At the end of His sermon on the mount, Jesus said, "Be ye therefore perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).
This is a commandment from God and yet most Christians dismiss it as being something that is impossible to do. The oft stated reason given is that we cannot become perfect in this life and so many people even don't try. However, God doesn't give us commandments that are beyond our ability to keep. If that is so, then what does God expect of us in regards to living this commandment?
The scriptures tell us, "thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little" (2 Nephi 28:30, see also Isaiah 28:10, 13). The way we grow in our spirituality is by learning one precept, concept, or principle of the gospel at a time and then, after awhile, rise to the next precept, which is built on our understanding of the previous precept. In other words, each precept we learn takes us to a higher understanding of the gospel. We can think of this as a series of steps that helps us climb higher and higher in our spiritual development until we reach the top which is where we find perfection.
In any staircase there are two parts -- the horizontal and the vertical boards. The horizontal board is what we stand on, while the vertical board is what separates one horizontal board from the next horizontal board. If we think of the horizontal board as being the precept, then the vertical board is what we need to do to get ourselves from one precept up to the next higher precept.
The way we advance from one level of spirituality to the next is by learning a precept and then applying that precept in our life. As we continue to do this, in time we find ourselves better able to understand a slightly higher concept of the gospel and, as we consistently apply that precept in our life, we come to better understand yet another precept. And it is in this way, as we grow in our understanding, we get closer and closer to becoming perfect.
Although we all start out on our journey to perfection following this process, what usually happens is that, at some point, we reach a level where we stop climbing to the next level and are content to stay where we are. This level is different for every person but all of us experience this situation and this is the reason why we are not as perfect as we should be.
If that is what is keeping us from progressing spiritually, then it's important to understand why we do this.
There are four reasons. One is that some people get to a point in their spiritual development where they feel they don't need to progress any further. They say to themselves, "All is well with me. Yea, I prosperth in the gospel. All is well with me." This condition was explained by Nephi as being one of the many techniques the devil uses to keep us from becoming more like God. He explained, "and thus the devil cheateth their souls and leadeth them away carefully down to hell" (2 Nephi 28:21).
There are two words in this scripture that are instructive on how the devil works. The first is that he "cheats" our soul. The word "cheat" means "to rob, steal, or take away." If the devil can get us to stop advancing from one level of spirituality to another then he has effectively prevented us from reaching our goal of perfection, in which case, he has robbed or taken away from us our eternal inheritance.
The second word that is important is that he takes our reward from us "carefully." Just as we advance little by little, so too the devil takes us away from the process of perfection by small degrees, ever so slightly and ever so carefully lest we discover his ruse and turn back to God. And the way he does this is by getting us to believe a lie. In this case, the lie is that we feel content with where we are in the gospel because we have been lulled into a sense of spiritual security.
Closely associated with this technique is the doctrine "that by grace we are saved after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). In relationship to this we have also been taught that the atonement of Christ makes up for our shortcomings. In other words, after doing all we can, the atonement of Christ will make up the difference in our shortcomings.
The way some people interpret this is that they feel they have worked hard in the gospel and, since they have made it to a certain acceptable level of church activity, they don't have to do anything more on the assumption that the atonement of Christ will take care of the rest. Those who have this attitude feel that, instead of climbing the rest of the steps necessary to reach perfection, when they die, the atonement will be enough to make them perfect. These are the people who say that since we can't be perfect in this life there's no sense in trying. These are the people who will also say, "Eat, drink, be merry; nevertheless, fear God - he will justify in committing a little sinů and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God" (2 Nephi 28:8).
But if we are saved by grace after all we can do and we refuse to take the appropriate steps necessary to reach the next level of our spiritual development, not because we can't but because we don't want to, then it can't be said that we have done all we can do.
Another reason why people don't progress to the next level is because they sincerely try to live the principles of the gospel but they just can't seem to do all that's required of them. These are they who have the best intentions of saying their personal prayers everyday but are distracted by a hectic family life. They try to read their scriptures everyday but when bed time comes they are too tired to read. They try to hold Family Home Evenings but the children won't settle down or cooperate. They try to be a 100% home teacher or visiting teacher but just never seem to find the time to visit every family. They try to do their genealogy, and they try to magnify their callings but they just can't seem to get everything done that's expected of them.
