Progress, Not Perfection
The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Galatians 5:22-24
If we were totally honest, most of us would admit that we have a desire to look good to others. We want people to think we’ve got our lives together, that we’re successful, that our kids are the best and brightest, and our relationships are ideal. We want others to think that we’re on top of our game; that we would never make an error in judgment. If we were totally honest, many of us would have to admit that we have a driving desire to be perfect.
Perfection means having no flaws or shortcomings; complete excellence. A perfectionist sees life as if it’s a succession of flaws that need to be fixed once and for all. Do you ever look at the feature towards the back of Saturday’s Washington Post Magazine that says “What’s wrong with this picture?” If you look at the picture carefully you will see that the table only had three legs or the front door has no door knob. Perfectionists experience some delight in finding what’s wrong – only looking for what is missing, or broken instead of what is working. When we find what’s wrong, then we can fix it. Then it will be right, and all will be well.
Why do we find such satisfaction in seeing only what is missing, in what is wrong, or in what is broken?
Perfection is one of the most important characteristics of our culture. Some have said the pursuit of perfection has become a major addiction of our time. While we strive to make our lives look flawless, we also fall short of some sort of imaginary and unattainable standard. As hard as we might try to convince other people that we have the perfect life, something usually trips us up. Even so, many of us keep at it. We strive for a flawless life. I think we do it because we’re searching for something. We want approval and love and we are afraid that we won’t be worthy as we are right now. We start to believe that the only way we can earn love is by never making a mistake or falling short.
In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Remen admits she is a recovering perfectionist. Remen is a physician who was trained by her father in the art of being perfect long before she entered medical school. She wrote, “As a child, when I brought home a 98 on an exam, he invariably responded, ‘What happened to the other two points?’” Remen goes on to say, “I adored my Dad and my whole childhood was focused on the pursuit of the other two points. By the time I was in my twenties, I had become as much a perfectionist as he. It was no longer necessary for him to ask me about those two points. I had taken that over for myself. It was many years before I found out that those points don’t matter. That they are not the secret to living a life worth remembering. That they don’t make you loveable. Or whole.”
The idea of a perfect standard was taught to me by the church. I was told God is perfect. One of the most influential writings in our Tradition is called the Westminster Confession. Written in 1646, part of it says, “There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute…”
I was taught God is flawless. God sees all. God knows all. God plans and orders all according to God’s perfect will. We humans are not perfect. Because of sin, our lives are stained. A perfect God cannot be in perfect union with imperfect creatures, so there has to be a way for us to become perfect like God. We will never get there on our own, so God sends the Son to take away our sin, which puts us in a right relationships with God and starts us along the path to perfection.
To me, that version of God felt like Rachel Remen’s dad. I adored God, but felt like God was always disappointed in me. I always fell short of God’s standard, and felt horrible about it. As I grew older, I began to doubt this perfect God, and I felt guilty for asking questions:
• If God is perfect, then why would God need to create humans? If something was missing in the beginning, then God was incomplete.
• If God is perfect, all-powerful, and all knowing, then why is the world God created filled with so much pain? It’s a big problem to have a perfect God create a world that can only be saved and redeemed through the death of an innocent victim who will be the target of God’s wrath on our behalf. How is this supposed to fill me with gratitude?
• I am supposed to be perfect, but I will never get there. Why would God set a goal I can never reach?
Early Christian theologians had these questions too. Some of them came up with complicated solutions, based on ideas of Greek philosophers like Plato. Some said God is the Unmoved Mover. They said a perfect Being is not affected one bit by humans. A perfect God has no favorites; takes no sides; has no need for wealth and power; has no emotions; and feels no desires to punish, reward or please. God is love, but God’s love only goes one way. It is not reciprocal.
Silence in the face of evil … being unmoved by suffering when you can say something or doing something … to me that seems like an imperfection.
Lately I’ve been wondering … maybe God is not perfect. Maybe Christianity got this one wrong. Is it really necessary to insist God is a perfect being?
When reading the New Testament, one of the words translated as “perfect” is the Greek word telios. It does not mean “perfect,” even though it’s translated that way in some of our Bibles. Telios actually means “mature, whole, or complete.” A person is “perfect” when he or she realizes the purpose for which we are created and sent into the world. “Perfection” does not mean to set an impossible goal. To be perfect, in this sense, is to make room for growth, to allow for the changes that help us fulfill the purpose of our lives.
And what is that purpose?
I can tell you what it’s not. We were not created for superiority over others. Our purpose in life is not flawlessness. It’s not a moral self-righteousness that cares little for those around us or props up one’s ego by putting others down. Perfection is found in mutual, radical love. Perfection is found in relationship with those who seek to help us and those seek to hurt us.
Perfection, as our culture defines it, is simply not intended to be part of the human condition. Being human, by its very nature, means that we are imperfect flawed creatures. Which means, in some strange way, we are more whole when we are incomplete – more beautiful for being broken. Master psychologist Carl Rogers put it this way: “I let myself know that I am enough. Not perfect. Perfect wouldn’t be enough. But that I am human, that is enough.” I hear God saying the very same thing God would say to us. No masks, no pretenses needed. To be ourselves, to be human—that is enough.
It all brings to mind the image of the fruit of the spirit. In the book of Galatians, Paul hits us with this big, ripe list of virtues. Actually first, he shames us with a VERY big list of flaws and behaviors to avoid. Then Paul hits us with a big, ripe list of virtues: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, goodness, and self-control. If we want to experience what a perfect Christian is like – a mature, whole believer – then this is a place to start. The image of fruit reminds me that growth is a process. Think of the beautiful fruit in your favorite organic supermarket. From soil to shelf, the fruit needs water and sun, seasons of growth and dormancy. A peach tree doesn’t bear good fruit until 3-4 years after it’s been planted. Apple and cherry trees take 2-3, even up to five years, to bear good fruit. Almonds can take up to 12 years.
Think about the fruit of the spirit in your life. Think about the times you have experienced love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. These godlike qualities grow, over time, with encouragement, and nurture. We don’t become spiritual masters in one meditation session. It takes time and practice. It takes failure. Then more time and practice. Small gains. More failure. More time and practice. We are present for the journey, the slow steady progress.
And even if that fruit looks overripe, even if it’s all bruised up and getting mushy, it’s still good. It still has value. It still has nourishment. Some of you are part of a food delivery program in which workers glean produce from grocery stores that’s about to be thrown away. The produce is on its way out. No one’s going to buy it. But it’s still good. Yes, the bananas and pears have brown spots and the tomatoes are soft. They produce is not glamorous and put together. But in these starved times, to be a bruised pear that can nourish a hungry stomach, it is fulfilling its purpose. And that is enough.
In these starved times, when you can find a little more space to love yourself, to love your neighbor, and to love your enemies, you fulfill the purpose of love. And that is enough.
In these times of isolation, when you can hold on to joy, and even let some squeak out into the world around you, you fulfill joy’s purpose. And that is enough.
In these times of war, when even a little non-violent, passive resistance can make a big change, you can fulfill the purpose of peace. And that is enough.
When you are tired, or in pain, and can find a way to not lash out at others, you fulfill the purpose of patience. And that is enough.
When you can find a way to pay it forward, to show small acts of compassion, when offer civility in the midst of debates meant to polarize us, when we can be open-hearted, when we consume the earth’s resources with care, we fulfill the purpose of kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. And that is enough. That is enough.
To be ourselves, to be human—that is enough. And that is just … perfect.