Our spiritual destination is determined in large part by the direction we face.
A large American computer company once decided to have some parts manufactured by a Japanese supplier. The American company told the Japanese firm it would accept up to 2 percent defective products in the order. Later, the shipment arrived with 100 percent of the order without defects. In a separate box was a note: “Sorry, we do not understand American company production practices. However, this box contains the 2 percent defective product you wanted. Sorry for the delay in producing, but these parts had to be made separately, which required changing our process in order to make the bad product. Hope this pleases you.”
I teach manufacturing engineering. One thing we teach students is how excellent products are produced. This means the products perform their function very well and last a long time. That is the way the customer wants them, and it is the right thing to do. One principle of making high-quality products—the Taguchi loss function—also applies to the standards by which we live. Today I will call it looking toward the mark.
There is always a target dimension that is the desired value at which a part should be produced. Making the part to that value results in the “perfect” product. Because every process has variation and it is difficult to produce to the target value each time, every part also comes with tolerance limits. These limits are the amount of deviation from the target we can tolerate and still expect the part to function at least reasonably well. If there is more deviation from target than the tolerance limit allows, the part will be rejected. However, and this point is critical, as soon as the part deviates from target it is in error, and the further a part deviates from the target, even if it is within the tolerance limit, the worse it performs.
Some companies are concerned only with producing within the tolerance limits, while wise companies constantly seek to produce on target. The differences between these companies in focus and attitude are quite significant, as are the results. Companies that desire to produce excellent products strive, constantly and forever, to produce at target. Companies known for average or poor quality tend to focus on the tolerance limits because they believe being just within the limits is good enough.
In our attitudes and actions we are much the same way. We are either focused on and striving to move toward the target or we are focused on what is “allowable” based on a tolerance limit. These tolerance limits may be rules, codes, guidelines, or even commandments. Living within them is certainly important, but it is not sufficient.
The rating system for movies is an example. If someone’s guide to determine what they will watch is simply no R-rated movies, then any G, PG, or PG-13 movie is allowable. There are at least two things wrong with this idea. First, most of us know that many movies that would be allowed based on the rating system would not be acceptable to the Lord. The second problem is that ratings change, and in today’s world seldom for the better.
What could we use then as our guide to decide what movies we watch? Perhaps this: “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things” (A of F 1:13).
We can imagine ourselves on a line between the target value, or the mark of perfection, on one side and the tolerance limit on the other. We can ask ourselves, “Which way am I facing?” and “What do I take as my guide?” If the tolerance limit is my guide, then my tendency is to move as close to the limit as I can and try to relax those limits to make more of my behaviors allowable. When facing the tolerance limit, I am not looking toward the mark of perfection. Also, since I am facing the limit, if the limit moves, then I move with it and, therefore, accept more defective behavior.
On the other hand, if I am facing the target, then my back will be to the tolerance limits. If the limits move, they have no effect on me because my focus is not on relaxing the tolerance but on approaching the mark of perfection.
Media choices, however, are not the fundamental point of this discussion. I use them as an example to emphasize that we would be greatly blessed by taking Christ as our guide and striving constantly and forever to be like Him, not spending our time flirting with tolerance limits and worldly ways. Whether it be grooming, choice of media, the Honor Code, honesty in business or personal practice, church attendance, magnifying our callings, home and visiting teaching, or anything else, those who focus on the rules and limits rather than the target confuse what is technically allowable with what is right. They are seldom the same thing.
Where we focus has a great impact on our happiness and worthiness. It gives others, especially our Heavenly Father, an indication of our willingness to be obedient. If we are constantly and consistently focused on improving ourselves and being closer to the target, we are happier, more faithful, and better prepared to serve our Father in Heaven, whenever He calls.
Sometimes we are tempted to compare our actions to what the rest of the world is doing, and if our actions are not as bad, then we figure we are still OK. Using the world as our benchmark is focusing on the tolerance limits, not the target. It is falling into the trap described in 2 Nephi: “And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell” (2 Ne. 28:21).
We must be very cautious about the world’s carnal security. When those of the world say they are “pushing the limits” or “living on the edge,” they are focused on relaxing or removing the limits of acceptable behavior. If we are using those limits as our guide, we will go down with them. We must not only not follow but remain immovable in taking the Holy Spirit as our guide and in a life patterned after Christ, who is our mark.
President Faust taught, “Staying away from the edge is an individual responsibility. . . . If there is any question about your personal conduct, don’t do it. It is the responsibility of prophets to teach the word of God—not to spell out every jot and tittle of human behavior. Our moral agency requires us to know good from evil and choose the good” (“Acting for Ourselves and Not Being Acted Upon,” Ensign, November 1995, p. 47).
Looking toward the mark brings real benefits. Companies that continuously strive to make their products on target have smoother production operations, their plants are in better order, their customers are happier, they are able to produce more product at less cost, and, of course, the products are of better quality.
Personally, striving constantly to be more like Christ means we have more order in our lives, our minds are clearer, our intellects are sharpened, we have more faith, we have a feeling of love rather than tolerance for others, we are more confident in tackling challenges, learning is more enjoyable, we serve more faithfully in our callings, and we are willingly obedient.
When we strive for the target in our day-to-day lives, we see things differently than we may have seen them before. We think differently than the world. The ways of the world, even things we may have done before “because everyone does them,” come under new scrutiny. We strive to develop “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).
Such a focus requires work and thought. We must study, search, ponder, and pray. It means we look for patterns, types, and models from Christ and those who live like Him. It means we are always living well within the letter of the law and we seek to understand and strive to live the spirit of the law. We should “study it out” by diligently searching the scriptures and constantly reviewing the prophets’ words.
President Hinckley challenged, “This is the great day of decision for each of us. . . . Don’t be a scrub! Rise to the high ground of spiritual, mental, and physical excellence. You can do it. You may not be a genius. You may be lacking in some skills. But so many of us can do better than we are now doing. . . . We are people with a present and with a future. Don’t muff your opportunities. Be excellent” (“The Quest for Excellence,” Ensign, September 1999, p. 5).
Striving for excellence does not mean we are perfect. We may slip on occasion, but if we are striving to be ever closer to the mark, we will slip less often than if we are simply trying to live within allowable tolerances. In addition, when we slip it won’t be as far, and the need for recovery and the way to repent will be apparent.
Even though we may not be perfect now, can we become so? Moroni 10:32 promises, “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.”
What we choose as our guide determines the kind of life we will live and the blessings we will enjoy. We will live a life and receive rewards consistent with the law by which we abide. In other words, we will receive the rewards of the god that we worship. If the god we worship is a god of this world, then the rewards we receive will be only of this world and will be temporary. But if the God we worship is the God who gave His life that we might live, we will obtain the blessings of the atoning sacrifice and all that goes with it. My prayer is that Christ will be our pattern, our model, and the mark to which we look.
Val Hawks is an associate professor of manufacturing engineering technology in the School of Technology. This article is condensed from a devotional address given on June 1, 2004.
The full text of this address can be found at more.byu.edu/hawks.