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.