Perfectionism: The cruelest burden we place on one another

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect….” (Matthew 5:48)

First, let’s get the theological argument out of the way.

Let’s make this perfectly clear: God knows you are not perfect and will never be this side of Glory.

And even clearer: “God does not expect sinlessness out of you and me. He is under no illusion about us.”  See Psalm 103:14 “He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.” And Romans 3:10 “There is none righteous, no, not one.”

Got that?  The illusion of sinless perfection is all ours, my friend.

We read Matthew 5:48 and come away with the erroneous conclusion that God ordered us to be perfect, that perfect means sinlessness, and therefore we can be sinless.  But since we cannot achieve perfection–no one you know has ever pulled it off–then He has given us an impossible standard to live by, one that crushes us and frustrates us and forever disappoints Him.

The result would be that we forever live with a disgusted God and in fear of the celestial woodshed, the destiny of children who bring in failing grades.

Yuck. What kind of theology is this?  And yet, you and I know people who believe this and call themselves Bible students, serious disciples of Jesus, and even evangelists (“sharers of the good news”)..

Now, let’s drop the other shoe here…

God’s standard is indeed perfect and does not bend itself down to match our pitiful efforts.

His standard is what it is. He is a holy and righteous God, and nothing will change that.

So, when He says we are to be perfect–whether we translate that as “mature,” “complete,” or even “as sinless and flawless as my wife’s first husband” (that’s a joke, Ginger)–He does not expect you and me to attain that in this life.

If perfect behavior is required to get to Heaven, it’s going to be one lonely place.

At this  point, someone says (correctly) that theologically we are perfect in Christ.

Sure, but that ain’t what He’s talking about here, friend. He’s talking about a certain kind of behavior in this life. (As always, read the context in and around this verse.)

And we are not going to be perfect so long as we live in these mortal bodies on this earthly sod as a part of this fallen culture.

Argue with that til the cows come home, friend, but the reality is that you are not perfect and haven’t become so since the Holy Spirit began a good work in you.  If you think you are perfect, then please exit this conversation as we speak entirely different languages and everything here is just going to make you angry.  Thank you very much.

Perfectionism is a script for certain defeat.

A pastor told me how he begins establishing a relationship with the ministerial staff in a new church. “I tell them, I  am assuming that every one of you is the best there is at what you do.  As far as I know, you are perfect.  Now, it will be up to you to convince me otherwise, that you are not. Because I am giving you the benefit of the doubt from the very first.”

It sounds great.  And he thought he was onto something really terrific.

It’s terrible.

Tell someone they have to be perfect in order to continue in your good graces and you have put an intolerable burden on them.

No one can live up to such expectations.

And yet, we do it all the time in one way or the other.

The child brings a report card home from school, overjoyed that he has raised his grades in every class.  Four A’s and one B. What could be better? He literally skips home and rushes into the den to hand dad the card.

He is devastated when his father begins rebuking him for the one B.

Five minutes later, the dad, having wrung his kid out for the one B, goes away thinking he has done a good job of parenting.  He has set the bar high.

What he has done is to discourage his offspring.

Don’t be surprised to see all the grades dropping back to their previous level next report time.  The dad, of course, will go ballistic.  He will think up punishments and might even spank the kid.  But this cruel man will not have a clue that he is responsible for those poor grades as surely as he is the father of this child.

A wife wants to shower her husband with love and gratitude.  And she will, just as soon as…..

As soon as he loses some weight, gets a better job, respects her parents more, quits watching so much television, quits spending so much time fishing or golfing and goes shopping with her more often, and goes to church with her more. Yep, just as soon as he does all these things (and a few others we’ve not gotten to yet), she’s going to shower him with affection.  But not until.

Pastor Roger is unhappy with his congregation and can be heard at ministers’ meetings complaining. His leaders are not tithing, his new members refuse to be baptized, his best workers skip church on Sunday night, his student minister dresses like the teenagers, his secretary takes too long for lunch. On and on it goes. There’s always something. The other ministers feel Roger serves a pretty healthy church and most would swap with him in a heartbeat.

