Perfection and Perfectionism

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The lawn mowing season in Texas is a long one.  Ours started a couple of weeks ago when we were blessed by two young fellows coming over to mow the lawn.  (Our former, conscripted yard crew up and left for college last fall – can you believe it?)  As our new charges took turns on the riding lawn mower, their father asked me, out of the blue, “Why do you think believers do not take what Jesus said more seriously?”

I believe our lack of taking “what Jesus said more seriously” is two-fold.  In the first instance, Jesus’ radical call to discipleship which is a large part of what my friend was referring to is at odds with our pursuit of selfish ambition, materialism, the American dream, personal peace, affluence, or whatever else you want to call it.  You know what it is.  This challenge has been addressed many times with the current title, Radical:  Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt, the most recent incarnation.  It is a question we must all consider.

The second instance for downplaying the seriousness of Jesus’ words is more subtle.  It stems from our confusion over perfection and perfectionism.  Perfectionism is a judgmental, self-righteous attitude that was condemned by Jesus on many occasions.  It parks itself on the faults of others and is unsympathetic to the frailty of the human condition.  It is an attitude of superiority that no one likes and appropriately so.  It is the opposite of humility.

However, in our effort to appear “humble” and our desire to rightly avoid the perfectionist label, have we rejected the worthy goal of perfection as summarized by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48)?  Have we “dumbed down” our expectation of following Jesus’ call as closely as possible and the seriousness of His teaching so as not to appear too “pious”, not to appear too “holier-than-thou”?  Do we downplay our spiritual progress fearing that sharing our successes may appear too prideful?  We somehow think that labeling ourselves as “sinners saved by grace who have not made much progress since” is a sign of humility.  It is a false humility at best.  At worst, it is an outright rejection of God’s gift of a new identity for those in Christ Jesus.

We become what we label ourselves.  When we label ourselves as sinners, first and foremost, we are turning our backs on God’s gift of a new identity, a new heart, a new nature, a new power, a new Spirit, a new purity, a new disposition, a new relationship with sin, a new everything that we have been writing about in the last few months.  And, quite frankly, it becomes an excuse to not aim higher, an excuse to shirk the goal of spiritual maturity, an excuse to remain in our sin.  We were made for so much more!

Will we arrive at moral perfection on this side of heaven?  No, we will not, but we will certainly move in that direction in new and exciting ways when we understand and enjoy all that became new in us when we embraced the gospel message of Jesus Christ.  And we will wholeheartedly pursue all that Jesus taught.  Rather than talk our way out of the seriousness of what Jesus taught, let’s join arms to lift each other up to higher expectations.  Not to reach some height of moral superiority, but to lay hold of what God has given us by His divine power: “…everything pertaining to life and godliness” (II Pet 1:3).  This is the good outcome of taking what Jesus said more seriously.