“Have no fear of perfection,” said Salvador Dali, “you’ll never reach it.” Three weeks into 2014, I’m quite sure he’s right. Old habits die hard. New resolutions fall flat. We seek the perfect life, the perfect mate, the perfect body. They’re out of reach. Even setting our sights a little lower (I’d like to be more generous, more prayerful, less flustered), given thirty days to form a habit, chances are we’ll have cemented some bad ones.
The Bible might not appear to help in this pursuit. It throws perfection in our sights but makes some heavy demands: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” says Jesus (Matt. 5:48), and later, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21). Which begs the question, what kind of perfection do we want? Physical? Material? Ethical? Spiritual?… If we seek the kind that Jesus is talking about, if we want to do right, try as we might we find ourselves compromised. ‘I do not understand what I do,’ wrote the Apostle Paul, ‘for what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do’ (Rom. 7:15).
So how is perfection to be achieved? I think there are two steps to pursuing perfection well: first, ask what sort of perfection is in view; second, stop pursuing the wrong sort and start pursuing the right.
He didn’t have a house in Orange County, I’m not aware he had the perfect body, and some of his relationships were disasters. Yet it is widely attested that Jesus led a perfect life. What does that mean? What sort of perfect is in view? Does it mean Jesus never made mistakes? Never left his bed untidy? Never threw food as a toddler? I don’t think so. The Bible tells us that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. Humans can make mistakes without sinning. Humans start to smell if they don’t wash. Humans age, get grey hair, get angry, hungry. They make friends who are dear to them, they make friends who are cruel to them. Humans have limited success. In these respects, indeed in every respect, Jesus was perfectly human. A perfectly real person.
The kind of perfection the Bible has in view is not a size 10 wrinkle-free everything-we-touch-turns-to-gold successful kind of perfect. It’s not bloated, botoxed, self-congratulatory. It’s earthy, experienced, aging, heart-brimming and heartbroken. It’s winning and losing and trying. It’s wounding and apologising. It’s a pursuit of sinlessness, blamelessness, justice and mercy, not through personal achievement, but through an ever increasing dependence on a merciful, loving, life-changing God. Ironically, it’s through offering to God our imperfection, through confession and exposure of our flaws, that Jesus, ‘the author and perfecter of our faith,’ perfects us.
Nobody would call me perfect, but strangely, the more I acknowledge this, the more I get the feeling Jesus might.