Roger thinks he would be a much better minister if his people were just perfect.

The pastor’s wife wants to encourage her husband’s preaching. But sometimes he goes too long, sometimes he acts silly in the pulpit, sometimes he tells a story he has used before, sometimes he’s boring, and occasionally he uses a singular verb with a plural noun.  As soon as he is able to preach to her high standards, she will start encouraging him. But not until.

God’s people should be clear on this if anyone in the universe is.

Our society is plagued by people who are being victimized by parents and bosses, teachers and coaches who demand perfection and are convinced nothing less will be accepted.

A leading cause of suicide, particularly in teens, is the mistaken belief that because the individual is imperfect in some area, they are losers and should be deleted from life.

We must quit doing this to ourselves and one another.

1. We must understand we live in a fallen world whose redemption is not yet.  (Read Romans 8:19ff repeatedly until it sinks in.)

2. We are all imperfect and will remain so until we see Jesus and “become like Him for we shall see Him as He is.”  (See I John 3:1-3.)

3. We must be patient with ourselves and one another.  After all, Philippians 1:6 says God is at work completing the job He began in us. But nowhere does it say He is even remotely finished.

Years ago, a lot of Christians went around wearing buttons reading PBPWM.GINFWMY.  When asked for the meaning, they would respond, “Please be patient with me. God is not finished with me yet.” 

4. We must teach our people to drive a stake through the heart of erroneous doctrine which teaches people they can be perfect and that anything less is failure of the worst sort.  God is a God of grace and mercy, a point made hundreds of times in Scripture, whereas Matthew 5:48 is found once. That has to mean something.

5.Our demand for sinlessness in people causes us to do two terrible things: a) Throw people under the bus when they sin in some big way and b) Look the other way at our own sins.

This is the very reason some churches have no good news to offer the divorced, the ex-con, the homosexual, or others whose sins are “terrible.” And yet, we condone major failings in ourselves–Jesus called them ‘beams’ in Matthew 7:4–and earn the right to the name “Hypocrite.”

6. We must remove this intolerable burden from people so they can be free to know Jesus and love Him.

7. Give yourself room to enjoy the Lord, enjoy the Christian life, and all this means.

8. When you stumble–whether of your own doing or someone else–pick yourself up, thank God for Calvary, and get back in the game.  God did not discard you when you sinned.

“Sinners Jesus will receive;

Sound this word of grace to all

Whom the Heavenly pathway leave,

All who linger, all who fall.

Sing it o’er and o’er again, Christ receiveth sinful men.”

That line is found in Luke 15:2 and was said of Jesus as a slur.  But the critics were dead on with that analysis, a fact you and I revel in.

Either Jesus does indeed receive sinful men and women and children, or there is no gospel (“good news”) and mankind is in no better shape than before that wonderful night in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago.

There is a reason the message from Heaven is called “good news,” and I suggest you find it.  However, if that message is that we are to be perfect to get to Heaven, then there is no good news and we should quit lying to people.

Accept that God loves you and me the way we are, but loves us enough not to leave us that way.  Furthermore, we are to love one another–everyone!–the same way.

Let us quit demanding perfection of anyone.

Let us begin releasing them from artificial burdens imposed by our shoddy understanding of Scripture.

And let us start living the abundant life Jesus came to bring us.

 

4 thoughts on “Perfectionism: The cruelest burden we place on one another

  1. Splendid article Pastor Joe, almost perfect! I too have heard persons reason that if God commands us to be perfect, then it must be entirely possible to achieve perfection. While I wholly agree with you, I wish only that your article had given an interpretation of the reference at Matt. 5:48. Again, good job!

  2. Pingback: Unhealthy Theology: The Heavenly Taskmaster – Ariel the Human

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