Philippians 3.5-6 As far as the Hebrew Law
is concerned, I was a Pharisee, and I was so zealous that I persecuted the
The zealous person is a dangerous
person. For Christians, this statement may appear counter-intuitive.
Shouldn't they be "zealous for the Lord"?
Paul gives a terse response. He was once so zealous that
he took it out on those he thought were falling short of the perfection
required of them. Recall that he was a Pharisee - one of a small group
highly committed to the Hebrew Law.. What more choice a target than
a bunch of renegade Hebrews calling themselves "Of the Messiah"
(Christ-ian)? He has now changed. The answer is no longer to strive for
perfection but to rest in God's total acceptance through Jesus of
The passion for perfection displayed by the younger Paul has found a
place in the Church, rather like a stone in the boot of a hiker.
Christians have always been torn between perfection as a necessary
personal goal, and the reality of what humans actually are.
The demand that we strive for perfection is as old as history. The
ancient Greeks struggled with the gap between what should be and
what is. Plato solved the problem by deciding that our world is a
mere shadow of the perfect. Roman Stoics taught that subduing all passion
and relying totally on reason leads to perfection. Both these solutions
were taken up by early Christians. The so-called "Counsels of Perfection"
eventually emerged. Christians who are poor, celibate and zealous are more
likely than others to reach perfection.
The psychotherapist Eric Berne identified in the 1960s that the
injunction "Be perfect!" is a common theme in the upbringing of Western
children. Some people attempt to put this injunction into practice in
adulthood. The results can be traumatic - ruined health and broken
relationships being the least of them.
And so it continues to this day in the Church. Christians are supposed
to be better than non-Christians. Ordained people are expected to rise
above ordinary laypeople. Bishops and the like should be still more
perfect. Woe betide anyone who fails spectacularly enough to attract
The position is somewhat complicated by the apparent words of Jesus in
Matthew 5.48: "You must be perfect - just as your Father in heaven is
perfect!" Fortunately, all the evidence is that these are the words of the
Gospel author. He is expressing the teaching of the community he was part
of. This is not an injunction which need carry absolute weight for us.
In apparent contrast is the position of St Augustine of Hippo. We must
realise, he taught, that we are all corrupt. All humanity since the
rebellion of Adam and Eve is infected with sin. Only Jesus can rescue us.
Any journey towards perfection follows a mirage.
What lies behind both
these visions of humanity? It is that we should be what we are not.
put this another way: One of the great discoveries of the modern age is that
the world is as it is not because it has declined from perfection, but
because perfection doesn't exist. We are part of nature. And we have been
created by God through a process which doesn't admit the kind of perfection
which, because we seem to fall short, tends to breed in us a corrosive sense
This is not to say that we don't willfully miss the mark, that
we don't fall short from time-to-time. But there is little or no point in
setting ourselves up for failure by creating imaginary standards.
is perfection. Jesus himself reassures us. We are not like old cloth
which can't be patched; or like old wineskins which can no longer hold wine.
His conclusion was this: "The way God gets things done is like this: it's
like a man sowing seed on his land. He gets up every day and goes to bed
every night, paying little attention while the seed sprouts and matures. The
process is automatic - first comes the shoot, then the head, and finally a
mature ear of grain. When the grain is ripe, the man acts quickly, calling
for his sickle, because it's time to harvest."