“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48
Let me describe a sick man to you. We’ll call him Jeff. I first noticed he had problems when I saw him walk into church one Sunday. Coming up the sidewalk he’d turn aside to actually pull the weeds out of an azalia. At first I thought he was only showing great care for the Lord’s property. But later, at his place of business, I saw his merchandise meticulously stacked in neat rows with him scurrying up and down every aisle tidying up after each customer. Next it was his wife who came by my study weeping. It seems she was worried about her man. She described him with words like “dissatisfied, driven, joyless, critical, and grouchy.” Then one of his children developed a nervous disorder that the doctor traced to the father-son relationship, and Jeff and I found an opportunity to talk about things.
“I like things done right,” he began. And he went on to vent his deep feelings about hard work, all about how if a job was worth doing it was worth doing right and so forth. Then he told me how when he was a small boy his dad made him mow the lawn. And he told me his father stood there and watched him the whole time, “And if I so much as missed one blade of grass, he made me mow the whole lawn all over again!”
What we’re talking about is the problem of perfectionism. It’s in the fellow who has to win all of the time. It’s in the woman with a neurotic passion for a clean and orderly house all of the time. It’s in the person who cannot accept the best one can do when it’s not perfect. It’s in the eye that walks into a room, passes over dozens of things that are right, and dwells miserably on the one thing that is out of place. And perfectionism is a growing problem in our midst today. And its end result for us is just what it was for Jeff…. joyless, critical, grouchy, driven, dissatisfaction, even the alienation of our close relationships.
Jeff and I had numerous long talks. We searched the Scriptures together, and the Lord began to give us insight that helped us both. And I’d like to share that with you now in the hope that it’ll make the difference in your life that it has in mine.
A Perfectionist is Homesick!
The first principle comes from Genesis 2. There the Bible tells of the creation of man and woman and how God placed them in the Garden of Eden. And talk about perfection! Why, Eden was a flawless human habitat. Read through Genesis 2 and you learn of the harmony once had in human relationships. The man spoke poetry to his wife, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh… .” There is no mention of anger, cross words, misunderstanding, or jealousy.
Then, too, note the strong self-esteem. So self-accepting are Adam and Eve that they stand naked and unashamed. No mention whatsoever is made of inferiority complexes, drug abuse, or suicide.
Next, take a look at the perfect environment. Eden flows with pure water, fresh blossom scented breezes fill one’s nostrils, and tasty fruits
are ripe for picking. The man surveys and names all animals and there is no fear between man and beast. Nor is there mention of pollution, epidemic, nor death.
Finally, take a look at Adam and Eve’s right relationship with God. The Lord’s will is clear to them. There is obedience, lack of fear, the absence of guilt.
Clearly the Bible is saying that the human race began in a perfect atmosphere, a garden paradise called Eden. And somehow, even today we’ve a memory, a taste for all of this. Deep within each of us there is a sense of order, beauty, and harmony.
You can see this in how we buy copies of magazines like Better Homes and Gardens, go to movies with tidy ending, prefer new cars without dents, rattles, or dirt, and admire youthful models with hour glass figures, straight teeth, and pure complexions.
In short, our perfectionist tendencies are a kind of homesickness for Eden.
If this is true, then why be homesick? Let’s just get up and go home to Eden! But the fact is, we cannot. Eden is no more. It was destroyed by sin.
You can read what happened to paradise in Genesis 3. There’s the story we know so well. The serpent Satan’s temptation. Adam and Eve’s disobedience. And the awful consequences of sin.
The word “sin” in the Greek means “to fall short, to miss the mark, to be off target.” Perhaps you’ll recall a few years ago when a man walked into the Vatican with a hammer and began to whack away at Michael Angelo’s “Pieta,” knocking off an arm and badly marring other parts of the masterpiece before he was stopped. That is sin. It is to deface the plan of God for one’s life, it is to miss the ideal, to fall short of His perfection. And the Bible says it’s not just Adam and Eve who have sinned. Romans 3:23 teaches, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
And, if you want to see what our sin does to the world, read through Genesis 3 and 4. Harmonious human relationships with poetry in them turn to bickering, blame and murder. Self-acceptance turns to shame. Trust in God turns to guilt, fear, and avoidance. And the environment turns cold, dusty, a breeding ground for thorns, and death is mentioned for the first time.
