Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Jesus, setting the bar high (Matthew 5:48)
For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
-Paul, keeping it real (Romans 7:19)
I rarely mention the writing process itself, but I sit here at the end of a snow day filled with frustration at my children because they’ve distracted me from writing about spiritual formation. Yeah. The irony is not lost on me, either.
I need to be godly, kids! STOP BUGGING ME.
I made mistakes today. I’m serious, and I really dislike admitting it. I didn’t nail the whole this-is-God’s-ideal-character-for-me. Maybe some days you feel the same. It's tricky for most of us to figure out how to deal with mistakes. But we make them a lot, don’t we?
A unkind comment that was intended to hurt.
A selfish decision that overlooked someone we care about.
A thought or judgement that was unnecessarily critical.
A temptation given into.
A small lie told to protect ourselves.
A story shared about another that wasn’t ours to share.
These things and more can leave us walking around either ignoring our failures or constantly disappointed in ourselves. There’s an entire arm of Christian faith that revolves around using guilt to shape behavior. But it’s a crapshoot, because we all know the reality: we will never live perfectly.
One problem with that whole line of thought is that the goal of perfection isn’t actually a biblical idea. There is no Greek or Hebrew word for perfect. When we talk about perfection, what westerners most often think about is being without flaw. That’s simply not a Hebrew concept. Goodness is, but perfection isn’t. When “perfect” is used in the Bible, the root words are not about flaws, but about completeness and maturity and health. Honestly, it would be sort of nasty for Jesus to command us to be perfect, when being flawed is in our DNA. So rather than Jesus demanding that we attain the impossibility of flawless perfection, Jesus is urging his followers to move toward maturity as they trust God completely.
But the way we achieve maturity is the beautiful irony. We grow spiritually by doing things wrong far more than by doing them right, don’t we? If someone has never failed, come face to face with their weakness, or realized how much they’ve missed the mark….. they’ve also never experienced the depth of God’s grace and God’s love that leads to maturity as disciples. Every mature person I know is deeply familiar with failure. It’s what made them mature.
Richard Rohr brilliantly explores this counterintuitive reality in his challenging book, Falling Upward:
If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble and earnest will find it! A ‘perfect’ person ends up being the one who can consciously forgive and include imperfection rather than one who thinks he or she is totally above and beyond imperfection. […] In fact, I would say that the demand for perfect is the greatest enemy of good.
None of us want to fail and fall short of God’s desire for our lives. But if we see that God’s hope is for us to move toward the maturity of love, perhaps we can begin to welcome our failures and imperfections as tools and opportunities, rather than foes that require our complete focus to defeat. If our mistakes become gateways to trusting Jesus in new ways and being transformed by grace, then they are not our greatest enemies after all.
We need to have a little more grace for ourselves in our mistakes. We need to hear the voice of God declaring his love for us in our messes that covers a multitude of sins. It enables us to walk through life like Jesus intended, free and joyful. But, (life hack!) it also is the exact thing that will move us toward more complete maturity, if we let it. By the way, this is why Jesus tells his followers that two groups of people will have a great deal of trouble being disciples: The very rich and the very religious. Both attempt to deny or avoid the reality of weakness to rely on their own impressive abilities. Don’t be like them.
Today, take the opportunity to breathe in deeply. Apologize honestly for mistakes and move forward. Be honest before God. And don’t be afraid of the transformative power of perfect love as it collides with imperfect you. That’s how this thing works.
Jesus, forgive me when perfectionism or guilt derails me. Use my imperfection to connect me to your heart.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there is any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.
-David, Psalm 139:23-24
When I was a kid on trips to the beach, there was always one big goal while playing in the sand just out of reach of the waves. The mission, and we always chose to accept it, was this: create a fabulous ocean view hot tub to soak in. Now granted, the tub would not be hot. It would be quite cold, full of murky, foamy water with lots of little floaties in it. And rather than a tub, the sand walls would constantly cave in and mix with the water. The result was tiny little sand particles jammed in every crevice of the human body, with no real hope of a pearl ever emerging as a result. Honestly, it was pretty gross, but we didn’t care.
