Malcolm’s Monday Meditation: “Perfect is Problematic”

“Emotions” conference at St Mary’s church,
Wyndham Place, London

Have you ever heard the phrase, “I want to be just like Jesus.”? Perhaps you’ve said it yourself. Sounds good, right? Very holy.

But is there a problem with it? Perhaps. Why might this be? Well, let me tell you what happened last Saturday.

Penny & I attended the “emotions” conference. The focus was on how Christians deal with mental health challenges and issues such as guilt, worry and perfectionism. Around 600 were there. People are looking for good Bible teaching and practical help.

I think we got both, and, judging by the atmosphere in the room, we were not alone in that assessment. Every talk was illuminating, but, for the purpose of this article, I’ll focus on just one matter – that of perfectionism.

Jesus does not expect perfection of his followers. What? That sounds like heresy! Doesn’t he say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”? He does, in Matthew 5.48. But what does he mean? Let’s think about the context. Up on the mountain he has laid out a metaphorical table spread with sayings and examples – some sweet, some sour. These teachings make it clear what having a relationship with God is like in the kingdom – under the New Covenant. In summary – the law is inadequate; if you love God you will treat people completely different to the way you otherwise might (women, enemies, troublesome brothers, wife and the like). But not because this is a new law. These instructions cannot be a new law. The old law was hard enough to keep – this one is impossible! Never look at a woman lustfully. Is he kidding?!

No, instead we are being driven to seek Jesus. He must be our all-in-all (he gets to that in chapter 7, but that’s for another day). Our call is to have a relationship with Jesus that is desired above all others. That’s where the “perfect” word comes in. The Greek uses “teleios”, which means “complete”. As it says in the NICNT, “Jesus is demanding a different approach, not via laws read as simply rules of conduct but rather by looking behind those laws to the mind and character of God himself.” (1)

In other words, it’s all about relationship.

Relationship rules out perfectionism. If you’ve ever had a friendship with an un-reformed perfectionist you will know that it is exhausting, distancing and, often, short-lived.  Perhaps you have been that perfectionist yourself!  The good news of the gospel is that we no longer need to be enslaved to perfectionism.  We are complete in Christ – “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10:14 NIV11).  My deeds, works, obedience may not be completely perfect (they are not and never will be), but my Jesus is perfect, and he has donated his perfection to me.

Desiring and planning to grow to be more like Jesus is good, and the Spirit helps us along (2 Cor 3.18). But that’s very different from setting a standard of being exactly like him which implies that human effort is the key. No, we’re simply not going to get there in this life, which means that perfectionism is anti-grace. We cannot have humanly-attained perfection and grace. We must either believe we have the power to be perfect (which we do not), or believe that Jesus has the grace to cover our imperfection. It’s our choice. Which one sounds more like freedom in Christ (Gal 2.4, 5.1)?

Does this lie behind why it can be hard to find volunteers in church?  Perhaps the reason people do not respond to the call to help is not because they are unwilling, but because they believe themselves to be inadequate. They don’t feel good enough to serve.  The life and teachings of Jesus confirm that he is interested in the “not-good-enough” far more than those who think they are adequate. It is the former who respond to his love, and enjoy his grace.

This leads to a closing question. Do we speak about “standards” in the church, in our Christian relationships and in our families in a helpful way, or a burdensome way? Let’s watch our language and do our best not to reinforce active or latent perfectionism in one another. Rather, let’s make our best effort (not a “perfect” effort!) to inspire one another with the grace that is offered to all of us perfectionists.

I hope you have a wonderful week.

God bless,

Malcolm Cox

Footnotes:
(1). France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic edition, version 1.2. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

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  • Thanks Malcolm,That was very helpful and enlightening.

    • Thanks, Richard. Please let me know any specifics of what was helpful if you have a moment. I’ll be seeing you in November when Penny & I come up for the anniversary service.