Becoming Perfected in Christ 

In a recent Stake Conference, President Russell Shurtz gave a talk about how we can become perfected in Christ. This something that is so important for us to be reminded of as we go throughout our busy and often complicated lives. Here are some excerpts from his wonderful talk to brighten your Sunday!

Gethsemane1

Becoming Perfected in Christ
Where is your heart with the Lord? Where are you in your personal relationship with Jesus Christ?
Tonight I have felt impressed to share a few thoughts about how each of us can:
* Turn our hearts more fully to the Savior
* Learn to trust Christ more, to accept and appreciate his Atonement more fully in our lives, and let Him help carry our burdens
*Understand what the scriptures mean by “perfection” and how we can become perfected in Christ without being overwhelmed by unrealistic expectations we may have of ourselves.

When I was in high school, I can remember sitting at the lunch room table with a group of my friends one day. Somehow the conversation turned to religion. In my graduating class of just under 300 students, there were only 3 members of the Church. We lived in small town South Carolina in the heart of the Bible Belt, where even today the Church is still relatively small. Many of my friends knew precious little about our Church. On this particular day, we started talking about some doctrinal things like whether there could be any scriptures beyond the Bible and what it meant to be “saved”.
This was perhaps the first time that I can recall ever thinking deeply about these important Gospel principles. I realized that my friends had very different views than I did. This forced me to do some real soul searching and pondering and reading. I spent time talking with my parents and my seminary teachers.
One thing that really struck me was my friends’ view that in our Church, we placed too much emphasis on “earning” our way back to Heaven and thus didn’t really believe in Jesus Christ, the power of the cross, and His saving blood.
I was puzzled a bit. Was it my faithful obedience to the commandments and my personal righteousness that would help me return back to Heavenly Father? Or, as some of my friends felt, was it solely the Grace of Jesus Christ that would bring me back to Heavenly Father, regardless of what I actually did in terms of my obedience. They felt adamantly that after accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, there was very little to do beyond that.
And so for several years after this conversation I grappled and struggled to understand what was true. It was while serving as a full-time missionary in Venezuela and gaining a deeper knowledge of God’s word that I developed a more clear understanding of our relationship with Christ—and what He and Heavenly Father expect of us.

I came to realize that while it was NOT true that we could simply profess Jesus and all was done, there was actually some truth in what my friends had shared with me. I knew that “faith without works is dead”—and that each of us must endure faithfully to the end, but I still found an important grain of truth in my friends’ faith. I saw that some of my friends were actively striving to embrace Christ, to let him carry their burdens, and to allow his Grace, love and mercy to strengthen them and fill them with joy and optimism in the journey. They clearly were not trying to do it all on their own. In contrast, to some extent, I had been.
In short, I had not fully appreciated the lifting and strengthening power of Christ’s grace. I had instead been primarily focused on dutifully following all of the commandments—mostly on my own. As a young person, I had some gaps in my testimony and my faith. I had sincere questions. I struggled sometimes with self-esteem, with wanting to know whether God really heard my prayers and would answer them. Whether He truly had a plan for me in this world. Whether He knew me individually.

In the 25 years since this enlightening conversation with my friends, I have come to see how we as members of this glorious Church may occasionally leave divine help on the table. We sometimes “live beneath our privileges”. We may be under-utilizing and under-appreciating the Atonement. We sometimes seem to unwittingly pull the load alone, not accepting Christ’s heartfelt offer to “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest . . . For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28, 30).

Brothers and Sisters, sometimes we and those we love may struggle with feelings of inadequacy. We worry that we’re not measuring up. We’re so far from being perfect. We may do fine for a while, but then we slip and fall. We then beat ourselves up. We see so clearly our shortcomings—and tend to compare our weaknesses with the strengths we perceive in those around us. No matter how hard we try, we simply will NOT be able to be perfect in this life.
My message and invitation tonight is NOT that we should stop striving to be like and follow Jesus. Indeed, if we are to reach God’s ultimate goal for each one of us to become more like Him, we MUST strive to emulate the Son in all that we do. But my invitation tonight IS that perhaps each of us, IN OUR STRIVING, can better understand and draw upon the transforming power of Christ’s Atonement, his love, his mercy, and his grace—all of which are freely offered to us. We can realize that its not just about us and our strivings—its about Christ and what he’s already accomplished for us.

I recently came across some beautiful insights shared by Elder Gerrit W Gong of the Seventy on this topic. Listen to what he’s learned:
“Understanding the Savior’s freely given atoning love can free us from self-imposed, incorrect, and unrealistic expectations of what perfection is. Such understanding allows us to let go of fears that we are imperfect—fears that we make mistakes, fears that we are not good enough, fears that we are a failure compared to others, fears that we are not doing enough to merit His love. The Savior’s freely given atoning love helps us become more forgiving and less judgmental of others and of ourselves. This love heals our relationships and gives us opportunities to love, understand, and serve as our Savior would.
His atoning love changes our concept of perfection. We can put our trust in Him, diligently keep His commandments, and continue in the faith (Mosiah 4:6)—even as we also feel greater humility, gratitude, and dependence on His merits, mercy, and grace (2 Nephi 2:8).”

The word “perfection” as used in the scriptures is often misunderstood. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior commands us, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48). Note the footnote here indicating that the Greek word for perfect means “complete, finished, fully developed”. This is far different from the mistaken view when the scriptures speak of perfection, it means never making a mistake.

