Scrolling through work emails I click on the one titled: ALL EMPLOYEES MUST READ! A pep rally type announcement opens, announcing this year’s grand mission: eliminating all errors. “Zero mistakes in the workplace, please!”
Sounds achievable in theory if we communicate diligently and dutifully carry out policy and procedures. The unspoken added phrase is there, too, “Everyone ought to try just a little harder. Nothing short of our best will be good enough.”
I feel skeptical. While I relish the idea of near perfect performance, we simply don’t hold the kind of power that promises continuous mistake-free moments.
‘I believe in grace!” I am tempted to yell at my computer, but refrain from typing out my thoughts. Perfectionism has its place, especially when people’s lives are at stake. Still the call to perfection makes me nervous and fearful, pushing an old button. I even thought I was over perfectionism. In parenting I tell myself that less than perfect is just fine! I remind my kids, “Mistakes are how we learn!” Progress is our family goal, not perfection. I’ve lowered my impossible standards and expectations in favor of peace and rest. I’ve settled into my messy reality, accepting the way things are. I am happy here where grace abounds, not eager to drastically up my performance. A call to perfection disrupts my new found freedom and peace.
Sometimes Scripture pushes that same button. While you won’t find the word “perfectionism” in the Bible, it does mention “perfect” a few dozen times. Only perfect sacrifices are acceptable gifts for God in the Old Testament. In the New Testament trials are helpful tools in becoming “perfect and complete” (James 1:4). Paul writes about “the good work which began in us and will be perfected until the day of Christ.” (Phil 1:6)
Not to mention Jesus’ rather direct statement: “So then, be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.” (Matt 5:48)
This type of statement disrupts my peace. My button flashes yellow alert while my mental baggage and preconceived ideas want to attach themselves to these challenging words.
Jesus knows I am not perfect so suggesting that I could be confuses me.
For too long I’ve viewed this sort of verse as an invitation to partner with Jesus in perfection. Is Jesus then endorsing perfectionism by offering to infuse his perfect life into mine? This is what I used to believe and strive for. I also used to focus on challenging verses outside their context.
So I started reading the entire passage in Matthew, which concludes with “be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect…”
Surprisingly the preceding paragraph does not mention behavior or performance or any other sort of striving. Instead it describes perfect love. The father’s perfect love is an outrageous sort of love that extends to enemies, offers prayer and compassion for those who long to harm. This perfect love embraces outcasts, strangers, even those who will never reciprocate.
Perfection from this point of view means being radically committed to wholehearted love. God’s perfection is demonstrated by the way in which he loves.
When Jesus refers to being perfect like the Father, I believe he is asking us to enter this perfect, complete, non-discriminating love. Not to become perfect in behavior or do something perfectly, but be actively present to a greater love. To enter a greater story where perfection is anchored in love. There is no shame or fear in love. Love is the perfect bond. (Col 3:14)
Every time John writes about perfection, he also mentions love. I appreciate this reminder because I tend to put love and perfection on opposite ends of the spectrum. Love is grace-filled and messy, perfection is neat and measurable.
I am learning and relearning to allow Jesus to redefine what this means for my faith. For now though we can safely assume he’s invited us deeper into his story by embracing perfect love.
Not only loving those who pat our backs, praise our children and bring us dinner, but intentionally and radically embracing the critic, the homeless, the ill-willed. Loving the rebellious, self-absorbed, the stranger and refugee. Love for those who will never thank us, know us or love us back. No strings attached.
Perfection according to Jesus is rooted in love. For you. For all.
Astrid Melton grew up in Germany before coming to the US for a year abroad at age 16. She stayed to obtain her masters degree in Physical Therapy, got married and became a US citizen a couple of years ago. She currently works part time in outpatient orthopedics/ pediatrics while homeschooling her three children and pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a writer. Find more #freewriteramble at her blog: astridmelton.com