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ON BEING PERFECT

 

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”

 

Matthew 5: 48 (New International Version, UK)

 

OF ALL THE ASSERTIONS which it is possible to make without fear of contradiction, it is that everyone makes mistakes.

No exceptions.

 

It is in the nature of the design and manufacture of any artefact or product that testing is necessary. Aeroplanes designed piece by piece on powerful computers to great accuracy, and subjected to exhaustive examinations in wind tunnels and simulators, are nonetheless taken into the sky by actual pilots and engineers for rigorous evaluation in real flying conditions before going into service. NASA or the ESA must thoroughly analyse their rockets and satellites long before they make it to the launching pad, at which point they are subjected to further repeated tests. Redundancy is built into the various mechanical and electrical systems: computer hardware and software, guidance mechanisms, and a multitude of critical components are installed as ‘backups’, to be deployed if any other vital part breaks or fails to perform as expected.

 

This obsessive checking and re-checking is one of the burdens and wonders of our modern age – science in action – and explicit and intuitive recognition that we live on an imperfect planet in an imperfect universe. Planning for contingencies is prudent and separates the professional from the amateur, the dedicated from the complacent, the optimist from the realist.[fn1]

 

SUPERMAN IS SUPERMYTH

Our tendency to make mistakes is in part related to our condition of sin. But imperfection is also built into our physiology. We are constructed in such a way that we are not able to perform some tasks with technical or mechanical precision. For example, we are not able to draw a perfect straight line or circle freehand, or estimate length or distance to within a fraction of an inch or a centimetre. This is an observation so generic as to be practically indisputable.

 

Of course, we need to distinguish our natural limitations from those traits and abilities necessary for successful survival in other species. We are not able to and will never be able to run at sixty miles an hour like a cheetah, live underwater without mechanical assistance, or jump over eight-foot fences like a deer.

 

And try as we may, we cannot make ourselves physically perfect even in those skills to which we may in many respects appear to be suited. Were it possible, it would probably have been accomplished by now. Football players and tennis professionals, at the peak of their powers, constantly injure themselves and otherwise suffer debilitating wear and tear of their joints and ligaments. Violinists suffer for their art with neck and back pain, trumpeters develop split lips. In short, we are constrained by the innate limitations of the human body.

 

PURSUING PERFECTION

Long years of life will usually temper one’s ambitions to push beyond one’s physical boundaries. But the mind is a complicating factor. It sits in that region between the tangible and the intangible. Disruption in the chemistry of the brain, or physical damage, can degrade the mind and cause irrational behaviour.

 

Though linked to and affected by the organic health of the brain, the mind nonetheless transcends a mere organisation of neurons and synapses, or the assemblage of bones and cartilage which we have in common with all members of our own species. Mind is Who we are. We exist as a person – a Me – only because of it. And it is in the mind that we live out our real, private life.

 

Perfectionism resides in the mind and is, at root, a severe manifestation of unhappiness with one’s status quo: dissatisfaction with Self. Interestingly, one would hardly expect this of a creature which has been evolved. Presumably we would have adapted to our given condition at any one time and lacked the tendency to doubt our own completeness. We may have no way to determine it, but we might reasonably assert that elephants are not unhappy with the state of elephantness, nor cats overly worried about their feline disposition. They have less demanding minds.

 

PULL YOUR SOCKS UP – OR ELSE!

Many people have made themselves ill with the striving after perfection. Such a pursuit can become obsessive and is sure to result in misery. We must not expect perfection of ourselves nor demand it of others. However, this universal and intimate discontent with the self is an innate suspicion that we are not living up to our potential, that we are not what we are supposed to be. That something is missing. This agitation reflects the dead hand of the Adamic curse upon the race, and is a salutary reminder of our need for a Saviour. But such discontent left unsatisfied can turn inward in a damaging way and eat away at our happiness and mental health, standing between us and God’s love.

 

Forgiveness is the implicit recognition – not limited to Christians – that everyone makes mistakes. To use a cheeky illustration, forgiveness prompted by love is the cosmic caulk which fills in all the gaps in our appreciation of others and makes them look better. Some healthy adjustment of affairs is in order, or social life as we know it would become not only difficult but downright impossible. Imagine a world in which every error of speech or conduct occasioned rebuke or punishment. No system of laws devised or scheme of retribution could cope with the deluge of complaints against offenders. Having been forgiven we must become forgivers. Incumbent on all Christ’s followers is the obligation to forgive, because we have been forgiven and have had the iron weight of guilt lifted from our shoulders.

 

 Thus far did I come laden with my sin;

        Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in

  Till I came hither: What a place is this!

   Must here be the beginning of my bliss?

           Must here the Burden fall from off my back?

                Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?

           Blest Cross! blest Sepulchre! blest rather be

            The Man that there was put to shame for me!

