on “testimony of the Book of Mormon”. My focus was on how the Book of Mormon converted me to being a disciple of Christ & finding His words in that book. In order to tell about my conversion I shared some of my less-than perfect characteristics–being a rowdy teen-ager who often “kicked against the pricks” to my struggles with hormonal and seasonal depression. For each example I found comfort, strength, and Christ in the Book of Mormon. Side note: I also made sure to recognize that fact that depression is just as much a biological disorder as hypertension and cardiac disease and not because someone is lacking in faith or weak-minded. I said that sometimes medication is needed, but just like with hypertension sometimes it can be treated with alternative treatments and I discovered my alternative treatments are running & sunshine, but reading from the Book of Mormon helped me through until I found those alternative treatments. I felt comfortable that words were what Heavenly Father wanted me to share and I delivered my talk with confidence.

    Right now the phrase “church should be a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints” is quite popular. It was even used in a GA’s talk in the last conference. I believe this in this statement and if showing some of my warts can help someone on their walk with Christ than that is what I will do.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  15. Love it all. And how much I wish we all would not only just SAY that we wish others would let imperfections be but also DO it ourselves. I think most members if you asked them straight out would obviously say they don’t mind others imperfections but then how many give a dirty look about another’s clothing choices or tell other people how the RS is not doing a good job in her calling. The actual application is the hard part I think.

  16. I love this, Angela!

    “I wouldn’t have to say anything, or do anything — just sit with all the other rumply, exhausted, not-perfect people and rest.”

    This is my idea of heaven. :-)

  17. Thank you for this…..I get so tired of the unspoken message that we can (and must!) save ourselves. No wonder we get dismissed by Christian fundamentalists.

    On another note, I’ve read up a bit on George Albert Smith’s issues and I’m convinced that he exhibited classic symptoms of gall bladder disease/diverticulitis/irritable bowel along with probably Herpes infection in his eye and subsequent Epstein-Barr, resulting in chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia. No one knew about those illnesses when he was so sick.

    I am convinced that his depression and anxiety were normal reactions to terrible health problems….that he had an infection in his bowels and/or gall bladder for years. How he must have suffered. He’d have been crazy NOT to be depressed.

    I have all of them, felt the same discouragement, guilt and depression. I feel as if I know this man.

    How did I get on this subject? Oh, perfection! What a horrible word.

  18. Interesting insights, annegb. Thank you for sharing. After reading about President Smith I thought of how many people I know today who have medical issues that resist diagnosis, a situation that results in deep emotional pain and frustration compounding the physical problems. Hopefully some of them can say “I feel as if I know this man” about President Smith as well. Although it doesn’t change the reality of our own problems, perhaps the knowledge that he struggled too can help us feel a little less alone.

  19. Angela, just reading this. Thanks for your witty sense of humor, as well as your graceful thoughts. Loved the image of you padding into the church in your tennis shoes. And while you’re at it, can you print some vinyl lettering for me too? Just change the number of children to five? ;)

    In seriousness though, I do wish we spoke more openly of our frailties, our imperfections and challenges. I love this quote by Rachel Remen.

    “In some basic way, it is our imperfections and even our pain that draws others close to us.”

    I think we would find more unity in our congregations, more opportunities for true gospel-sharing and teaching, if we recognized this truth. Thanks for the great post.

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