‘You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
— Matthew 5:48
These words of Christ are about as intimidating as they come. God our Father is perfect, and he desires perfection for us. Yet at the same time, God is not a perfectionist. How so? Perfectionism is really a form of anxiety. Perfectionism is usually considered an unhealthy tendency, even if it does get results for certain people. Crucially, perfectionists are often driven by a fear of failure. God, however, cannot fail, and cannot fear, and so is doubly incapable of fearing failure. He may be perfect, but he isn’t a perfectionist, like some fretful sixth former working on her Oxbridge application.
Instead, God is a perfecter. That is to say, that he brings things to perfection, not out of a fear of failure, but rather out of a pure and unadulterated love of goodness. What is more, he is unashamed of the process — he allows us to see his work in progress, rather than hiding all things under wraps until they can be brought to light when flawless. The Spirit takes up residence in our hearts when we come to Christ, and He is content to work more slowly than we might have wanted. But why the wait? And how should we live in the meantime?
God’s is more gracious than we are — he never expected us to be perfect
When I’m feeling provocative, I enjoy telling fretful Christians not to worry, because God’s standards are much lower than theirs are. While they prepare the stake for my burning, I try to explain what I mean: that God delights as a Father in the progress of his children. I’ve never met a father who rebuked his toddler for falling over when they took their earliest steps. Their walking wasn’t perfect, but what father expects their children to be ready for the 110m hurdles at 18 months? In the same way, the father of the prodigal rejoices at the return of the wayward son, though at this stage the son is far from perfect. In the same way, St Paul can rejoice over the churches he knows, rejoicing in their faith and progress. If this joy in imperfect churches is expressed in Spirit-inspired letters that we rightly call the word of God, then I think we can safely assume that Paul is only dimly reflecting the joy the Father has in His own Children, and the Son has in His own Bride.
But what then of Christ and Paul in other places? ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48), ‘none is righteous, no, not one’ (Rom. 3:10). And isn’t the standard for salvation moral perfection? Indeed it is, and yet the Scriptures can also speak about imperfect people as being righteous, having been made righteous by Jesus Christ. There is one sense of righteousness — the sense we find more in Paul in Romans, which has come to dominate Protestant thought — which is binary. One is righteous or unrighteous, justified or unjustified — all are unrighteous by nature, but are made righteous by Christ. Then there is another sense that the apostles speak about, which seems to be a way in which imperfect Christians may still be called ‘righteous’ — take James, for example: ‘Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.’ (Jas. 5:16-18)
We might balk at this at first: ‘But James, Elijah was a man with a nature like ours — he wasn’t righteous!’ If we take that line, we have a few options: a) invent a doctrine of Elijah’s immaculate conception and sinless perfection, maybe even elevate him to the Trinity if he’s not of a nature like ours; b) say that James must have got confused, writing ‘Elijah’, where he meant ‘Christ’, and then continuing in his confusion to write about a story that definitely happened to Elijah, not Jesus; or c) consider that James is using the word ‘righteous’ in a way that is different to, but entirely consonant with, the rest of Scripture. Consider how often David prays that God would consider his righteousness (e.g. Psalms 7:8; 18:20, 24; 35:27; . Did David think he was sinless? Unlikely. Did he pray with mixed motives, and sometimes seem to be going backwards instead of forwards? No doubt — how much like us he is! Yet God can hold David up as an example of someone who walked with Him.
I’ve met a lot of spiritual perfectionists over the years. Not the Wesleyan kind, but the sort of person who won’t admit to having made any progress in the faith because they know that they aren’t perfect yet. My advice is this: have a cup of tea, eat a piece of cake, and thank God that his standards for you are lower than your own.
God’s is more perfect than we are — he doesn’t just let us off
Does this open the gate to us lowering the bar for righteousness? I suggest not: if we understand that when we talk about ‘being righteous’ we are not always talking about the binary soteriological realities of ‘being saved/not saved’ encourages us to pursue righteousness more, and even to expect to grow. If I am told that I am terribly unrighteous, but God will hear the prayers of the unrighteous because of the atoning work of Jesus, I might be tempted to think that I needn’t bother repenting. What more could I add to Christ’s work? Would that not be presumptuous, an insult?
The apostles and prophets consider it differently, and are unanimous: disobey God (i.e. walk in unrighteousness), and he won’t listen to your prayers. Consider Isaiah: ‘Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear’ (Is. 59:1-2). Or Peter: ‘Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honour to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered’ (1 Peter 3:7). Or James, as above: God does here the prayers of the righteous, so presumably he does not listen to the unrighteous. There is a truth to the fact that your sin might hinder your prayers, even if you are a Christian. You may still be an heir of the grace of life, but if your don’t honour your wife, your prayers will suffer.
I’ve also met a few of spiritual slackers over the years, the sort of person who won’t admit to having made any progress in the faith because they hardly feel the need too. My advice is this: wake up, put on your best sackcloth, and consider that God that’s standards for you are higher than your own.
God’s methods are perfect
What are the differences between a perfecter and a perfectionist? Not the desired end — both are aiming for perfection — but the means. Perfectionists want everything done right immediately, and first time. Perfectionists are generally reluctant to let people see the work in progress. By contrast, God, the ageless one, is quite content to work slowly in the lives of believers. Why?
God works slowly because immediate transformation to perfection is actually antithetical to what He wants to produce in us. Consider what God wants to produce in Christians: endurance, character and hope. Romans 5 sets out the chain from suffering, which produces endurance, which in turn produces character, to hope. Endurance, or patience, is the quality here that most obviously cannot be produced quickly. Endurance can only be cultivated by enduring, which demands time. Hope, similarly, is a quality that depends on there being a gap between where you currently are, and where you are expecting to end up. If you were already where you wanted to be, and already had all you wanted to have, what would you hope for? So it is that perfectionists can often end up despairing of their Christian walk, and their Christian progress — it is easy to lose hope for the future when you expect perfection now.
What God is working in us is more than a bland sinlessness, it is real character in order than we can serve him well in the tasks he gives us, and that character takes time to form. Consider that even Jesus had to be made perfect for his mission, and that that took time. The Spirit says in Hebrews 2:10: ‘For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.’ In what sense was Jesus not perfect already? Certainly not in a moral sense: Christ never sinned, and so had no moral imperfections. No, Jesus’ imperfection was instead related to maturity, and fittingness to the task given to him. At 12 years old, Christ was sinless, but not yet an appropriate representative for Israel or humanity — he had undergone no baptism, no temptations, he had not preached the Kingdom to Israel — so he had to be made perfect before his death, he had to suffer before entering His glory.
If God is patient in his work, we ought to be also, and we ought also to remember that perfectionism makes it easy to denigrate the work of the perfecter. To think that we have made no progress is to say that God the Spirit hasn’t been doing anything in us at all. Sure, mourn over your sin, but not so much that you never rejoice over your progress too. We will reach perfection one happy day — in the meantime, let us keep going, celebrating the deep and patient work of God in our lives, and looking to those righteous men and women further up the road as our examples and guides.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
— Philippians 3:12-17.