Then, when they look at others who seem to be doing all that the gospel requires, they feel like a failure and lament that perhaps they just aren't celestial material so they give up trying. It's been said that discouragement is one of Satan's greatest tools and this is one method he uses it to cheat our souls.
And then there are those who are doing all they're supposed to do. They say their personal and family prayers every day, read their scriptures every day, attend church every week, seek to magnify their callings, do their home teaching, go to the temple regularly, and are working on their genealogy. Yet, despite doing all of these things, they still feel they are not spiritually progressing as they should and lament, "What more can I do?" The answer to that question is found by looking at the problem from a different perspective.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there are two priesthoods - the Melchizedek, and the Aaronic. The Melchizedek priesthood performs the spiritual ordinances while the Aaronic priesthood performs the temporal ordinances. The word "temporal" means earthly or physical. It has reference to something we can see, touch, or hold in our hands. For example, in baptism we take a physical person, take hold of them and dip them in physical water. That's why this is a temporal ordinance. When preparing the sacrament we take physical bread and physically rip it apart. This is why that ordinance is performed by the Aaronic priesthood. On the other hand, giving the gift of the Holy Ghost is not a gift we can see, touch, or hold therefore it is a spiritual ordinance and must therefore be performed by the Melchizedek priesthood.
The Aaronic priesthood is also known as the preparatory priesthood, meaning that it prepares a person to receive the Melchizedek priesthood. If the Aaronic priesthood, which performs the temporal ordinances, prepares us to receive the Melchizedek priesthood, which performs the spiritual ordinances, then it's obvious that doing temporal things prepares us to do the spiritual things. To see how this works, we need to understand how we advance in the gospel.
The first thing a person needs to do after they've become baptized is to attend church but that is a physical act because a physical person has to leave their physical home to come to church and sit in a physical pew. After performing this physical act for several weeks, they are given a calling, which takes them to a higher level of church activity. Now they have to perform physical duties. Tithing is about paying physical money and that is another level of church activity. Still another level is keeping the Word of Wisdom which concerns eating physical food. Doing home teaching is another level of church activity which involves physically visiting physical people in their physical home. Even prayer involves getting down on our physical knees.
Doing all of these physical activities are necessary but if doing the temporal prepares us to do the spiritual then, at some point, in order to progress further towards perfection what we need to do in order to advance to the next level is spiritual in nature rather than physical.
The first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ. Faith is a spiritual quality because you can't see, touch or hold it, but faith is not something we either have or don't have. A person can have little faith in God, while most people have average faith in Him. Then there are those who have great faith, while the scriptures talk about those who are full of faith (Acts 6:8). The question we need to ask ourselves is, "What level of faith am I at?" More importantly, we need to ask ourselves the question: What do I need to do to increase my faith?
Honesty is another spiritual quality but what level of honesty are we at? Are we one hundred percent honest in everything we do? Very few people can answer "yes" to that question. Some people are 90% honest in their life, some are 70%, and some are 50% honest. Some only tell little white lies, while others find themselves every so often in a situation where they feel they have no other choice than to tell a big, black, bold-faced lie. Still others regularly shade the truth without feeling they are being dishonest. While some people would never rob a bank yet they think nothing of taking supplies from their employer without asking permission. Again, we need to ask ourselves the question: "What level of honesty am I at?" And, more importantly, "What do I need to do to become more honest?"
Other spiritual qualities include such things as integrity, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, gentleness in dealing with people, controlling our anger, refrain from condemning others, and many others divine traits.
However, there is one spiritual quality that is more important than all the others. The apostle Paul taught, "Though I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains and have not charity, I am nothing." He then went on to say, "And now abideth faith, hope, and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity" (1 Corinthians 13:2,13).
Charity means caring for the needs of others, not because we have to but because we want to. Charity is an act of selfless compassion towards the needy. We sing a hymn that expresses the attitude of charity this way: "I cannot see another's lack and I not share" (Hymn #216, Because I Have Given Much).