The real key to this project was the digging down. We started in the dry sand and we dug as deep as we possibly could until we hit water and couldn’t dig any more. If we didn’t dig deep enough, the hot tub would just keep draining out. The deeper we dug, the more likely we could actually keep water in it and even fill it up. And that was hard work.
The hard work always lies with digging deep.
American author Ann Dillard writes about the necessity of “riding the monsters of our violence and terror” deep into the depths of our souls. When we do, we eventually break through them and find something good. Essentially, we find water and we can start to fill up. I think she’s pointing to the deep internal longing for God’s grace, whether or not she has that language for it.
If we do not go inward and downward, then the darkness within us will always be projected onto those around us. It's fascinating that in Psalm 139, David is proclaiming God’s love and constancy, but he gets distracted by those who cause him stress, and his prayer becomes full of hatred and revenge. He cries out to God to kill the wicked, and states his absolute hatred for them.
But then he pauses, as it seems the Spirit nudges him. And he immediately turns inward, because he senses that his righteous anger is quickly overtaking him... Search my heart, God. See what’s deep within. Where there is ugliness, lead me out toward the way you’ve designed.
What an amazing prayer.
The inward journey is uncomfortable and scary. Inviting God to dig deeply into our lives means that some walls will start to cave in. We will come face to face with our weakness and insecurities. It’s easier to remain on the surface.
The insightful Christian leader Parker Palmer, in Let Your Life Speak, writes about the challenge of inviting God to dig deep within.
“Why would anybody want to take a journey of that sort, with its multiple difficulties and dangers? Everything in us cries out against it— which is why we externalize everything. It is so much easier to deal with the external world, to spend our lives manipulating material and institutions and other people instead of dealing with our own souls. We like to talk about the outer world as if it were infinitely complex and demanding, but it is a cakewalk compared to our inner lives!”
Preach it, Parker.
There is truly no way to hide from the inward life. It will eventually catch up with us, so it’s better if we get into it and move through it. Jesus says that unless we die we won’t find life. It’s only in facing our shadows of false identity, fear, self-reliance, and competition that we can move through them to the other side of value, love, trust, and humility that Jesus provides. That’s the sort of place I want to sit and soak in.
We’ve moved away from the contemplative life. Let's move back toward it. Sit in silence with Jesus a bit this week. Invite a holy inspection of your shadows, but delight in the reality that you are dearly loved through all of it. Be unafraid to invite a friend or family member to walk with you in the inward journey. And in it all, ask Jesus to lead you in the everlasting way. It’s worth the effort.
Jesus, draw me deeper.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…
And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.
-Paul (1 Cor. 11:1)
Babies are kind of stupid. I mean, I love them and I think they are wonderful and cute and immeasurably valuable…. but they can’t reason well at all. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with one? They just stare at you. It’s like they don’t even know what you’re talking about.
Until you smile.
Then, something really interesting happens.
They smile back. Why? We used to think that it was just because our joy was so contagious. And maybe it is. But now we know something else. We are all mirrors. And we have a hard-wired tendency to imitate what is in front of us. Facial expressions. Behaviors. Values.
It’s called mimetic desire, and it’s how we learn most things in life (for more, study Rene Girard).
So maybe those of us who are parents should stop emphatically asking:
WELL IF YOUR FRIEND JUMPED OFF A BRIDGE WOULD YOU DO THAT TOO?
Statistically speaking, yes. It’s likely.
Something in us is hardwired to copy. We see something in front of us and it immediately becomes more real and possible.
In the mid 1900’s running experts didn’t think the 4 minute mile barrier could ever be broken. It stood at 4:01 for a decade. Then Roger Banister broke it in 1954. Six weeks later, someone else brought it down another two seconds. Thirteen months after Bannister, three more runners broke four minutes- in one race. How is that possible?
When we see someone do something, two things happen.
1- We believe it’s possible.
2- Something in us is drawn to copy it.
We are mimetic people. Imitation is our reality.
This is why understanding discipleship is so important. In the Hebrew world, it was about so much more than knowledge. You didn’t want to just know what your Rabbi knew. You wanted to become who your Rabbi was. Discipleship was learning the actions and the behaviors of one who knew how to walk with God. That could only happen by imitation.
