The Myth of Perfection
Isaiah 11.6: "Wolves and sheep will live together in peace."
Jesus rejected the idea of
perfection. Lest this statement appear over-the-top, it's probably correct
to say that belief in a perfect world other than our own was widespread in
Early religions prepared their dead to journey from this
valley of tears into the happy hereafter. The pyramids are the best-known
example of this. Teaching about a better world to come was common.
The Greek philosopher Plato proposed that every object
is given its being by a perfect "form" in heaven. Some 2300 years later,
this idea still powerfully influences Western societies.
The Hebrew idea of perfection, on the other hand,
centred around the Law. It's our task, said the Jewish people, to obey the
letter of the Law or suffer God's punishment.
Yearning for perfection, partly stimulated by Plato's
philosophy, continued in the early Church. The Desert Fathers, of whom
Antony is the best-known example, retreated into the desert to live alone.
They sought to gain perfection by denying themselves the ordinary things
Today the human desire for perfection is no weaker.
Sometimes it is sought through social action, sometimes through mysticism,
sometimes through religion, and often through money and social status. But
it's there - as powerful as ever.
But there are essential differences now from the past.
To believe that wolves and sheep will ever fraternise is to deny nature as
we know it. The chances of perpetual prosperity are virtually nil. No
society ever has or ever will be that secure. Visionaries who propose such
things are misguided and lead the simple astray.
We know enough now about nature's mechanisms to conclude that God
created the world as it is. The natural world is perfect.
There was no Fall through which nature was somehow infected by sin and
Psychology has revealed that in childhood some of us (especially
the first-born) sometimes come to believe that we should be perfect.
Such belief can be extremely powerful. Unless we recognise and let go of
it, the message to "be perfect" can drive us so relentlessly that we and
those around us are harmed.
Those who strive hardest for perfection sometimes think
they've found it. I recall negotiating a trade union agreement with a
young unionist in the last days of apartheid South Africa. Within a short
time it became apparent that he was unaware of his anti-White behaviour.
Perhaps he thought that, as a well-known fighter against the Apartheid
government, he had achieved the nirvana of non-racism in a
The same mistake can be made by anyone, of course. Paul
recognised this when he lamented that he tended to do things he didn't
want to do, and not do what he wanted to do (Romans 7.15).
We sometimes need to take stock and ask, does Jesus
require perfection of us? Reviewing the Gospels, it seems he hopes
for us to be complete in the sense of fulfilling our potential.
(That's what the original Greek word teleioi
in Matthew 5.48 really means, even though its often translated as
"perfect".) Completeness or maturity isn't the same thing as perfection.
Again and again Jesus, through his words and actions, proclaims that we're
fully acceptable to God as we are. Like Paul we should strive for the
good. But to be right with God we don't have to meet the standards demanded
of us by moral rules, by our parents, by our families or by anyone else. All
that is required of us, says Jesus, is that we love God and others as hard
as we can. Anyone who's tried that knows that failure comes easily and
perfection is a pipe-dream.
That's why Paul counsels
us to "accept one another" (Romans 15.7). We should remember why Paul
thought this so important. His fellow Jews tended to look down on non-Jews
as lesser creatures. Paul said that Jesus relates to all people regardless
of origin or social status. These are two of the many distinctions we humans
create to make ourselves feel better, or to give ourselves the illusion of
Relating to others on condition that
they meet our standards isn't acceptance. Acceptance requires that we take
others as they are, warts and all. What merit is there in accepting family
and friends? Even evil people do that. The Christian calling, if we are to
pattern ourselves on Jesus, is to accept even our enemies as they are.
Acceptance doesn't mean putting up with bad behaviour from others. But it
does mean taking them as they are first, and then dealing with the
difficulties. Anyone who's tried to do this will know that it is hard but
can also be immensely rewarding.
So in proclaiming
acceptance as a fundamental of the way God does things, Jesus automatically
rejects the idea of perfection. Perfection isn't necessary. It isn't even
worth striving for since it's a false idea. It's a way of looking at and
living life which essentially puts us in chains of either our own or other
people's making. Imprisonment isn't what God intends for us. The idea of
perfection is one of the chains from which Christians are (or should be)