PURSUING PERFECTION AND FACING REALITY
Can Christians be divided neatly into two groups, the ones who believe that perfection is not possible while we are on this earth, and others who believe it is? You think the title has already given me away? Perhaps not! This division cannot be so sharp. As in many other issues, a whole lot depends on what we understand by 'perfection.' Rather than trying to decipher its meaning from the biblical Hebrew and Greek roots, let us try and take a look at its practical implications.
Does 'perfection' mean the same as God's perfection? God's perfection is first of all sinless, God does not have a tendency towards sin; since He has never sinned, He has no stains or hangovers of sin. What about us? We have been justified and accepted by God. But this is by virtue of His grace towards us, on the basis of Jesus taking our place on the cross, and not because we have become acceptable in our own rights. In general, our tendency towards sin still remains and we still suffer from the hangovers of our past sins as far as our nature is concerned, even though God's grace is transforming us (sanctifying us) in our lives little by little. However, our 'glorification' which will make us totally free from sin's stains will take place only when we are with Him in heaven. Secondly, God's perfection also means He does not lack in anything good. He does not have any limitation in wisdom, knowledge and understanding, or abilities such as intelligence, memory, power, etc. Everything about Him is infinite. He does not exist in time, like we do; for Him, the future and the past are as real as the present. When we say God is perfect, we also imply that He is the Ultimate, that no one can be better or greater than He is. Obviously we can't be expected to be perfect in this way, either here on earth or even in heaven. We are created beings and not God, and we will always be finite beings.
Perfect As He Is
But having said that, it is still true that God expects us to be perfect just as He is! (Matt. 5:48; Gen.17:1). Perhaps we can understand that concept a little better when we look at the analogy of how Adam and Eve were created in God's image. Being of the lineage of fallen human beings, it is not possible for us to fully understand how Adam and Eve would have been before they fell. Yet we can notice the fact that though they were made like God, they had their limitations. While they were like God, they were not fully like God or like God in all respects. So, while we can accept that God expects from us some characteristics of perfection as He has, we can also take it that He does not mean the full and ultimate level of perfection which He has, as we have seen in the last paragraph.
So it is necessarily a limited type of perfection compared to His own that God expects from us. Yet in whatever it consists of, it must be like His perfection in some way. Otherwise He would not tell us to be perfect as He is perfect. In other words, the perfection He expects from us is like His perfection in terms of one or more of its characteristics rather than in magnitude.
Does God want us to be perfect in terms of doing everything right? In order to be able to do everything right, first of all we need to know at all times what is the right thing to do. Secondly we need also to have the power to do it. We lack in both. In principle we have the Holy Spirit to equip us in both respects. However having a great teacher or helper does not guarantee a successful student or trainee. There is much that is dependent on the student himself. As any sincere and honest person will admit, that is our problem. That kind of perfection, of doing everything right, is certainly something to aim for, but it is not something that we can experience fully in this life.
In the Old Testament, if someone did something in ignorance and later came to know that it was wrong, he still had to make a sacrifice for atonement (Lev.4). This means that there is guilt associated with a wrong act even if the person did it thinking that he was not doing anything wrong, or that he was doing something good. As long as we are on this earth, we will be doing many wrong things in ignorance. We cannot avoid it, because we do not know everything. So obviously, the perfection that God wants us to come to is not that we should be always doing the right thing.
The next thing to see is, if we are not able to avoid doing wrong when we are not aware that it is wrong, can we at least manage to do the right thing when we know it fully well? Obviously we have no excuse for doing the wrong thing when we know what is the right thing to do. But can we always do the right thing? Earlier we saw that knowing what is right is not sufficient. We also need power and opportunity to be able to do it. If we are able to do the right thing but we don't, obviously that cannot be excused. But what if we lack the ability and the power to do what we know we should be doing?
It may be that we don't want to worry or be anxious, but we don't seem to be able to stop it. We would like to forgive the one who has hurt us very badly, but we aren't able to manage that. We know we shouldn't lose our temper with our children and we don't want to, but we just don't seem to be able to help it. We men know we shouldn't be looking at women with lust, but we find ourselves doing just that. Etc. How on earth are we going to be perfect? I know there are differences in the way Christians interpret Paul's exclamations in Romans 7 about how he found himself doing not what he wanted to do, but what he hated and did not want to do. But I would like to propose that Paul was essentially expressing his frustration at not being able to be as perfect as he wished to be, without claiming to know what kind of mismatches he was referring to, whether they were similar to what is written above or whether they were at a much higher spiritual plane.
Sometimes it is possible to hold theories about what Scripture says our lives should be like, while we have a quite different practical experience in our lives, without finding anything out of place. That is to hold doctrine and practical life as two separate realms altogether. When we find our actual experience to be different from what we think the Scripture tells us, shouldn't we be looking around to see a) how our life should change to come to conformity with Scripture, and also b) if we need to understand the Scriptures better? It is interesting to realise that we need to go in both these directions simultaneously, with open and honest heart and mind. Let us not assume that our understanding of doctrine is perfect and worry only about bringing our lives in order, as some tend to do. This could turn out to be very unrealistic if we have not understood the Scriptures perfectly. And let us not try to twist the doctrine to fit in with our experience, as some others tend to do.
Going back to the examples I have given above concerning anxiety, forgiveness, anger, lust, etc., I realise there are strong differences of view among Christians concerning such issues. Some hold the view that such experiences are marks of a loose life because God has promised us victory over all sin (e.g. Rom.6:14). They say that a victorious Christian life is one where we have, by the grace of God, overcome such sins. Others say that these are natural experiences for everyone as long as we are on this earth. I would think that the truth is somewhere in between.
