“Everyone makes mistakes.”
“I’m only human.”
At one time or another, most of us have probably said such things. They’re easy truisms we use to salve consciences, whether our own or someone else’s. Ironically, though, acknowledging these obvious truths doesn’t stop us from wanting to prove that our mistakes aren’t as bad as someone else’s. We may be imperfect, but at least we’re a little less imperfect than the next person.
And when we think that way, we might even be tempted to take less responsibility for our actions and our words instead of more. Hey, I’m only human (so get off my back, okay?).
When the apostle James teaches that nobody’s perfect, he’s angling for a different, more soberly responsible result:
We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. (James 3:2a, CEB)
“We make mistakes often”; here, the NIV translates, “We stumble in many ways.” This is not, “Okay, okay, so I messed up. Big deal. Sue me.” We make mistakes. We trip over our own two feet. We screw up. We do it often and in an endless variety of ways. To say what James is saying and mean it takes humility, not the desire to excuse our fallibility and quickly steer the conversation elsewhere.
James is particularly concerned with the way we use words. And when he says “those who don’t make mistakes with their words,” he’s not saying that such people actually exist. Rather, he’s saying something about what it means to be spiritually mature. Remember what he already said in chapter 1: “If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless” (1:26, CEB). In that opening chapter, he also wrote about maturity, using the same word as here — describing someone who’s reached the goal, who’s complete, who’s fully grown up, who’s…perfect.
At least not yet.
As we’ve seen before, when Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48, NIV), he is not saying, “You must be as morally perfect as God or else God will have nothing to do with you.” In context, he is saying, There’s so much more to godliness than you’ve been taught. The Father shows love even to his enemies. You’ve been taught to hate your enemies, and may think it impossible to love them instead. But I’m telling you that this is your destiny: to become like the Father in love.
“We all make mistakes often” is one way of saying that’s nobody’s perfect: nobody gets it right all the time. Despite the saying, nobody really “bats a thousand” — in fact, anyone who bats .300 is considered a special talent.
In a sense, though, James is also saying, “Nobody’s perfect — yet.” Children are supposed to grow up, to mature. We accept that children act childishly. We accept that they say things that are unfiltered and spontaneous.
But it’s not cute in an adult.
And James wants us to be more mature in the way we speak to one another, in the way we impact each other with our words. More on this in upcoming posts.