                                                 

                                  – Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan

 

We ought not to stand on ceremony with our forgiveness. The common routine of every day affords numerous opportunities to exercise longsuffering, forbearance – forgiveness in silent mode – toward our family, friends, neighbours, strangers, the dustman, the shopkeeper – you get the idea. The spring of this attitude is thankfulness, which has its face turned always to God, from whom we have received forgiveness in Christ – justification by our faith. In this way, God sees us not as we are – disfigured by sin – but accepted in the Beloved one (Ephesians 1: 6-10, KJV).

 

It is an error to afflict ourselves for our failings as if there were no God in heaven at all. No amount of self-castigation can liberate a guilty conscience. Our recognition of our own sin is the evidence that we are in the Father’s love. The ability to see our poor selves as we are and yet, nonetheless, to strive for what He wants us to become is a gift of self-perception from our heavenly Father. The Father may rebuke, but He rebukes because He loves. This simple fact may be enough to ward off the impressions of unfaithfulness which afflict the conscience of the believer and make life hard to bear.

 

It is dangerous to always equate failure with sin. This is a counsel to despair, a demon of mental persecution to those who believe they are always offending God. For such individuals God becomes a Fear Factor, not a Father. Nor should we conclude that unfortunate events which come upon us or our associates are punishments from Heaven. It is not our place to determine such things, nor to wish for them, as we are ignorant of the motivations and difficulties faced by another.

 

                                    Ah, we judge each other harshly,

                                    Knowing not life’s hidden force;

                                    Knowing not the fount of action

                                    Is less turbid at its source.

                                    Seeing not amid the evil

                                    All the golden grains of good,

                                    Oh, we’d love each other better

                                    If we only understood.

                                                – Anonymous[fn2]

 

MATTHEW 5

Verse 48 is rendered variously, from the bland, ‘There must be no limit to your goodness . . .’ (New English Bible), to the promissory, ‘Ye therefore shall be perfect . . .’ (American Standard Version). Were Jesus to exhort us on the spot to be perfect as an Almighty God is perfect would be to demand the impossible. The particular perfection which we ought to have in view has nothing to do with technical precision or error-free conduct. Rather, Jesus sets His injunction in the context of His sermon, recorded in the preceding verses, and with particular reference to those precepts which ought to govern the disciple’s attitude to others.

 

‘[43] You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” [44] But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Such an attitude, Jesus avers, is both an evidence and a cause of sonship, (‘[45] that you may be sons of your Father in heaven’), for the child of God mirrors the large-heartedness of the Father (‘He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’).

 

Nor is it simply a matter of reciprocity, doing good to those who do good to us, for ‘[46] If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? [47] And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?’ So . . . ‘[48] Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

 

In the attitude of loving generosity, the Christian demonstrates the comprehensiveness of God’s love, each one amplifying it by his or her demonstration of it. It is in this respect that we are both to be and to become perfect.

 

We approach it by degrees.

 

How?

 

By sanctification, a daily growth in the graces of character, the fruits of the Spirit. By stamping out those little, daily nagging sins which thwart the operation of the holy spirit in us. By mortifying the aggressive fleshly tendencies which sabotage practical holiness.

 

However, victory in this endeavour is not measured in absolute terms, for in this life we cannot exterminate sin from ourselves. Rather, arising from our intent to fashion a similitude of His character, most perfectly exemplified on earth by Christ, there comes an attitude of charitable forbearance which forestalls the petty-minded, vindictive exhibitions to which our nature is prone. This God-like love is not merely sentimental, a frothy stream of touching platitudes. At its heart it is muscular. And although it recognises the faults in others, it nonetheless adopts a loftier view, the same perspective from which the Father in heaven looks upon His people. For He sees us not as we are or have been in the flesh, but as what we yearn to become.

 

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^[fn1] By the standard of what most of us would regard as ‘perfection’, the universe – and by implication, earth – fail the definition. Exploding stars, crushing forces, and collisions of comets and meteors make space unfriendly for inquisitive man. Random and deadly geological disturbances on earth often make our own planet unfriendly, too. Hazard is contrary to perfection – at least in our common understanding of ‘perfection’. It is, perhaps, our overall definition which needs to be adjusted. Absolute perfection under present conditions is notional, but impossible. That fallen man may be referred to by Scripture as ‘perfect’ while still under the curse has to do with his moral or spiritual condition as viewed by God, and is relative to his unjustified state.

 

^[fn2] Sometimes attributed to Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), but his authorship is disputed. The poem was published often, and anonymously, between the years of 1910-1915. Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the ‘Little House’ pioneer diaries, cites part of this poem in her article, ‘If We Only Understood’, printed in the Missouri Ruralist, December 5, 1917, but does not give the author’s name.

Source: http://www.pioneergirl.com/index.htm?ruralist.htm&Bot_Frame (link broken)

 

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