Let us define 'victory' as not giving in to temptations. It is certainly not the absence of temptations. Temptations come to every man, and Jesus Himself was tempted in all points as we are (Heb.4:15). Jesus never sinned, in that He always resisted temptation and never gave in to it. On the contrary we have all sinned, having given in to temptations many times. Since Jesus has demonstrated to us that as a Man He could overcome in all temptations, we cannot excuse a defeated life by saying that it is but natural that we would fall when we are tempted. The more we humbly seek and receive the grace of God, the more we are able to resist giving in to temptation, and the more victory we enjoy. However, do we ever come to a place where we can say that we have victory over some sin, say anxiety, and that we are not troubled by it anymore? Isn't there something relative in our victory, meaning that we are not as anxious as we used to be? Perhaps it takes less time now than before to come to rest in our mind when we are faced with anxious thoughts. But is it that we don't even feel a moment of anxiety now? Is there no scope for improvement? I propose that a true victorious life involves a continuous pressing on to perfection.
Let us look at what the Bible teaches us about perfection. There is an example in the Bible where it speaks about a perfect heart with reference to ordinary people. This is with reference to 'men of war' who came to make David the king of Israel (1Chro.12:38). It may be assumed safely that these were not spiritual or religious minded people who were pursuing after holiness in any sense. But yet their hearts were perfect when it came to choosing David as king. What this shows is that the word 'perfect' may be used at times with a meaning limited to the context, and not necessarily in the fullest meaning of the word.
God asked Abraham when he was 99 years old to walk before Him and to be perfect (Gen.17:1). This has been translated in the NASB as "be blameless." Is this not essentially the same as the general commandment God has given to His people to "to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deut.10:12) or "to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Mic.6:8)? Both these phrases start with saying that this is what God would want us to do. They address attitudes and character rather than specific acts. In other words, we can understand from such overarching commandments of God that perfection has to begin with the heart and is essentially a state of our heart. The Pharisees missed this point and tried to address more and more details of external behaviour, for which Jesus scolded them, especially in the famous passage in Matthew 23.
When Jesus said in Matthew 5:48 that we were to be perfect as our Heavenly Father, it was in the context of what He was speaking about loving not just our friends and those who loved us in return, but even our enemies. In other words, He was giving a picture of love towards other people which was not dependent on what kind of people these others were or how they behaved towards us. Is it possible to love like this? Yes, by the grace of God, as seen in innumerable examples in Christian history. However, even while it has been seen to be possible, has it not been seen as an area where individuals have had to struggle against their feelings and prejudices and come to that place of love and rest? There is here a pressing on to perfection.
The Bible also talks about perfect control of the tongue (Jas.3:2), perfect conscience (Heb.9:9), perfect faith (Heb.12:2), etc. All these refer to character. In Romans 12:2, the apostle Paul exhorts us not to be conformed to this world, but instead to be renewed in our mind so that we may know what the perfect will of God is. This indicates a progression in this process of renewal that will result in better understanding of the will of God. This is similar to what Paul mentions regarding his own experience, that he was pressing on towards the perfect level in his knowledge of Christ, not having reached there yet (Phil.3:12). Hebrews 6:1 exhorts us to press on to perfection (maturity - NASB).
Can we understand from this that God's command to be perfect translates in practice to pressing on to perfection in our heart, character and behaviour, while accepting at every point in time that we are not perfect yet? Surely this is one aspect of the matter. While Paul said that he had not reached the state of perfection and was pressing on towards it, he also claimed on a particular occasion that he had lived with a perfectly good conscience before God up to that day (Acts.23:1). How do we understand this statement? Was he saying he had never sinned? No, he considered himself as the chief of sinners. Was he saying that he had lived with nothing hanging on his conscience? Most probably. In other words, he kept a short account with God, always setting things right as soon as he became aware of anything wrong. Isn't this another important part of pressing on towards perfection?
Is having good intentions enough to be qualified as being blameless? We saw earlier that even if do things with a good intention, we don't always know what is good, and so our action can be wrong even when our intention is good. But doing something with a good intention is certainly better than doing it with a bad intention, or doing things mechanically, isn't it?
Now think of it. Can we, at any time, really do anything better than do what we believe at that time to be the best thing to do? This 'best' involves, among other things, loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbour as ourselves, and understanding the will of God as best as we can. No, we can't do anything more than that. Can God, or will God require anything higher from us? At the same time, we have to admit that we see things only dimly as in a mirror, in comparison to the perfect way in which we can see things when we stand face to face with God in heaven. God certainly expects us to grow up and know God and His ways better and better as time goes on. Isn't this pressing on to perfection?
Paul gives us another indication of what it is to be perfect or mature. He tells us about the attitude that a mature person should have (Phil. 3:13-15). Mature people will be pressing on towards perfection while recognising all the time that they have not reached there. In other words, those who are not interested in becoming more and more perfect, but have reconciled themselves to expecting only failure and defeat are not mature.
Shall we then conclude that to be perfect is to be blameless and good in our intentions and to press on to perfection in our deeds? We recognise that at any point in time we aren't anything but imperfect. We also recognise that God is delighted with us as He sees our tiny steps towards perfection. I don't see anything else as being realistic.
The doctrine of perfection has been the cause of many quarrels among God's people. Some have made claims that they have already been made perfect, and some have taken glory in their imperfections! Some people have taken their position "in Christ" to satisfy their intellect while remaining indifferent to how their practical lives are. Some have drawn away in fear from any talk about perfection, and some have crucified others who talked about it. Some 'perfect' people have despised and derided others who were not perfect in their sight, and some 'imperfect' people have ridiculed those who made any sort of claim to perfection. Some have convinced themselves regarding their own level of perfection while they regard anyone pointing out that "the king is naked" as attacks from the enemy. I think all of us have a long way to go towards perfection.