How can failure lead to perfection?

Therefore I would that ye should be perfect…
3 Nephi 12:48
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness…
Ether 12:27

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between perfection, failure, and progress lately.

It all started with an article (I wish I could remember the reference!), in which the author asserted that perfection is the enemy of progress. In a church where we take the injunction “Be ye perfect” to heart, and often tend toward overachievement and perfectionism, the idea of a conflict between progression and perfection would seem paradoxical. After all, isn’t the purpose of mortality to help us progress toward a state of eventual perfection?

The fact of the matter is, under the conditions of mortality, we aren’t going to be perfect because we simply can’t be perfect. No matter how hard we try, we will inevitably make mistakes and experience failures. None of us has the perfect knowledge, perfect physical ability, perfect mental ability, etc. to be perfect in this life. What we have instead is a system in which we can learn, grow, progress, and receive mercy when we make mistakes.

I think the situation is analogous to a point Elder Dallin H. Oaks made in a talk about judgment. In reconciling conflicting commandments about judging, Elder Oaks distinguishes between intermediate judgments (daily choices in which we are admonished to judge wisely) and final (i.e. eternal) judgments (in which we are admonished to judge not). I think we similarly get hung up when we don’t distinguish between intermediate failures (normal everyday experiences on the way to learning, improvement, and growth) and final (i.e. eternal) failures (reserved for the deliberately unrepentant at the final judgment). Most of the failures we experience in this life are of the intermediate variety—transient challenges, experiments, setbacks that we experience and learn from on the way to something bigger and better. Yet we often see them as final failures, letting them define us as people and determine our eternal value.

When see our eternal value at stake in every attempt (and failure), it is easy to fear failure as something bad and to be avoided at all costs. We fear punishment. We become perfectionists. We avoid taking risks and making decisions. We lose sight of the invaluable and necessary role of failure in our progression. Failure is an essential component of the learning process. As we move from confusion, to curiosity, to exploration, to experimentation, we go through a series of trials and errors (i.e., failures and corrections), until we eventually “get it” and integrate the new information with our existing knowledge and move on to the next challenge.

On the other hand, without failure, curiosity isn’t piqued. Resilience, flexibility, and creativity suffer. The desire to learn, grow, and improve is not stoked. Without failure, we cannot make improvements in our knowledge, understanding, or performance. Without failure, there is no need to practice, no need to try, no need to progress because there’s nowhere to go.

That doesn’t sound like the plan we fought for.

Instead, God allows us to be challenged and tested. He allows us to experience pain, frustration, and—yes—failure. But the goal isn’t to make us fail; the goal is to make us succeed. By giving us the testing ground of mortality, we have the freedom to make choices, experience consequences, and grow more like Him. Sometimes it’s painful, but the Lord will not abandon us or let our tears go unnoticed. Instead, he reassures us that “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7). And, like any good parent, he stands at the ready to catch us when we fall and help us up again—then encourages us to press forward once more as we strive for eternal perfection.

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