The scriptures tell us that "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). God did not sacrifice His only begotten Son because there was something in it for Him. The only reason why the Father put both Himself and His most beloved Son through such a heart-wrenching experience was to save us. There was no other motive for His action. As such, it was an act of selfless love on God's part simply because of His compassion for us, His children.
Jesus said, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 5:13). Jesus willingly offered Himself as a sacrifice on the cross for our sins, not because He had to but because He wanted to. He didn't offer His body to be brutally scourged just so He could become exalted and sit on the right hand of God. He didn't submit Himself to the agony of Gethsemane because He wanted every knee to bow and every tongue to confess that He is the Christ, the Savior of mankind. The only reason why Jesus deliberately went through such unimaginable suffering was to save us. There was no ulterior motive. He did it out of pure, unadulterated, selfless love. This is what the scriptures mean when it defines charity as "the pure love of Christ" (see Moroni 7:47).
It is interesting to note that in the two scriptures just mentioned (John 3:16, 5:13), the Greek word that is translated as "love" is the same Greek word that is translated as "charity" in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13.
In 1 John 4:8 we read, "He that loveth not knoweth not God for God is love." What this tell us is that anyone who doesn't know how to love others doesn't know God because God is love. Love is not just one of God's attributes such as mercy, justice, or forgiveness. God is who He is because He is a being of pure, perfect, unadulterated love and if we want to become perfect even as He is perfect then we too must learn to become beings who are full of pure love towards others.
When asked what the greatest commandment was in the law, "Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart and with all thy soul, and with all they mindů and the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40).
All the commandments God has given and all the teachings preached by the prophets revolve around either loving God or loving our fellow man. To love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind excludes anything of a selfish nature. It requires us to serve Him with total, selfless devotion. To love someone as much as we love ourselves requires having as much compassion for other as we have for ourselves and that kind of love is the definition of charity. The apostle Paul put it more succinctly when he explained that "love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 12:10).
As was pointed out earlier, doing the temporal prepares us to do the spiritual. Perhaps we can illustrate how charity helps us do this by using a few examples.
At the lowest level, the reason why people go to church is because it is required, it is a duty that has to be performed, and when something is a duty people tend to do it because they have to, not necessarily because they want to. But, as people keep coming to church, week after week, they begin to make friends and, after awhile, they reach a level where they want to come to church because that's where their friends are. At this level of growth, going to church is like going to a social event where a person can mingle and talk with their friends.
But as they continue coming to church, after awhile, they notice they feel good after the service and that their week seems to go a little better than when they don't go. What they are feeling is the Spirit and soon they reach a level where they start coming to church because of the way it makes them feel. Many people have expressed this as needing to recharge their spiritual batteries.
There is nothing wrong with coming to church for these reasons but they are all selfish in nature. However, the longer someone comes to church and feels the Spirit, soon they reach a level where they have a desire to want to learn more about God. They may be reading the scriptures at home but now they come to church to learn more from others and to hear other perspectives and viewpoints that they would not have thought of on their own. At this level they come because of a love for God and a desire to draw closer to Him through studying His word.
Yet, as they continue coming to church, after awhile they begin to gain a greater understanding of the concept of serving others and so they begin to be more faithful and valiant in their callings. If they are teaching a class they put more effort into preparing their lesson with the goal of serving those whom they teach. At this level people come to church because of a love of others.
But as they continue to apply that principle in their life, soon they reach a higher level of spirituality where they come to serve, not because it's their calling, but because they have true concern for others. At this level they might see someone who looks unhappy and reach out to them in love. Perhaps they might befriend a new investigator or assist someone in their calling, or help take care of an elderly member or a young child. They come to church, not so much to be blessed and uplifted as to bless and uplift others.
Tithing is another example. At the lowest level, people pay their tithing because it is their duty. At this level, a person's vision of tithing only extends as far as thinking about their own financial situation. All they can see is that they are taking money out of their pocket - money that could be used for other things in their life - and giving it to a Church that is one of the richest in the world. When an unexpected expense suddenly comes along, they easily forego paying their tithing for what they think is a greater need.
