“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” — Matthew 5: 48
“Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal . . .”—Philippians 3: 13-14
I am a perfectionist.
Blame my parents, blame my genetics, blame my raising, blame society’s expectations, or blame my own inner demons, but for whatever reason, I have this inner compulsion to do things just right. It seems to be my gift and my curse to always think of ways that things could be better.
I have profited a great deal from this perfectionism whenever it has driven me to achievement or accomplishment. Teachers, bosses, even church members love to have perfectionists working for them or with them. And yet, at other times, perfectionism has seemed to be less a blessing than a demon: paralyzing me with the burden of expectation, dashing hopes of contentment, preventing me from risking failure, or keeping me from truly knowing myself forgiven, accepted, and loved by Christ.
The perfect really can become the enemy of the good. There have been times, as a result, when I have resented the very idea of perfection.
And yet I am also a Methodist. I stand in the line of John Wesley, who argued passionately that Christians could be perfected by the grace of God. I am a United Methodist elder who was asked, prior to my ordination, “Are you going on to perfection, and do you expect to achieve it in this life?” I answered, “Yes (gulp), by the grace of God.”
For Wesley and for the early Methodists, the notion of Christian perfectibility was not bad news, another burden of expectation laid on their backs. The notion of Christian perfection was wonderful news: they gobbled it up as food for their souls the way a starving man might shovel new-found bread into his mouth.
This is the way the early Methodists heard the notion of Christian perfection: “You do not have to stay the way you are! You are not stuck in these thoughts, these sins, in this pattern of living. You can be freed! Yes you can! You can be changed for the good! Yes, it IS possible, so great is the power of the Holy Spirit! You do not have to wonder aimlessly through your days, as if you are going nowhere: you have a purpose, a goal that God is moving your towards, and it is called Christian perfection. Praise God!”
I have figured out recently that much of my anguish over perfection has little to do with the notion of perfection itself. Instead, it has come about because I have so often chased the wrong kind of perfection in my life. I have followed the expectations around me and thought that perfection was about getting the best grades, making other people happy, not committing mistakes, saying the right things, or not making any tipos (oops, typos) on the bulletin.
And yet, for John Wesley, Christian perfection has nothing to do with any of these things. The kind of perfection God is moving us toward is perfection in LOVE.
The ultimate standard for each of our lives is not, “Did I work hard enough?,” “Did I accomplish enough?,” or “Did I meet others’ expectations?,” but rather, “Did I love?”
Every day is about nothing more and nothing less than God making us better lovers.
I am trying in my life now to pursue the right kind of perfection: perfection in love. Not perfection in my work. Not perfection in my ministry. Not perfection in my yard or house or appearance or anything else, but perfection in love.
It sounds crazy, but it’s true: for many of us, being made perfect in love might first mean being freed from perfectionism itself.
Thank God, then, that Christ is the perfect savior for imperfect people; and that God’s love is so perfect that God loves even us insufferable perfectionists, whom He has to drag kicking and screaming towards grace.