The Idol of Perfectionism

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by Linda Rex

Over the years since I came to see the dangers of legalism, I have come to see the harm that such a belief system can do to relationships. When people focus on moral perfection, they tend to become very critical of themselves and others. Every little fault or imperfection is picked at and fussed over. And in spite of intense efforts to self-transform, this way of thinking and living not only causes a spirit of condemnation, but also harms the way we look at ourselves and at others.

In Matthew 5:48 (NASB) we read: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” According to HarperCollins Bible dictionary, the term “perfect” is an English word sometimes used to translate Hebrew and Greek words with a range of meaning (“completeness,” “wholeness,” “blamelessness,” “maturity”) We often read this passage as though Jesus was telling us something we should do and have to do in order to be acceptable to God.

In reality, when we read it that way, we are reading it backwards. We are doing a dyslexic flip of the meaning of that passage. In this passage, Jesus intentionally showed that human beings could not and would not be perfect like God is perfect. There is something missing that they need. They are incomplete without this, and cannot be perfect or whole without it. We are made in God’s image, to reflect his glory, but we are imperfect reflections and our human carnality causes us to reflect darkness rather than light.

It is our human proclivity to try to attain perfection on our own. We want ourselves and others to attain perfect standards under our own efforts. Jesus was pointing out that this is an impossible task, because only God is perfect.

This is the whole reason that Jesus was standing there, preaching to them. Because the Father wants us to be wholly, completely all that he created us to be, he gave us himself in Christ. God took on our human flesh and moment by moment lived the life we should have lived and ought to live. In Christ, God breathed our breath, cried our tears, grieved our sorrows and shared our joys. Down to the last detail, Jesus Christ perfected, or made whole and complete, our humanity.

This is because God knew exactly what we needed in order to be all he created us to be. God didn’t create us to try to become perfect ourselves. He created us for a relationship with himself and others—to love God, love your neighbor.

Trying to perfect ourselves and others only destroys relationships. Nothing is more destructive to love than the constant nitpicking about every little fault or failure of someone to be what you think they should be. There is no room for creativity, personality, or ingenuity. Everyone has to fit a human expectation of what they think God or perfection is like. And they can’t do it.

How do we become perfect as God is perfect? Only in Christ. He is our perfection. The writer of Hebrews says “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Heb. 10:14 NASB). Once and for all, each of us were perfected in Christ, and we are being perfected in him as Christ is being formed in us through the Spirit.

God is the one with the responsibility to perfect us, because he is the perfect one. As we participate in his perfection by living in intimate relationship with him day by day, we are transformed. We focus on the relationship, on coming to know God intimately, and in his presence we are, in time, renewed in his image, to be all he created us to be.

God makes us into a new creation in Christ through the Spirit. Only God is perfect and he holds our perfection in himself in Christ. And he is working out that wholeness and completeness of his nature in us moment by moment in the Spirit. We participate in this work God is doing by growing in our relationship with him and by living in a relationship with others that reflects the perichoresis or “making room for one another” in which the Father, Son and Spirit live.

We make room for one another in the same way that God makes room for us in his life and love—through grace. We offer one another grace—forgiveness for being less than perfect. We allow each other room to grow, to have different ways of thinking and acting and living that are unique to ourselves and yet in harmony with the nature and character of God. Just as there is diversity and unity and equality in the Trinity, there is diversity, unity and equality in our humanity. And we respect and embrace that. To do any less than this would be to embrace imperfection.

Thank you, Holy Father, for seeking our perfection by giving us yourself in Jesus Christ. Thank you for your Spirit, who ceaselessly works for our perfection by forming Christ in us. Thank you for your gift of grace—grant that we may offer it as freely to one another as you offer it to us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 (NASB)
“For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14 NASB)

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