Grace and the Prison of Perfectionism

Grace and the Prison of Perfectionism

Grace and the Prison of Perfectionism.

“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

And now we have come to the summary statement for this section of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:17-47, Jesus has revealed the meaning behind the meaning of various commands of Torah. He has sought to reveal the original intent of these particular commands. He wants His disciples to embrace the ethics of the New Covenant, the life-giving spirit of the Law and not merely the deadly letter of the Law. Jesus has reinterpreted some aspects of Torah to more closely reflect what God had in mind when He inspired Moses to write down the Torah for all time. Jesus’s interpretations were unique, distinctive to Him, and He expected His disciples to dig deeper than the religious leaders did regarding the Law. In many ways, Jesus is providing illustrations of how to interpret the Law and find its original intent.

And how did Jesus decide to sum up His section of the Sermon on the Mount discussing the intended meanings of the Torah? He said to “be perfect.” That’s a tall order, isn’t it? Is that all? In other words, impossible. Some scholars claim that Jesus is implying the Law as stated in Leviticus 19:2: “Be holy because I am holy.” Others claim that Jesus is referring to Deuteronomy 18:13, in which Yahweh said, “You shall be perfect, or blameless, before the Lord your God.” Perhaps Peter was trying to combine the two commands when he wrote, “As He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, in everything you do, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15).

Jesus knows of course that we are made of dust and have inherited a sinful gene from Adam. None of us are perfect by any stretch of the imagination. None of us are sinless. Nonetheless, Jesus expects a lot of His followers. Extended adolescence is unacceptable. He wants us to grow up rather quickly in how we conduct ourselves. While seeing that we are on the road to complete maturity, it’s common sense to accept that perfection in our case is a process. It is not a process with God. He never had to mature, to grow up, to develop into perfection. He is an eternally perfect God, moral perfection as is, forever. The Greek word for “perfect,” is teleios, and it means whole, complete, fully developed, attained the goal, mature. But with His statement here, Jesus compares us to the perfection of the Lord God. So in this context, “perfect” means much more than mature. So one could say that perfect in this statement of Jesus means: well-formed moral character; a basic attitude of mercy and lovingkindness; well-rounded in integrity; behavior that is appropriate for higher maturity levels; full of holiness; lacking nothing in godliness; reached the proper height of virtue; living out one’s God-created identity as a child of God; setting no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets no bounds to His love.

The parallel summary statement in His Sermon on the Plain in Luke is fascinating. Jesus wrapped up His section in that Sermon with, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36). Jesus seems to be equating “perfect” with “merciful.” And maybe that gets to the heart of the matter. But can we be as perfectly merciful as our Father in heaven?

If we perform one merciful act, we in that instance are perfectly reflecting a perfect God. The more merciful we are, the more we are reflecting God’s perfection. Perfect isn’t being sinless. It is being perfectly merciful, one act at a time.

James seems to understand that human perfection is a process when he writes, “When your faith is tested it stirs up God’s power within you to endure all things. And then as your endurance grows even stronger it will release perfection into every part of your being until there is nothing missing and nothing lacking.” (James 1:3-4, the Passion translation). The RSV translation puts it in simpler terms, “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” There’s that word “perfect” again. It seems we are in the process of becoming perfect as we face trials and as we let steadfastness have its way in us. In the meantime, we are perfect in a limited way as we move forward. We have moments of perfection. We ask the Lord to extend those moments until the day when we truly reflect our heavenly Father in His full perfection. The glorious fact is that we remain His children even during the process.

A final, important thought… Perhaps our inclination toward perfectionism could be limited if we remember that we are “hidden within Christ, inside of God.” (Colossians 3:3). The Judge, the King of Heaven, sees the perfect Christ when He looks at us, because we are covered over by the Personal character of Jesus, assuming we are abiding in Him (John 15), and that in Christ we have our dwelling place. God then sees us as perfect, because when He is observing each of us, He chooses not to look past the Presence of Jesus, the perfect Christ, hiding us.  Because of our union with Christ, He inside us and Us inside Him, we don’t have to fall victim to the pressures of perfection. We are hidden within Christ, and are in a sense wearing Him like a new suit of outerwear clothing. We’re instructed a number of times to “put on” Christ (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27). In unity with Jesus, we are clothing ourselves in Christ, putting on Christ’s “robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10) and His “garments of splendor” (Isaiah 52:1).  Because of the innocence and purity of His Son, and because of God’s mercy towards us, He will recognize us only through Christ.  It is unnecessary to build our own prison of perfectionism, because in God’s eyes, we are hidden inside Christ, and we have His identity and His spiritual character. Dwelling within Jesus changes everything.