The standards we like to set for ourselves tend to slip. They tend to be relative standards where we measure ourselves against the world. But we can always find others in the world, and even in the church, who are far worse than us to compare ourselves to. But in a world that is becoming more wicked, such standards are insufficient. If we are just keeping a fixed gap between ourselves and the world then we are merely following the world on its path to destruction at a delayed pace. We must have a standard that is different than simply being able to compare ourselves to others that are living worse than us.
And the gospel comes with such a standard. The saving graces God offers his children define God's standards for us. Those standards are quite high. They require us to press forward diligently, hoping one day to measure up to them. They remind us of the way Christ spoke to his disciples in his mortality, where he kept telling them that, even though they were devoting their lives to being his disciples, by his measure they were still of little faith.
Allow me to illustrate with examples.
We can baptize a man or a woman and bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost upon the individual, but we have no power to force the Holy Ghost to come upon them, to reveal to them, to make them a saint. We cannot force those things that save. They are beyond our power. The Holy Ghost comes by the grace of God, it is a merciful gift. The Holy Ghost is a god, and a god does not come upon a man or woman by the preferences or dictates of man. He comes when he sees fit to come. It is a merciful and saving grace, and we have no power to force it to happen.
We can know when we have started to enjoy the Holy Ghost, rather than just learning through the light of Christ, because the Holy Ghost is always accompanied by revelation.
Joseph Smith taught that "No man can receive the Holy Ghost without receiving revelations. The Holy Ghost is a revelator".
The first of these revelations is sometimes what we call a testimony. But that is a starting point, not an ending point. That is an introduction to the Holy Ghost, and once introduced, the whole point is to continue and learn from him. When we are confirmed we are commanded to "receive the Holy Ghost". We could just as well have been commanded at our confirmation to "know God through revelation", for to receive the Holy Ghost is to learn by revelation.
We can perform the outward ordinances that provide the circumstances. But ultimately every spiritual blessing that God bestows is granted to man as a merciful grace from God. They are far outside man's power to bestow upon himself. This is what it means that we are saved by grace after all we can do. It doesn't mean more than that, it doesn't mean less than that. That is precisely what it means.
Thus the absolute standards of God will be abided by, whether or not the men and women of the church choose to abide those standards individually.
God gives us absolute standards to measure ourselves against. He does this by offering blessings only he can grant, and stating the condition on which he will grant them.
So I can measure myself. I do not need to compare myself to anyone else.
I can read a scripture that says "these signs shall follow them that believe" and study it and ask myself "according to God's measure, do I believe"?
I should not be surprised if the standard of measure the Lord uses is high. Thus it was during Christ's mortality.
Matthew 14:28 And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.
29 And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.
30 But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.
31 And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?
When I read this story, do I think I can escape the same declaration "O thou of little faith", or do I think that by the Lord's measure my faith is strong? No. My faith is nothing like Peter's who stood on the water and walked toward his Lord. I am still of very little faith.
The Lord lays out standards in the scriptures, and we should not feel comfortable living beneath them. His standards are his saving graces: his spiritual gifts that have power to transform our lives.
Luke 17:6 And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.
The Lord lays out standards that we live far below. We cannot simply decide we are worthy of them. We must change ourselves. We must repent and do better. We must more earnestly strive to save his children. We must stand by his truth without compromise.
And the Lord speaks to us in a way that is not one whit different than the way he spoke to his ancient disciples. When they were told if they had faith as a mustard seed, they would say to a sycamine tree to be plucked up and planted in the sea and it would obey they must have realized that they were in desperate need of improvement to have the faith their God desired of them.
And I stand far, far, far beneath those men. And yet God desires the same faith from you and I that he desired of them. He still gives us standards to live up to that force us to face, as they had to, whether we are doing what he wants, have faith as he wants, and obey as he wants:
D&C 107: 18 The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church—
19 To have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heavens opened unto them, to commune with the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.
20 The power and authority of the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, is to hold the keys of the ministering of angels, and to administer in outward ordinances, the letter of the gospel, the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, agreeable to the covenants and commandments.
We get instruction like these words from Joseph Smith to the Relief Society:
If you live up to your privileges, the angels cannot be restrained from being your associates. Females, if they are pure and innocent, can come in the presence of God; for what is more pleasing to God than innocence; you must be innocent, or you cannot come up before God; if we would come before God, we must keep ourselves pure, as He is pure.
What is the purpose of these things? The answer is simple. We give ourselves easy standards. We give ourselves minimal standards, far beneath where God would have us come up to.
And so to cut through our rationalizations about ourselves, and force us to face where he wants us to come up to, he gives us standards that involve blessings only he can grant.
He tells us what signs will follow them that believe, but not for the purpose of convincing the wicked who it is that believes. Such signs are generally fulfilled in private. The point is to help us understand how well we believe. It is a standard for ourselves.
Joseph Smith taught: Because faith is wanting, the fruits are. No man since the world was had faith without having something along with it. The ancients quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, women received their dead, etc. By faith the worlds were made. A man who has none of the gifts has no faith; and he deceives himself, if he supposes he has. Faith has been wanting, not only among the heathen, but in professed Christendom also, so that tongues, healings, prophecy, and prophets and apostles, and all the gifts and blessings have been wanting.
He tells us what rights and privileges we should be able to enjoy through the priesthood. He tells the sisters what they may expect if they live up to their privileges. And why? Because we cannot fool ourselves that we are living up to privileges only he can grant. We simply have to live up to them.
He sets the standards using those graces that he lays out intending to save us with. We cannot grant them to ourselves. They are outside our power. Then we are forced to face the same realities that Christ put to his apostles of old. Do we yet have faith as a mustard seed? Does God consider us converted? By god's measure, do we believe? The ancient disciples knew that when God said he wanted more of them it was no idle statement, and they strove desperately to improve for the master they loved. We should know and do the same.