All of this and the Bible teaches in Genesis 3 that God literally expelled us from the Garden of Eden. He “drove us out” the Scriptures says.
The facts are plain. We don’t live where God originally intended. Sin has shattered our home. Sin has given birth to the ugly. Sin has brought imperfection. And we are left with homesickness, a deep longing for what we had but lost!
Refusal to Accept God’s Judgement?
Now follow closely! A perfectionist is a person who misses what he left behind in Eden. He wants things right again. And he’ll work tirelessly to see that everything is put back in its place. But because of sin, because of God’s judgement, that can never be.
Note, if you will, how in Genesis 3 God removed us from the Garden of Perfection. And to keep us from returning on our own terms he placed an angel with a mighty sword. And believe-me-you! Those of us that keep trying to get back to where things are perfect know so well the painful thrusts of that sword!
So, a perfectionist is one who is homesick. He is one who wants his home back, wants things right like they were in Eden. But he is also one who will not accept God’s judgement. “I won’t live in that!” “I deserve better!” “I won’t be a part of this!” “I want the best!” “It’s got to be done just right!” And our attitude strives against God’s judgement that because of sin we live outside paradise.
An interesting story that has to do with all this is found in Genesis 2. It’s the story of the Tower of Babel. There man says, “Come, let’s make a name for ourselves. Let’s build a tower to heaven!” So, with brick and mortar they organize and build their way back. And God stops their work by confusing their language. The project ends in frustration and human alienation. The half-built tower stands as mute testimony that man’s quest for perfection forever falls short!
Contrast this with what you find in Revelation 21:1 following. There a new Eden, a new paradise, heaven, is described. But it is not built from the ground up by humans. It is pictured as “coming down out of heaven.” The message is clear enough: God built Eden and human sin ruined it. And it’s not man’s effort that will build it back. The work is entirely God’s. It “comes down” from above instead of rising from beneath.
So, you begin to see something of our human predicament. We live between two worlds. It is God’s judgement that we now live between an Eden that was and an Eden that will be. And in the interim we’ll all do our share of writhing with imperfection.
The other night on television there was an episode of Hill Street Blues. Washington, a police officer, had done his best to bring a criminal to justice, only to watch helplessly as politics in the system allowed the man to go free. So Washington was upset. He wanted to quit. But Captain Ferillo called the officer into his quarters and said, “Do you have to win all of the time? Do things always have to be right for you? Grow up, Washington! We lost one. Get on with it!”
You can see this same attitude in the life of Jesus Christ. He took God’s judgement seriously. And He came to this world “as is” and got involved.
Think of it! Jesus, the perfect human being, came to live in this fallen paradise we call earth. And, no, he didn’t come with a critical spirit. Instead, He selected imperfect people to be His followers– Peter, that swaggering big mouth, the temper-prone twosome, James and John, Thomas the doubter, and, of course, Mary of Magdala, the former harlot. And note how Jesus did not ask for perfect faith. “A grain of mustard seed” will do, He said. And note, too, our Lord’s patience in dealing with His follower’s pride, their misunderstandings, fears, and failures.
Isaiah the prophet said of Jesus, “A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not quench” (Isa. 42:3). Most of us will throw away a broken pencil and put out a smokey candle. But Isaiah said Jesus would have patience with such imperfections, and even try to fix them.
What we’ve got in the life of Christ is a perfect man living in an imperfect world. And what we’ve got is an example for each of us to
follow. For if Jesus is not too good to be born in a stable, live in an ant hill of a town like Nazareth, and do the menial chores of a carpenter, how much more so we? If Christ could live among imperfect people, show patience, kindness, and helpfulness, then why can’t we?
We’ll Get There, by God’s Grace!
Well, all of that by way of understanding our human predicament. But now a word of hope!
In Matthew 5:48 Jesus said to His followers, “You, therefore, must be perfect.” That’s not exactly the sort of saying one would want to comfort a perfectionist with, eh? But I tell you there’s good news in it for the Christian!
