by Linda Rex
Watching my teens go through the process of deciding what kind of career they want to pursue has caused me to reflect on the angst I experienced back during my senior year in high school and when I first attended university. I remember taking surveys on skills and interests. And I remember the effort I put into making sure I passed the SAT and other required exams with as high a score as possible. I wanted to be able to attend my college of choice.
I intended to enroll in my church’s college, but my parents advised me not to, telling me that they were not teaching the “truth” there any more—I may as well attend a secular university. So I applied to the University of Santa Barbara, and I was accepted. My objective was clear. I was going to graduate with a degree in astrophysics, and one day, I was going to be an astronaut on a space shuttle.
I had the best of intentions, and I really thought I could do it—I was an A student and a member of the honor society. But when I got to university, I got a D in chemistry, and I almost flunked calculus. My first attempt to succeed in finishing undergraduate school failed.
Okay, maybe I wasn’t very realistic back then. Maybe I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did. But honestly, how many of us actually achieve on the first try the exact thing we set out to do?
As I’ve gotten older and have experienced the ups and downs, successes and failures of life, I have become more conservative in my estimations of what I can and cannot do. I am learning not to rely solely on other people’s opinions and preferences, and to not presume I can do whatever I want to do or think I can do. I’ve realized I need a sober estimate of the truth in the light of my relationship with Jesus Christ.
This is especially true when it comes to matters of a spiritual and moral nature. I have learned my utmost efforts to do the right thing in every situation are flawed at best, and I am utterly dependent upon God for any possibility of doing things the way they really should be done. I am too easily swayed or distracted from where I should be, and too easily influenced to do the wrong thing, especially in difficult situations.
I’m mindful of Peter’s experience when he told Jesus he would follow him anywhere, even to the point of laying down his life for Jesus. But Jesus was no fool. He knew the truth about Peter—in the midst of the intensity of the moment when Jesus was taken captive and interrogated, Peter would deny him three times. And sure enough, Peter did exactly that.
But amazingly enough, doing this did not change Peter’s status with Jesus. After the resurrection, Jesus restored his relationship with Peter and instructed him to feed and tend his sheep. Jesus already knew what Peter would do, and even though he did do it, doing it did not alter Jesus’ love for Peter or his commitment to what he was doing in Peter’s heart and life. In fact, after the resurrection Jesus renewed Peter’s call to ministry, and when the Holy Spirit came, Peter stood up and gave a powerful, moving sermon which inspired many people to repent.
This is so comforting to me. Jesus is not put off by our failures or inability to perform perfectly. Since he already knows we are going to come up short, and he has already given us grace by including us in his death and resurrection, our failures and shortcomings are not an issue. They are already taken care of before they ever happen. Jesus’ relationship with us is not dependent upon our performance, but solely upon the nature and character of God, which is love.
Knowing this isn’t intended to make us want to go out and do awful things—rather, we find we don’t want to presume upon the grace given us. We are so grateful Jesus cares that much, we are compelled even more so to do the right thing in every circumstance.
God’s love for us demonstrated in Jesus and poured out into our hearts and lives by the Spirit moves us to think, say and do those things which agree with who we are as God’s children made in his image. We love God so much in response to his love we don’t want to harm or wound our relationship with him in any way by doing, thinking or saying things which we aren’t created for.
It is when we feel strongly we are in control and able to handle things ourselves we are most likely to get ourselves into trouble. Indeed, pride is our downfall—we trust in ourselves and our ability to do the right thing in every situation—and we find ourselves doing and saying things we never meant to which are hurtful and destructive. And like Peter, if we recognize it and look into the loving, gracious face of Jesus at that moment, we will be heartsick and broken.
And this is where and when God in Jesus will go to work. The Spirit will begin to bring us to that place of true humility where we recognize only by God’s grace can and will we ever be who God created us to be—children made in his image and likeness to reflect his nature.