However, as they continue paying their temporal tithing, they eventually reach the next higher level where their vision expands as they begin to notice that every time they pay their tithing things seem to go a little smoother in their life and the money seems to go a little farther than when they don't pay their tithing. At this level it is common to hear people say that they pay their tithing because they need the blessings.
This is not a bad reason to pay tithing but it is a selfish one. However, as a person continues to pay their tithing, they eventually reach a level where their understanding of this temporal work expands and they remember that at their baptism they made a covenant to help build up the kingdom of God here on earth. Because this world operates on the medium of money, when we pay our tithing it goes to help build chapels and temples, to build and equip genealogical libraries, to promote missionary work by maintaining mission homes, the MTC, and the printing of Books of Mormon that are given away for free.
It also takes money to build and maintain the church office building along with its supplies and utilities. It also takes money to provide stake centers around the world with satellite dishes and other communication devices, such as the internet, in order to broadcast the gospel message. At this level, a person pays their tithing to show their love for the Lord by keeping their commitment to help build up the kingdom of God.
And as they continue paying their tithing they reach another level where their vision expands even further as they realize that all they have comes from the Lord. When viewed in this way, they don't think they are giving away a large 10% of their own money but rather the Lord is allowing them to keep 90% of what He has given them. And then, at a higher level, they gain a better understanding of all that God has done for them, which includes much more than material things.
In the first place, God has given us breath to live, along with the health and vitality we use to earn a living. Soon we come to the realization that God has given us many, many blessing even before we ever started paying tithing. And we when we serve God, He blesses us, so we are always in his debt (see Mosiah 2:21). At this level of spirituality people pay their tithing because it is a debt they owe God for all the blessings He has already given them. If they did not pay their tithing they would feel like they were the most ungrateful person on earth and so they pay their tithing as an expression of great love for and gratitude towards God.
Another example is home teaching. Some people do their home teaching because it is their duty. These are those who wait until the last day of the month and then quickly try to visit all their families in one night. On a higher level there are those who enjoy visiting their families and do so because they like the fellowship. On a higher level are those who take a genuine interest in their families, who remember the birthdays of each family member, and who sincerely seek to attend to the needs of their families.
Some people complain that it is hard for them to remember or find the time to say their prayers every day. More than that, there are numerous scriptures that tell us that we should pray continually. There have been many sermons preached and lessons given on what this mean but it is simple. Prayer is nothing more than talking with our Father in heaven. If we had a really close friend, it is doubtful that most people would have trouble finding the time to talk with them and the same is true when we make our Father in heaven and Jesus as our best friend.
We can talk to Them as we are riding in our car. Let's say that we are almost in an automobile accident. When God is our best friend it becomes easy to give Him thanks as we safely keep going on our way. When we are swamped at work and need help to get everything done, it's easy to talk with God about our problem as we are sitting at our desk if He is our best friend. When we need to make a decision and don't know what to do, we don't have to wait until night time to get on our knees to ask God what to do. We can talk with him about anything in any place. That's how we pray continually.
When we develop love for God and our neighbor then keeping all the other commandments not only becomes easier to do but helps us in our spiritual journey toward perfection. While it is true that we will not finish that journey while in mortality (by divine design) yet "this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors" rather than wasting this valuable time "procrastinate(ing) the day of your repentance until the end for this life is given us to prepare for eternity" (Alma 34:32, 33).
No one can make us follow the path that leads to perfection. That is a decision each of us must make for ourselves. Not even God will force us into heave (see hymn #308, Know This That Every Soul is Free). All of us are at different levels on a wide variety of issues as we make our way toward perfection. Each of us must determine for ourselves where we want to be on our path to perfection.
Sometimes it seems we aren't moving forward when we are because progress comes slowly and in very small steps, but sometimes we aren't moving forward because we've been deceived by one or more of Satan's lies. Therefore, it's necessary to take a look at ourselves to determine if we are sitting still, falling back, or moving forward in our effort of striving toward perfection.
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