The Demand for Perfection
--Pastor Jamey Nichols
In my clinical days, the person who required perfection was called “perfectionistic.” Diagnostically, the terms “obsessive” or “compulsive” would also come into play. It’s heartbreaking to observe ways compulsions can impede (even paralyze) decent people from basic living. I recall one young woman whose mind was tortured by inadequacies cultivated by memories of her harsh, strict father. Today, in her adulthood as an otherwise happily married woman, the dear girl wasted hours vacuuming. Over and over again she would vacuum the rug hoping to relax in a belief that her dad would be pleased that all the vacuum marks were equally straight throughout the whole house. They rarely were. As I said, heartbreaking.
Enter the sermon on the mountain in Matthew 5-7—a particular message, not for the masses or the corrupt Pharisees, but for the disciples only. In this private message Jesus issues an abrupt command, “Be perfect, therefore, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 6:48).
What are we to make of such a command? Does it actually mean what it appears to mean? Is Jesus actually requiring his followers become morally flawless such that any trace of imperfection is unacceptable and disobedient? Actually, yes.
The goal of Christianity is something that can be defined by many people in many ways. However, as Students of the Book, we don’t give two bits about the many. Our goal is to please The One! It is His definition of Christianity and his alone that matters. As we gaze into the masterpiece known as the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus sharing an intimate lesson with those closest to Him. It is here He has pulled away from teaching the crowds or confronting the religious hypocrites in order to share a deep secret with those closest of followers. During this lesson, Jesus introduces His idea of pure Christian faith: Become like your Father. In his marvelous little book, Thoughts on Holiness (1889), Mark Guy Pearse writes about Christ’s own purpose for Christianity, “The Son of God becomes the Son of Man that through Him the sons of men may become the sons of God.” In other words, Jesus’ aim is that we join Him in being like “our Father.”
As Christians we have been born again. This term has many popular usages, but it’s the biblical usage that matters. “Born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable,” says the apostle Peter (1:23); born once of water and then again of the Spirit, says Jesus (John 3:3-8). The perishable seed gives rise to natural born people who are ruled by a corruptible nature. People born of flesh are flesh oriented and focus on fleshly things—particularly self (Romans 8)! But spiritual people are born by God’s Holy Spirit and set their hearts on things above, not on earthly things. Flesh desires that which is fleshly, but the Spirit desires the things of God. As Jesus put it on the mountain, “Seek first the kingdom of God.” Anything less is imperfection. And, imperfection is disobedience.
A word of warning: Just like we often do, the disciples naturally thought of perfection in terms of rule keeping. They (and we) tend to think, “If we obey the laws of God perfectly, then we will be perfect.” Unfortunately, that’s just not possible without spiritual aid. Some may claim it is, but Jesus explains that law breaking is not merely outward, but inward. Simply hate another, that’s murder. Lust after another, that’s already adultery of the heart. God desires perfection even in the deepest places of the human heart. Bottom line, nobody can pull off perfection by their own efforts.
And yet Jesus’ demand, “Be perfect just as [God]. . . “
We are not without hope in this. Jesus is the answer to this dilemma. He’s the only answer. During that same mountain address he says, “I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it” (5:17). Perfect Jesus lives the perfect life because we cannot. He then becomes the perfect sacrifice so that the perfect justice of a perfectly holy God is perfectly satisfied. IT IS IN CHRIST THAT WE ARE MADE PERFECT. This is not achieved by flawless rule keeping. It can’t be. Our holiness is a status achieved through another’s work. We are clothed with His perfect righteousness. Therefore, the command to be perfect is achievable. It is out of human reach for sure, but it isn’t out of reach. It is Christ who lifts us up to attain something beyond our apprehension. It is through Christ we are born again. It is because of Christ we share with him a Father who is Heaven. It is Jesus. It is all Jesus! Gloriously intriguing, isn’t it? The command to be perfect and the means for obeying that command are derived from the same source.