Perfection and perfectionism

You’ve surely heard it said or have said it yourself: “Nobody’s perfect.” People make mistakes. It’s normal. But some studies suggest that it’s also quite common to experience some degree of perfectionism, in which we feel a particular need to get it right, according to our own personal and exacting standards. Sometimes, perfection is expected of us by others, and that’s daunting enough. But once we’ve internalized that expectation, we become our own worst critic. We carry around an internal voice that keeps telling us we need to do better or try harder — lest we be an utter failure.

So one might be forgiven for shrinking away from Jesus’ commandment in the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48, NRSV).

Moreover, the context is one in which Jesus challenges what his hearers have been taught: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Matt 5:43). To be fair, although the Bible never directly instructs God’s people to hate their enemies, the Psalms do speak of God’s hatred of sin, and in consequence the psalmist both hates what God hates and hates those who hate God. The premise of this hatred, however, is the love of righteousness, and it’s easy to imagine how what might begin as a righteous hatred might degrade over time into a sanctimonious kind of arrogance and prejudice.

Against this, Jesus taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45). You can almost hear the gears stripping in people’s heads: Wait…you mean Samaritans? Uncircumcised Gentiles? Romans??? Who wanted to be “perfect” at that?

But the word translated “perfect” here doesn’t mean “error-free.” It describes something that is complete or mature, that has reached its proper end. In education, for example, it’s one thing to get a perfect score on a final exam, but it’s another to actually learn something; the latter is the goal. In basketball, it’s one thing to hit every shot you make, but it’s another to win the game.

And in the life of faith, it’s one thing to toe the line behaviorally, and another to develop the kind of character that is consistent with that behavior.

That’s the importance of Jesus’ reference to God as our Father — twice in the same teaching about loving our enemies. He’s not imposing a new law; he’s undoing what the people have already been taught. And in the process, what he wants them to understand is that the goal of “perfection” is to grow up, to become mature, to be like their Father in heaven.

This, too, is the language of James, though it’s hard to notice the parallel in English. As we’ve seen, James writes, “let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:4). Here, however, the words “full” and “mature” are the same word translated as “perfect” in Matthew 5:48. James then intensifies the idea by using yet more words to suggest our wholeness.

That’s not to say that we must always translate the Greek in the exact same way everywhere the word occurs; we have to pay attention to the context and decide what English word best conveys the meaning.

But it would be a shame to miss the way his words echo the teaching of his brother Jesus.

. . .

Perfectionism shouts, “Get it right!” But what Jesus and James teach about perfection is an invitation to wholeness. Perfectionism threatens us with shame and worthlessness; perfection draws us into the possibility of becoming more and more like our loving and gracious Father.

Some of us have been blessed enough to grow up with earthly fathers who inspired our love and admiration, not fear and self-doubt. Even when we knew that they weren’t “perfect,” we still wanted to be like them in some way.

Imagine, then, having a heavenly Father who is, in fact, perfect — who is the very definition of what perfection means. Do you want to be like that Father?

It begins, Jesus says, with love.

And to that, James adds faithful obedience in the midst of adversity.