So when Jesus calls disciples to follow him, he does far more than talk. Over and over again he models a life that can be imitated. And he tells them clearly that part of what they are learning is to live the way he is living. We need a concrete example, so Jesus doesn’t simply talk about compassion. He shows it. He doesn’t just talk about prayer. He models it. He doesn’t wax eloquently about a self-giving life. He dies in front of them.
It’s no surprise then, that the writer of Hebrews implores his readers: “Fix your eyes on Jesus! He is the one who is creating this faith of ours!” We need to keep the life and behaviors of Jesus in the world so that we can believe they are possible, and have a real model to work with. And, like Paul figured out, we also need living examples right in front of us so that we can see something in order to practice it. The model of Jesus is good, but a living breathing person brings Jesus to life in a new way. We need people to imitate as they imitate Jesus.
What might it look like to move toward that this week? Maybe you need to dive back into the gospels, reading them and paying close attention to the actions of Jesus. Maybe fixing your eyes daily on Jesus will remind you of what love really is.
And who is in your life that you can learn Jesus from? What real models do you have around you that are worth imitating? They are deeply flawed individuals, as we all are, but maybe we need to walk a little more closely with other people walking with Jesus. And maybe, like one of those little mirror funhouse rooms, we can just encourage each other exponentially into eternity.
Keep smiling at babies, even when they are terrible conversation partners. And keep your eyes on Jesus, so that you can keep believing that all of this wild “on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven" stuff is really possible.
Jesus, give me the strength to imitate you.
For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.
-Paul, writing to his disciple Timothy (2 Tim. 1:7)
Last week on the east coast, we got the rain. All of it. I don’t think there is any water left in the atmosphere.
One afternoon during a particularly strong downpour, I had arrived back at my house near the end of the day. The rain wasn’t letting up, and I was in no mood to walk through it and get soaked. Can you relate? So I turned on the radio for a bit. Then I checked my phone and scrolled meaninglessly for another 4 minutes. Then I looked up again. Still raining. I didn’t care that the weather report said this would continue all night. I can be stubborn in these situations.
But it wore me down. The driving rain didn’t subside. Nothing had changed. And as I looked around from my comfy driver’s seat I was faced with a couple of choices.
Option 1: Hunker down for the long haul. I found a granola bar wedged into the passenger seat. That could totally get me through til morning. I can put the kids to bed using FaceTime.
Option 2: Actually stop avoiding the thing I knew I needed to do. Just open up the door, and walk into my house. It’s water.
Some days we feel strong and bold, ready to rock and roll in this world. And other days we just feel like wasting gas, idling, and staying dry for the moment. It’s much more comfortable than facing even a few moments of getting rained on. But we miss a lot by staying in the car.
Nearly every day, there are decisions that hang over us, that are easier to avoid than deal with. They are little things to do- things that we know would help us live more of the Jesus life. But it takes opening the door. And that short walk might be uncomfortable, so we put it off. But instead of doing the trick, our stress levels rise, and deep down we feel off. Yet we stay in our comfort zone.
But across the yard, there is comfort and joy.
Which feels better? Staying dry inside a small car on the street for a few minutes, or drying off and warming up in your home, knowing that know you can be at rest all evening? Isn't it worth walking through a little rain to get to this point?
Some of us need to have an important conversation with someone that would only take a few minutes, but we save it for another day.
Some of us know that offering an apology would take an enormous weight off of our chest, but we are afraid to call and say sorry.
Some of us are struggling with things that a trusted friend could help us move through- but we don’t share.
Some of us desperately need God’s gift of restorative sleep, but we waste time on screens at night.
All of this and more- they are moments of sitting in the car, hoping we don’t have to get wet. There are practices that you’ve been neglecting that could help you move closer into God’s love- but you don’t feel like it.
Movement toward these things feels like walking through rain, and we like staying dry.
Indeed, much of the ways of Jesus feel uncomfortable at the moment of surrender. But on the other side, there is rest when we take the steps that align our souls with Jesus and work toward God’s shalom (wholeness) in the world.
And honestly, the tomb is empty, so the pressure’s off. Take a walk in the rain. Do the thing God is stirring you to do. We have his Spirit in us. Anyways, even a rainy day with Jesus is far better than a sunny day full of fear. So this morning, sit with Jesus. Then get out of the car.
Jesus, help me be bold and full of your love today.