This year I’m exploring significant words of the Bible and our faith. This week the word is perfect! Jesus tells his followers and young man on the rise “Be perfect…if you wish to be perfect, sell your possessions…”
Yikes! We are to seek perfection. I agree with Kathleen Norris, this has got to be one of the scariest words I know.
Becky was already an award-winning high school teacher. Her students adored her and she helped many of them achieve high standards and entrance to the best colleges and universities. But when she had her first baby, -- who was, like most newborns, unpredictable and messy, with no regular sleep rhythm – Becky felt she was losing control. She began to see herself as a failure as a mother, and she spiraled down into serious depression.
Jack had a difficult relationship with his parents. His dad grew up on a small farm, was valedictorian of his high school, but could not afford college. So he went to work. By the time he was thirty he had started his own business, owning and running a Burger King. The family was not close but they were a driven family. Expectations were high, and if not met, there were consequences.
Jack’s mother kept a spotless house. She was constantly cleaning and organizing. Life was regimented and predictable, even meals were strictly programmed with the same food on the same day each week: macaroni and cheese, cured ham and green beans on Monday night, pork chops, green peas and dumplings on Tuesday, and so on…
His father was the dominant figure in the family, expecting only the best. As Jack tells the story:
“…we had to make straight As, we had to be the best-behaved, well-mannered children, and we had to be the best tennis players (even though he never watched any of us play because he was always working)…As expected, I like my brothers, often failed to live up to his expectations. The result was discipline, as well as criticism for not achieving only the best. Dad was a very hard disciplinarian; however, while he did not spare the rod, he was not physically abusive. Love was seldom expressed, either verbally or by body language.”
After he got married, Jack’s wife was criticized about how she kept house, how the two of them raised their children, even their choice of the church they attended.
And Jesus said “Be perfect…!”
The dictionary defines perfect as “The state or quality of being or becoming perfect; the highest degree of proficiency, skill or excellence; without defect or omission.
That is all well and good. I sure do appreciate such technical expertise in my surgeon, or a window washer or house painter or the folks who designed and built the airplane I fly on.
The problem is that our culture has taken the concept of perfection and applied it to every aspect of existence. It is not just about the machines we use and the skills in our work, it also about our relationships, our possessions and our looks. Psychiatrist Richard Winter claims we are “Perfecting Ourselves to Death.”
In his book of that title, Winter notes there are two sides to perfectionism: an adaptive, positive, healthy and constructive type, characterized by highs standards, good self-esteem, striving for excellence, realistic about failure, organized, energetic and enthusiastic.
There is also maladaptive, negative, unhealthy, destructive perfection. This is characterized by unrealistically high standards, low self-esteem, seek to excel at any cost, generalize failure, controlling, exhausted and exhausting.
These negative aspects of perfection underscore some of the perils of perfection that can cripple us: excessive checking and seeking reassurance, anxiety and worry, decreased productivity and performance, impaired health, eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, suicidal ideas, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, scrupulosity, relationship problems.
The negative impact of perfection is heard in a typical report from a young woman reflecting on her teenage years:
“No matter how hard I worked at putting on makeup, wearing the “right” clothes, buying the top 10 CDs, I never felt good enough. I never left the house feeling confident about my looks or my body or my clothes, and I certainly felt terrible if I was seen in jeans and a T-shirt. I felt actual shame for not looking like my favorite actresses, singers and models.”
Our relentless pursuit of perfection can kill us.
And Jesus said “Be perfect…!”
Is this really what he meant? Goodness gracious. Well, take a deep breathe, or maybe offer a prayer of confession, for it is not. The good news is that the perfect in the Gospels is not so much a scary word, as a scary translation! The word comes from a Latin word meaning complete, entire, full-grown. When Jesus’ audience heard him use the word, they would have thought “mature,” rather than our contemporary perfect.
To be perfect in the sense that Jesus means it, is to make room for growth, for the changes that bring us to maturity, to ripeness. Norris puts it this way:
“To mature is to lose adolescent self-consciousness, so as to make a gift of oneself, as a parent, as teacher, friend, spouse.”
Two hundred and fifty years ago, New England preacher Jonathan Edwards posited that the mature Christian, the perfect Christian, is one who embodies the Fruits of the Spirit, identified by Paul in Galatians 5:22: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Perfection, then, in a Christian sense, As Jesus tells disciples and a rich young buck, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others. Whatever we have, no matter how little it seems, is something that can be shared with those who are poorer. It is to embody love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
An old Benedictine monk noted the importance of the concept of the incarnation -- that Jesus is both human and divine – when contemplating perfection. “It is because of Christ,” the monk said, “that we don’t need to postulate a single model or ideal of perfection. Maturity for one person is different from maturity for another. It is incarnate, therefore specific and particular.”
David Wulfing is my ideal of a perfectly mature Christian. Life-long friends are gathering in Cody, WY this week to give thanks for David’s 84-year life. He was a perfect technician with radio and early computers. For years he worked for the U.S. government monitoring Soviet radio transmissions and building radio networks to extend that effort. His expertise led him to invest early in tech companies. And he did well!
Yet that perfection never stilted his care of family, friends and faith. His perfect knowledge and expertise at work, did not come home in unhealthy ways to bedevil his family. Long after his children grew to adulthood David, and his beloved Nancy, nurtured the college group in their church. A place where a dazed and confused student from a broken home could find safe, loving space to work out life’s call. Later I was able to take my children to meet David and watch as he patiently showed my children the best ways to fish the Shoshone River. Simply reflecting on how David treated his family, other people and reflected on the world around him, was to witness a perfect man, a mature man of faith.
It is the model of David, and countless men and women of faith, where we, as a community of faith, can offer a bit of healing for a world consumed by images and dreams of perfection. Recognizing that each is on a journey toward mature faith. Each journey at a different point, each looking different, no two being the same. Just as in creation we are created in the image of God, and all look different, so too, each of us in striving for the excellence of maturity, no two paths are the same. Each characterized not by the trends and fads of culture, but instead by the Fruits of the Spirit. Again: : love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
If we use these as our sign posts, rather than billboards, Instagram posts, twitter feeds and the demons of childhood, as our sign posts for what is perfect in life, we will live a healthier, less anxious life, worthy of the perfection of Jesus.