So how can we do what Elder Gong describes and more fully accept the Savior’s Atonement, trust Him more, and let Him carry our burdens—avoiding the pitfalls of perfectionism?
Tonight I’d like to propose that it largely comes down to our heart. This is why I started my remarks by asking you where your heart is with the Lord? The scriptures have some beautiful insights about how our heart ultimately is the key.
1 Kings 8:56-61
King Solomon offered a beautiful dedicatory prayer for the temple. They had just placed in the Holy of Holies the ark of the covenant, containing the sacred tablets with the 10 commandments. Solomon then offered this inspired blessing upon all those who were in attendance:
57The Lord our God be with us, as he was with our fathers: let him not leave us, nor forsake us:
 58 That he may incline our hearts unto him, to walk in all his ways
60 That all the people of the earth may know that the Lord is God, and that there is none else.
 61 Let your heart therefore be perfect with the Lord our God, to walk in his statutes, and to keep his commandments, as at this day.
We find a similar teaching in 2 Chronicles 16:9
For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.
I believe there is vital lesson for us in these verses. They indicate that the Lord wants us to make our heart right with Him. To get our desires right. To strive to love him and trust him. Our hearts are then perfect with the Lord and toward the Lord.

As we are struggling through this life, we often will be reminded that we are far from perfect. We will make mistakes. We likely will not be the perfect student, the perfect athlete, the perfect musician, the perfect artist, or the perfect missionary. We won’t have the perfect body or the perfect mind. And importantly, we will not be the perfect parent or the perfect child, the perfect homemaker or the perfect breadwinner. And occasionally we will stub our toe and sin. Sometimes our sins may feel like far more than just stubbing our toe.
Satan would have us believe that we should just give up because it is impossible for us to be the best—or to perfectly live the Gospel in this life. Indeed, many of us have fallen prey to this defeatist attitude at one time or another—because discouragement is such an intensely powerful tool of the Adversary.
But the scriptures teach the important principle that God is really looking on our heart. Are we trying to turn to Him? Are we striving to stay close to Him? Do we recognize that its His perfection, not ours, that ultimately will carry the day? In our weakness, are we actively trying to draw upon the power of the Atonement for strength to resist temptation or to overcome trials and tribulations?
In short, we cannot and should not try to do this on our own. God simply expects us to do the best we can, knowing that we will make some mistakes along the way.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell cautions us: ‟What can we do to manage these vexing feelings of inadequacy? . . . We can distinguish more clearly between divine discontent and the devil’s dissonance, between dissatisfaction with self and disdain for self. We need the first and must shun the second, remembering that when conscience calls to us from the next ridge, it is not solely to scold but also to beckon. (“Notwithstanding My Weakness,” Ensign, November 1976, p. 14.)”

We need to get our heart right with the Lord. As we strive to be like Christ and to follow his perfect example, let’s remember to be patient and kind with those around us and with ourselves. God’s word has made clear that we do well when we strive for our hearts to be full of compassion and Christ’s love.
Listen to these beautiful words in Colossians 3:12-14
12 Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering;
13 Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.
14 And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.

If we ultimately want to become like our Savior, more perfect and more holy, we need to be filled with His pure love—which the scriptures call Charity. How fitting that the scriptures equate charity with being perfect—“perfectness.” I want to close with a powerful doctrine from the Book of Mormon about how a loving Heavenly Father helps us ultimately become more like him. The scriptures of the Restoration shed such remarkable light on the Savior, his Atonement, the Great Plan of Happiness, and our journey back home to Heavenly Father.
Moroni 10: 32-33 
32 Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.
33 And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.

How beautiful it is to note that perfection here is never referenced without being followed by the words “in Christ.” How comforting that our “perfection” is not measured by never making a mistake in life. God is fully aware that our performance on this grand stage of life will not be flawless. Indeed, we couldn’t become who He wants us to become without making some mistakes along the way. I love how Elder Gong described this process of becoming perfected in Christ.
Becoming perfect results from our journey through physical life, death, and resurrection, when all things are restored “to their proper and perfect frame” (Alma 40:23). It includes the process of spiritual birth, which brings “a mighty change” to our hearts and dispositions (Mosiah 5:2). It reflects our lifelong refinement through Christlike service and obedience to the Savior’s commandments and our covenants.
Our learning in this life comes line upon line, struggle by struggle, and repentance upon repentance. As I watch my precious little 3 year old boy growing and learning, the only time I really get frustrated is when he’s not willing to try. I see so visibly how he’s learning when he touches something that’s hot. How sad he is when others are eating ice cream that he can’t enjoy because he didn’t eat his vegetables. And how he’s trying so hard to get the button to button or the shoe to fit on his foot.
Brothers and Sisters, God sees us in a very similar light. He wants us to learn and to grow. He wants us to trust Him. He wants us to keep striving and not give up. But he doesn’t want us to do it all on our own. He sent the greatest source of Help and Support that any of us could ever need in the gift of his beloved Son.
May we turn our heart more fully to the Savior—and strive to fill our heart with His pure love, which is charity—the bond of perfectness.
And may we understand God’s beautiful message about how through the Atonement we can become perfected in Christ without being overwhelmed by our own imperfections and unrealistic expectations

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