At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commands his disciples to “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48).
What does that mean for us?
Anyone who has read Jesus the Christ by James Talmage knows that each chapter concludes with endnotes containing additional information on a given topic. The final endnote of the chapter about the Sermon on the Mount (Chapter 17) has the title: Relative Perfection. There he expounds on the mandate to be perfect as follows:
Our Lord’s admonition to men to become perfect, even as the Father is perfect cannot rationally be construed otherwise than as implying the possibility of such achievement. Plainly, however, man cannot become perfect in mortality in the sense in which God is perfect as a supremely glorified Being. It is possible, though, for a man to be perfect in his sphere in a sense analogous to that in which superior intelligences are perfect in their several spheres; yet the relative perfection of the lower is infinitely inferior to that of the higher. (pg. 248)
He, later, gives an example of college students. A freshman may have perfect grades, but his perfection is not the same as a senior who has 100% and will soon graduate from college. This may explain why the Old Testament calls Noah “perfect in his generation” (Gen. 6:9, KJV). Relative perfection makes sense when one considers the immensity of eternity, the sheer variety of life situations and experiences, and the consequences of free will toward perfection in each individual’s “sphere” (or capacity), whether they be mortal or immortal. I would like to carry Talmage’s example of grades and the school a step further. There is no doubt that God has a better educational system than any university; for, in this world, a teacher is subject to bias, may not teach a subject according to the needs the students, and their exam may not have been written well or may not reflect adequately what was actually learned in the class. Surely, God’s educational system is student-center. He will tutor each student that comes for guidance. The student will be able to go at his/her own pace and, to keep things fair, He assesses each person according to their own potential. Therefore, a definition of perfection is self-actualization in the truest sense of the word—by finding within that which I AM.
The Golden Mean
Let’s quote Wikipedia as a segue to the lesson:
In ancient Greek philosophy, especially that of Aristotle, the golden mean or golden middle way or Goldilocks Theory is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. For example, in the Aristotelian view, courage is a virtue, but if taken to excess would manifest as recklessness, and, in deficiency, cowardice.
Much of an individual’s character can be defined by where s/he lays on the spectrum between two extremes. For example, are you stingy or wasteful with your resources? The perfect balance would be generosity. Do you take severe risks? or do you never take any risks? Are you overbearing in your interactions with others? or are you never assertive at all? Do you lead your life considering only yourself? or do live as a slave to others? Do you expect too much? or do you not expect anything at all? Are you productive or idle? Are you quick to anger, or are you inanimate? Are you considerate or inconsiderate? Are you too light-minded, or too serious? Are you concerned only with castigating or with mercy? In fine, are you temperate in all things?
It is difficult to think of every character trait with an opposite. In fact, I do not think that in most cases this is possible. What one needs to reflect on is: How kind am I? How much love do I have toward others? How much knowledge or wisdom do I have? How much integrity do I have? Am I virtuous? Among all the good things we could spend our time on, am I spending my time on the right thing, at the right time, for the right amount of time? This is different every day. It is a constant struggle between you and God.
Plato, Aristotle’s mentor, quoted Socrates in his Apology as saying: The unexamined life is not worth living (38a5-6). In the same vein, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics discusses what it means to live a good and happy life. He states that there are three types of living: the life of pleasure and enjoyment, the political life or seeking honor and prestige, and a life of contemplation (1095b). He then goes on to say that his lectures would focus on the Life of Contemplation because it is the only path to the good happy life (1096a). The Life of Contemplation should entail pondering things of heaven and Earth, as well as introspection. Aristotle teaches that “the mean [between two extremes in character is] relative to us, that amount which is neither too much nor too little, and this is not one and the same for everybody” (1106a20). To determine one’s mean between two extremes in their character, s/he needs to know their character tendencies. There are two ways to become aware of one’s character: 1) by asking a friend or a loved one about their perception your character, or 2) by the use of introspection. Now, even if someone were to give you their most honest opinion about your character, but you don’t take time to reflect on it yourself, it does you no good, because you will never be conscious of your character—let alone be able to internalize it. When you are aware of where you stand on the spectrum of each desired virtue, you can make a judgment call on how close you are to hitting the Golden Mean in your life.
If we are interested in becoming perfect as God commands—how it uniquely pertains to each of us—we need to seek out the Golden Mean in our character. This is only possible through a life of contemplation, especially introspection. Through introspection, we can acquire moderation. Because, as the Second Epistle of Peter says, “[given] all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 5-8).
Relevant quote from Aristotle’s Nicomachaen Ethics:
In the same way then an expert in any art avoids excess and deficiency, and seeks and adopts the mean—the mean that is not of the thing but is relative to us. If therefore the way in which every art or science performs its work well is by looking to the mean and applying that as a standard to its productions hence the common remark about a perfect work, that you could not take from it nor add to it—meaning that excess and deficiency destroy perfection, while adherence to the mean preserves it) —if then, as we say, good craftmen look to the mean as they work, and if virtue, like nature, is more accurate and better than any form of art, it will follow that virtue has the quality of hitting the mean. I refer to moral virtue, for this is concerned with emotions and actions, in which one can have excess or deficiency or a due mean. [1106b1]