Perfection: An Unnecessary Evil?
I once read that the early American Puritans, whilst applying their very best effort to all their handiwork - because only the best was good enough for God - nevertheless always made one deliberate mistake. The reason for this was to guard against the possibility that they might produce a perfect piece of work, and in so doing rob God of some of his glory. And so throughout their daily lives was woven (literally in some cases) the understanding that God was the perfect one and they merely his creatures.
Personally I have never had to make a deliberate mistake. I make them inadvertently. By the time my creation is finished it has my stamp on it 'completed by an imperfect human being who tried her best but nevertheless did not attain perfection'. Try as I might to produce something perfect, I never manage to pull it off. Not so long ago I would ache over those mistakes, but I have learned that perfectionism is a dangerous thing.
By deliberately not attempting perfection, the Puritans chose to live in a state of constant remembrance of the fact that they were flawed and imperfect, and therefore lesser beings than God. Maybe we could learn something from them. And maybe what we can learn reaches beyond a recognition of our inability to produce perfect work, to a recognition that we are not able to be perfect either. What do I mean?
It regularly strikes me on a Sunday morning how 'neat and tidy' we all are. We definitely have our best face on show. Parents may have been yelling at kids only minutes earlier as they bundled them into the car in a mad panic to get to church on time; husbands and wives may not be speaking to each other after last night's argument; a business man may be nurturing a growing grudge against the client two rows in front who still hasn't paid him - these are trivial examples, you will be aware of more weighty issues being battled by members of your congregation - but once everyone is inside the church doors, who could tell? Only God who sees our hearts.
Left to our own devices we will do our best to give the impression that our lives are in order and that our 'facade' is transparent - that 'what you see is who I am', when all the time many of us are hiding the truth. Why do we do this? Who told us that it is more important to be perfect than it is to be honest?
Over the last year, several new Christians have been added to our congregation. Many of them have come from a background of drug and/or alcohol abuse. One of the biggest hurdles they have faced is their understanding of what it means to be Christian. Seeing those of us who have been in the church for years as having conquered all our problems, they (wrongly) believe that we all live utterly victorious lives, that we no longer struggle with sin and have grown beyond temptation. In their minds the word 'Christian' has become equated with the word 'perfect'. Knowing that they will never be perfect, they have struggled mightily with the idea that they can be 'real Christians'.
What made them draw these conclusions? How did they lose sight of the fact that a Christian is one who follows Christ? Could it be because they have seen us doing our best to appear perfect? Rather than 'making a deliberate mistake' to show ourselves lesser than God, have we, consciously or subconsciously, done the opposite and tried to give the impression that we are in fact God-like?
If we are honest we would all admit that in our Christian lives it is entirely unnecessary for us to make deliberate mistakes - let's face it, mistakes tumble over themselves every day , however hard we try - but if, knowing this, we pretend that we are perfect, then we must ask ourselves: is there something in us which is striving after God's glory?1
I have always liked the 'one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread' analogy for coming to Christ. It illustrates so well the concept that I am not better than you because I am a Christian, I am merely a recipient of God's wonderful grace, and you can be too. I have chosen to walk the road with Christ toward perfection, but to claim that I have achieved perfection would be a lie.
Mutual trust and humility are our keys to helping each other to be honest. I must trust that you will not abuse my honesty; that you will cover my sins with love and pray for me,2 rather than whisper behind my back about my shortcomings. If you, for your part, were to share your own shortcomings I would have the privilege of doing the same for you. Together, new Christians and older Christians, we could journey towards wholeness.
The early Puritans, who guarded so carefully against the danger of stealing God's glory, have something to teach us. Rather than trying to prove (to whom I am not sure: is it other Christians we are trying to impress, or those outside the Church?) that we have everything under control - and that, in particular, sin no longer plays a part in our lives - we should admit to the problems we struggle with and pray for each other that we might be healed.