I’m a recovering perfectionist. I acquired that propensity naturally—through my family. As a child and adolescent, during the ‘50s and ‘60s, I went with family members to camp meetings and revival services in the American Holiness Movement. There, Christian perfection, A.K.A. entire sanctification, was the theme. As their fiery messages concluded, evangelists would invite us to the altar to receive that “second work of grace.” One more stanza of “Just As I Am” or “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” might draw a few more sensitive souls to receive sinless perfection.
At one Free Methodist camp meeting when I was a teenager, I was bewildered by testimonies from people who claimed to be sin-free for years. The prooftext of the belief was “Without holiness, no one shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Even in her ‘90s, my mother was haunted by how she might achieve that standard for Judgment Day.
My maternal grandmother, with whom my brother and I lived for months at a time during our formative years, did her part to help us live holy lives. A practicing member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, she regularly warned us against lying, sexual sins, and overeating. Abstinence from alcohol was also a theme. She was obviously overweight, so now I wonder if she projected her own struggles onto us.
Thus, it’s not surprising that I stumbled over one of Jesus’ most difficult sayings: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48, KJV). That’s because, though I tried, I never acquired that second work of grace. I “went forward;” I asked God to give me that experience. I was earnest; yet, try as I might I continued to sin.
I would, at times, express my consternation about Matthew 5:48 with my dad. He was the one person in our family who seemed to be immune to perfectionism; though, in retrospect, I recall some telltale signs of the malady. Dad thought Jesus intended that we would be “perfectly fit” for God’s purposes. His favorite analogy was a “perfect” baby, one who arrived with all her fingers and toes, and about whom Wordsworth wrote in Intimations of Immortality, “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” I’m sure Dad wasn’t aware of Wordsworth’s line; yet, babies exuding the glory of God was the picture he had in mind. But with all that rhetoric about sinless perfection swirling about, I wasn’t convinced by my dad’s imagery.
It’s no wonder that, as a young adult, I grabbed the lifeline of the Reformed faith at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where Jesus’ hard sayings were tempered by the theology of Paul’s letters. First there was, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV). Then, as Paul wrote to the Philippian believers, “. . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (2:12-13). The emphasis was upon God’s work of gradual sanctification in our lives. Our work was simply to cooperate with God. So relax!
Now, after having worked forty-plus years among descendents of the Protestant Reformation, I find myself in the Catholic tradition. Once again, I hear a greater emphasis on Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels than on St. Paul’s theology in the Epistles. Thus, Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” reverberate.
For example, the Gospel for Sunday February 19, 2017 was Matthew 5:38-48. The article, “While Only God is Good, Everyone Can Be Perfect” by Fr. George W. Rutler, arrived via email on Ash Wednesday. I had already read the meditation “Be ye therefore perfect” in the book Open Me the Gates by Barbara Dent, a convert to the Catholic Church.
I decided to deal with Jesus’ stunning message once and for all. So with some trepidation, I translated Matthew 5:48 from the Greek text, I reviewed those articles, and I looked at various English translations and paraphrases to see how they expressed Jesus’ message.
To my surprise, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Matthew 5:48 in The Message brings to light the nuances of Jesus’ directive. It reads this way: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
First, that paraphrase reflects the grammar of Matthew 5:48. The verb “to be” (Ἔσεσθε) and the adjective “perfect” (τέλειοι) are keywords in the sentence. The “You,” inherent in the verb, is plural. Another, otherwise unnecessary, plural pronoun “you” (ὑμεῖς) conveys that Jesus intends us to be involved. The verb is in the future tense; so we’re to begin now and continue indefinitely. “You folks are to be. . . .” is the idea. The verb is also in the “middle voice,” which implies personal involvement. Some English verbs come across that way: “Josephine bought (herself) a car” is an example. The word “therefore” (οὖν) connects this verse with verses 38-47. Accordingly, the first part of verse 48 reads, “Therefore, you folks are to be fully engaged in” that which Jesus has in mind.
What does he have in mind? The adjective “perfect” conveys fulfillment of one’s intended purpose. That is, if we progress through all the stages of development, we become full-grown, mature. Jesus’ concluding phrase, “just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” reminds us that we were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). As a result of Adam and Eve’s Fall, God’s image in us was marred. So in Matthew 5:48, Jesus calls each of us to cooperate with God to ever more perfectly bear His image.
Peterson’s paraphrase also reflects the context of verses 38-47. There, Jesus tells us to act graciously and generously toward everyone: When slapped on one cheek, offer the other one; if someone sues for your shirt, give up your coat as well; go the extra mile; give generously to all who seek help. Love your enemies! The supreme example is our heavenly Father, who generously doles out sunshine and rain—to good and bad folks alike.
How then, do we fulfill Jesus’ mandate? How do we grow up? St. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). We most fully bear God’s image as Christ dwells in our hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:16-17). Christ’s life and ministry included suffering and death on the cross. Thus, Jesus tells us to pick up our cross and emulate him (Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).
The articles by Fr. George W. Rutler and Barbara Dent explain how we acquire God’s perfection. Rutler writes that true goodness is divine; but perfection comes when we partake of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). A perfect man is not a perfectionist: “Perfectionism is a neurosis based on the confusion of goodness and perfection. The perfectionist tries to defy mortality without the help of God who alone is immortal.” Rutler says that we become God’s work of art when we allow the divine sculptor to remove that which does not belong in our lives. “It is said that Michelangelo explained to a child that he sculpted Moses simply by chipping away from the marble all that was not Moses—but Moses had been there all along.” That brings to mind the metaphor St. Paul uses in Ephesians 2:10: We are God’s work of art, His masterpiece (NLT).
In her article “Be ye therefore perfect,” Barbara Dent emphasizes God’s persistent artistry in our lives.
God sends us, each second, precisely what is most needed for our sanctification, so that by lovingly accepting the present moment as his will, and abandoning one’s own will second by second in favor of his, one achieves union with him, which is, of course holiness.
A key phrase is lovingly accepting the present moment, whether joy-filled or sorrowful. Indeed, that’s the emphasis when I sit with folks as a spiritual director. The question, “Where is God in this?” is implicit in every conversation. As we explore what’s happening in the directee’s life, we seek to discover how the divine sculptor is shaping the person. Thus, spiritual direction promotes spiritual formation.
I’m still a recovering perfectionist; but now I’m more aware that my loving heavenly Father is shaping me into His perfect work of art, chipping away all that doesn’t belong.
© Stan Bohall