Be perfect, therefore,
as your heavenly Father is perfect.
A friend who is a psychologist, a devout Christian, and a self-confessed perfectionist once said to me painfully: “Trying to be perfect can really mess you up!” I knew my friend was right, because I too am a perfectionist in recovery. I have always struggled with Jesus command for us to be perfect; and not just perfect, but perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Either there is a problem with Jesus’ words, or a problem with my understanding of them. I think I know where the problem might be!
I’m quite sure that I was not born a perfectionist, but probably learned it at an early age. I think it probably began by mimicking my parents who strove for excellence in a perfectionistic way. Soon I learned that perfectionism was culturally approved and woven into the fabric of school, church, and community. People told me that no one is perfect, but on the other hand, practice makes perfect. So I tried hard and harder and was even praised for being such a perfectionist.
But perfectionism felt like an endless report card always measuring how I was doing. “Perfection involves feeling bad about 98 (out of 100) and always finding mistakes no matter how well you are doing” (Elena Tugend, Better by Mistake). There was the inner voice always nagging about doing more and doing better. I measured my worth by perceived accomplishments and other peoples’ opinion of me. That means that perfectionism is always about the perfectionist, and never about love and compassion. It’s always about me!
While I didn’t need clinical studies to tell me the high costs of perfectionism, many studies do indicate that it can lead to depression, lowered self-esteem, performance anxiety, social anxiety, procrastination, loneliness, anger, and troubled relationships. So, what am I missing here! Why would Jesus ever command us to be perfect?
First, I had to look more closely at the word translated “perfect”. Does it really mean sinless perfection, or a flawless character? The word Matthew uses is teleios, which means to be “whole”, “complete”, and “mature”. The fine Bible commentator William Barclay can help us in our understanding of teleios:
The Greek idea of perfection is functional. A thing is perfect if it fully realizes the purpose for which it was planned, and designed, and made… a man is perfect it he realizes the purpose for which he was created and sent into the world…It is the whole teaching of the Bible that we realise our manhood only by becoming godlike. The one thing which makes us like God is the love which never ceases to care for men, no matter what men do to it. We realize our manhood, we enter upon Christian perfection, when we learn to forgive as God forgives, and to love as God loves. (The Gospel of Matthew)
The verses immediately preceding Jesus’ command to “Be perfect” provide yet more light on His meaning. Jesus speaks of our heavenly Father, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (5:45). In these verses Jesus commands that we imitate the Father, by loving our enemies and loving those who persecute us. He rebukes those who love only the people who love them, and calls for love in the Father’s inclusive and unconditional way.
When looked at in its context we see that the command to be perfect “is not advocating the pursuit of perfection as striving for individual moral perfection, but rather a lifelong stretching of one’s capacity to love as God does”. (Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon, Urgings of the Heart) It is a command to realize the purpose for which we were created and sent into the world.
An almost word for word parallel to Jesus’ command to be teleios is found in the Jesus parallel sermon in Luke 6. If you read both Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:32-36 you will be struck by the similarities, but with one difference. And the difference is Luke’s wording of Jesus command: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”. The perfection and life-fulfilling purpose Jesus has for us is to be merciful. “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).
I will never be more than a creature always in need of God’s unconditional love and mercy. I pray, that by God’s mercy I will become more like Him!
What was Jesus thinking? Perhaps the prayer of Thérèse of Lisieu, (1873-1897) sums it up ‘perfectly’:
May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.
Grace and peace,
photo by GerdTheNerd