You see, the Greek word for “perfect” is “teleios.” It means “functionally useful” or “fit for a purpose.” See here how Jesus is telling us to be functional, useful, in this fallen world?
A lamb without blemish, one fit for sacrifice in the temple, is “teleios” or perfect. And Jesus is telling us to live as worthy sacrifices in this world.
A full grown man, as opposed to a half-grown boy, is “teleios.” He is perfect in the sense that he is fully mature. And Jesus is telling us to grow up!
But the most exciting meaning of “perfect” or “teleios” is it’s agricultural application. You see, a tiny spring bud on an apple tree is “teleios” or “perfect” in the sense that everything necessary for the production of an apple is already found in that bud. Just give it time and a blossom will appear, later a tiny green apple, and finally a red, ripened apple. And Jesus is asking us to be perfect like that bud, to have within us everything necessary for the final maturity we all so desperately desire!
And the good news is that in the life of Christ, in His death and ascension, and in the indwelling fulness of the Holy Spirit each of us is made “teleios.” Just like that bud on the apple tree we are already in possession of everything necessary for the emergence of a fully ripened apple! Just give us time. Just give us the “son” and rain and summer and complete maturity will appear.
The apostle Paul recognized this promise. In Philippians 1:6 he encouraged, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Hear that? “God has begun a good work” in us. Can He finish the job? Will He complete us? The text says, “He will bring it to completion at the day,” that’s the second coming of Christ the Lord!
So, you want to be perfect? Then come to Jesus by faith. He’ll put within you His “teleios,” the seeds of perfection that will mature, blossom and bear fruit.
Until then, what are we to do? Do we sit back, stifle our longings for perfection, and settle for a “gentleman’s C” in the course? Do we become a part of this age’s rank mediocrity? No. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount gave us the beatitudes in which He told us to mourn, to hunger and thirst, to be meek as we strive for renewed peace and perfection (Mt. 5:3-11). The entire sermon encourages us to get and stay involved, to quest, to reach out, but to depend on God all the while we’re doing it, because, in the end, He is the source of all renewal. Paul follows this same line of thought in Philippians 3:12 following, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on… .”
I think the bottom line for a perfectionist is this: We’ve got to accept our part of the judgement for sin. We’ve got to realize that it is only Jesus that can put things right again. And we’ve got to come to Jesus and let Him make us “teleios,” people blooming toward perfection. But at the same time we’ve got to get and stay involved in this fallen world just like Jesus did.
Take a lesson. Moses was called as an imperfect, stammering, temper-prone man to go get an imperfect people out of Egypt. Paul, that nearly blind, whipped, eyesore of a man was called to work with the imperfections of the Corinthian church, a fellowship in which people sued one another, committed incest, and got drunk on communion wine. And we are called to work in this imperfect world too. It’s not ripe yet, but it has “teleios” in it. Just give it care and time!
I think God realized long ago what we perfectionists are slow in seeing, and that is that something doesn’t have to be perfect to do its job. Take my lawnmower, for example. It smokes, the wheels wobble, and the cut-off control is broken. But it cuts my grass. The same is true of leaders, homes, mates, friends, businesses, churches and cars. Not a one of them is perfect. And we are condemned to live with them. But if we proclaim Christ, where He is received, “teleios,” the seeds of perfection are sown, and in time a new Eden will ripen.
Martin Luther spoke eloquently and true of our lives when in the mid-1500’s he said, “This life, therefore, is not righteousness but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing, not being, but becoming, not rest but exercise. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on; this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory but all is being purified.”
What about you? Are you struggling with perfectionism? Is your life like Jeff’s? Joyless, critical, driven, grouchy and exhausting? Does one blade of grass out of place tear your insides out? Does a child’s hand print on the wall set you off? Does your having to always have things right drive your friends away? Then come to Jesus for healing. Let Him put His life within you. Let Him make things right. Then humble, relaxed, hopeful, involved, longing, and looking to God, you can await the new Eden, the new heaven and earth coming down out of heaven for you and for me! You can be like Jeff who writes… “Hey, I used to need terrific all the time. But, no more! I’ve let go and let God. It’s up to Him. I’m only His servant working to make things some better until He returns to make it the best!”
Jesus, I come!