Even though I had a rough start many years ago, God has never stopped working with me. My vocation has totally changed, my circumstances are entirely different. But my relationship with God in Jesus by the Spirit has only grown stronger and deeper. God has been faithful to me, and he is teaching me to be faithful to him. He is slowly and surely making me into the person he meant for me to be in the first place.
And he will do the same for you. It does not matter how old you are, what you have done, or what you have been through in your life. God will start with you where you are now and begin to work. And in time you may see he has been at work all along, even though you never noticed it before, or responded to his efforts in a negative way when he did try to work with you.
God will finish what he has begun in your life and mine—and his plans are so much more wonderful and adventurous than ours. He has amazing things in store for us—whether we believe it or not. And that’s something truly to be grateful for.
Thank you, Father, your plans for us are so much better than those we make for ourselves. And thank you for offering us the grace to grow up into all you mean for us to be. May we respond to each and every effort you make to grow us up in Christ by your Spirit, and allow you to transform our hearts by faith. In your name, we pray. Amen.
“Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.’” John 13:37–38 NASB
by Linda Rex
I’m always amused by the Christmas song that tells us that Santa has a naughty and nice list, and that we’d better not be naughty if we want something other than coal for Christmas. And it’s interesting how many Christmas movies show Santa checking out the list, and since he doesn’t want to give anyone coal, he is extremely gracious and makes excuses for the naughty kids, giving them presents instead.
I was speaking to a dear friend this morning about our human proclivity to not get things right, especially when it comes to how we treat other people. We find ourselves being insensitive, unforgiving, and irritable even when we want more than anything to be loving, warm and gracious. We want to be nice, but we end up being naughty instead. And so we go around in a funk because we can’t get it right.
I know it’s been said before, but we have to quit treating God like he’s a Santa Claus with a naughty and nice list. The whole point of Christmas is that he doesn’t have one. Instead going by the naughty and nice list, he gave us the gift of his Son. This little baby born on that Bethlehem night was a real person, who in the Spirit lived that perfect human life that we all struggle to live. Immanuel. God with us. God in human flesh, born to be a king, but living as one of us.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, talks about what Christ did for us. It’s described by theologians as the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Christ in our place. Jesus for us, in us, with us.
When he was born, we were reborn. The life he lived, he lived for us, in our place. When he was baptized, we went down into the water with him, and came out, receiving the Spirit as he did. As he wandered in the wilderness, battling the evil one, we were right there with him. When he died, we died, and we rose again in him. We ascended with him and are seated in heavenly places in him.
And most significantly, even now, he stands in our place in the Father’s presence in the Spirit, interceding in every situation. We are the fallen Adam—the ones who can’t get it right. He is the second Adam—who did everything we should have done and didn’t and couldn’t do—and offers us his perfected humanity in our place.
We have adopted the mentality that in some way we are the ones who have to work out our badness and goodness. We are the ones who have to get our relationships right and handle every situation perfectly. I don’t know how well you are doing at that, but personally, I am a flop. I can’t and don’t get things right like I should.
But that’s not a bad thing. Actually that is the very thing that God uses to bind us to himself in Jesus. It is our weaknesses, our failures, and our faults that Jesus comes into the midst of by the Spirit and uses to draw us to himself. We turn away from God in guilt and shame, but God calls us to himself and offers us grace and a new life in his Son. He embraces us in our naughtiness and declares us nice instead.
This is unfathomable. How and why can he do this? Because God knows that it is his goodness and his kindness that brings us to repentance. In the offering of forgiveness, free unmerited pardon, we are shown that we have been wrong and need forgiveness. In receiving that forgiveness, we are in the same moment having to admit that we need to turn our back on the old Adam, to reject the naughtiness that plagues us and holds us captive.
It is an incredible exchange God is offering us. We hand him all that we are as human beings, both our naughtiness and niceness (since even our niceness is faulty) and he gives us Jesus and his perfected humanity instead. We participate in Jesus’ perfect life—he stands in the presence of God in our place.
What we do now is to live moment by moment in that relationship. We look to Christ instead to ourselves for the answers. We listen to, trust in and obey the voice of the Holy Spirit as he speaks to us and guides us throughout our day. We surrender to God and allow Christ to live in us the life he has created us to live. This does not make us any less ourselves, but rather we become more fully the person we were created to be.
And when we hear the jingle of the naughty and nice list come up, telling us that we’re going to get coals in our stockings again this year, we can laugh. Because we know that what we have coming to us are all God’s heavenly blessings in Christ Jesus—something we could never earn, but God has said already belong to us. And that’s what Christmas is all about.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for giving us the most perfect gift of all, your precious Son Jesus and the gift of your Spirit through him. Thank you, Jesus, for standing in our place and interceding for us moment by moment as we struggle through our niceness and naughtiness. We trust you to finish what you have begun so that one day we can fully experience all the wonderful things you have in mind for us. May we experience them even now and throughout this New Year. In Jesus name, amen.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Eph. 1:3–6 NASB
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)
by Linda Rex
On my desk there is a block of wood with the word “MENTAL” engraved on it. A colleague of mine from several years ago knew I liked to write and he gave it to me for the times when I experience writer’s block. I can’t help but chuckle when I see it because right then, at that moment, I experience a “mental block.”
How often, though, do we find that we have a mental block when it comes to spiritual perfection? If we are expected to become perfect, how do we do it? For the perfectionists among us, this is important information, because perfectionists cannot settle for anything less than perfection.
There is way of looking at faith in Christ as an expectation that we become perfect people once we get done saying we are sorry for our sins. For some of us, we even think that we have to become perfect before approaching God or he will reject us. Either view is based on a misunderstanding of God’s expectations of us and confusion about who we are as his creatures.
First of all, part of the process of coming to faith in Christ is an acknowledgement of the perfection of God and his love for us, and the confession of our imperfection in the face of God’s perfection. As long as we see ourselves as acceptable, good enough, and able to take care of ourselves, there really isn’t much need for anyone else.
But there is a dignity in our confession of our imperfection. We are human, made in God’s image, to reflect his likeness. We were created for perfection. God desires to share his perfection with us. This is why Jesus came.
Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith—the one who began and will finish the process of perfecting us. Because he joined us to himself in his life, death and resurrection, God in Christ shares his perfection with us. We participate in God’s perfection in Christ by the Spirit.
But this is a process, a journey. It is a relationship with God in Christ by the Spirit in which we are, over time, transformed by the renewal of our minds. In light of God’s mercy in Christ, we surrender ourselves to God in obedient service and we walk in union and communion with the Father, Son and Spirit in love with God and one another.
Our spiritual perfection lies in Christ—we have the assurance that we will one day be like him in glory. For now, though, we focus on Jesus Christ and persevere in our relationship with God in him, rejecting and resisting anything that may seek to draw us away from the path of righteousness we walk in him.
When we read the history of faith in Hebrews 11, we recognize that faith does not come simply but exacts a price. Perfection is not an easy process. It is hard work. But it is not something we do on our own to perfect ourselves. And faith is not something we have to somehow come up with on our own. It is all of grace. It is a gift. Just as faith is a gift from God, so is our perfection.
So, in the midst of the messies of life and our imperfections, we can have Christ’s perfect peace, because he has given us his perfection, and he will continue to perfect us until we fully reflect him in glory. Seeking perfection isn’t a bad thing—but in the midst of all that effort, it is best to remember that there is only one who is perfect, and it is not us. But that Perfect One has graciously included us in his perfection.
Thank you, Perfect and Holy God, for including us in your perfection. Thank you that we don’t have to perfect ourselves or have perfect faith. You are the source, the author and finisher of our faith and our perfection. We trust you to finish what you have begun in us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Hebrews 12:1–3
“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1–2