It is a misshapen and grotesque love-child that is born out of the marriage of a non-contextual reading of Scripture with dominant cultural ideals.
When Matthew 5:48 is read aloud, the words, “therefore you are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” appear to harmoniously echo the heartbeat of American culture.
This is a culture that is awestruck at the technological sophistication and beauty of the iPhone and iPad, and hungrily lusts after the next iteration of electronic perfection.
This is a culture obsessed with physical perfection to the point that women who are not flawless in every possible way deem themselves inferior and desperately in need of the burgeoning number of augmentations and reductions available to diminish this culturally induced insecurity.
This same emphasis on physical perfection has injected a “sexualization” steroid into upwards of 80% of the men in America such that numerous mindless hours are wasted away in front of a computer screen seeking the ever elusive dopamine fix as they gaze at “perfect” bodies only a mouse click away.
The litany is endless, and there are not enough pages to talk about the pursuit of the perfect car, house, career, marriage, and children.
But this all-consuming demon could not possibly be comfortable within the walls of the church, could it? The church is far too wise and too grounded in the Scriptures to be seduced by this cultural phenomenon, right?
Unfortunately, perfectionism is versatile in form and a master of disguise. Not only is the pursuit of perfection present within the church, it is lauded as a spiritual virtue.
Perfectionism is not the same as the pursuit of excellence. In the words of Alfred de Musset, “Human perfection does not exist. To understand this is the triumph of human intelligence; the desire to possess it is the most dangerous kind of madness.”
Let me suggest that this culturally endorsed madness is all the more dangerous when it is cloaked with the language of personal piety and obedience to the Lord.
Perfectionism creates a subjective “should” culture. This culture varies between churches, denominations, and across generations. It is fascinating how many of the “shoulds” that make a “good” Christian do not find their home within the pages of Scripture. This language is always about who is in or out, or who is in sin and who is righteous (as if we are the best judges of this anyway). Things as superficial as manner of dress, length of hair, hobbies, acquaintances, and certain types of music are cited in order to designate people as being outside of decent “Christian fellowship”. Ultimately, this culture sounds a lot like the Galatian Judaizers and the Colossian ascetics with their lists of “do’s” and “don’ts”. (cf. Gal. 3:1-5 & Col. 2:21-23)
Perfectionism is rooted in an unhealthy concern about one’s image within the world as opposed to the reality of one’s life, whether we are speaking about an individual or an entire church community. It attends to externals with morbid scrupulosity while turning a blind eye to the darkness that simmers not too far beneath the surface. It also drives the search for the ‘perfect’ charismatic pastor or worship leader, the inordinate focus on measuring success through numerical growth rather than faithfulness and maturation in love, and the ever popular building campaign to make one’s church bigger, better, or more aesthetically pleasing to outsiders.
This culture demonstrates all or nothing thinking and unrealistic expectations that superimpose shame and scorn on those who are not “perfect” Christians. The result of this environment are Christian communities where everyone is always doing “fine”, and people are living lives of quiet desperation as they long for the authentic touch of true community empowered and transformed by the gospel. It also indicates that we may have forgotten the type of people that God chooses to call to himself (1 Cor. 1:26-31) and that He alone is responsible for growth.
It is important to understand two things: this culture is pervasive in the church and furthermore, it is demonic. It is demonic because it is diametrically opposed to the gospel of the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Somewhere along the way we have lost sight of the message that Jesus Christ came for the broken, the weary, the sinful, and the downtrodden. When these people turn to Christ and put their trust and hope in Him alone, they are filled with the Holy Spirit and can rightly be called children of God. However, they are not made perfect in an instant. Some of us may have a longer journey to wholeness than others based on where God found us.
Though we acknowledge this truth with our lips and in our minds, through our actions we continue to place impossible standards of perfection over others and over ourselves rather than embracing the grace of God that transforms us daily to look more like Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What, and I say this tongue-in-cheek, should the church do?
We need to put to death the culture of “shoulds”, take off our masks, and disconnect from this poisonous cultural standard so that the church can once again become the place where imperfect sinners come to encounter a God of holy love.
We need to set aside prioritizing the praise that comes from other people and live to seek the praise that comes from God alone. We need to move beyond asking the question, “Will this or that person, strategic plan, building campaign make us relevant and more successful in terms of our numerical growth and finances?” and instead inquire, “Will this help us to grow in faithfulness, mature in love, and contribute to genuine unity among a diverse group of people?”
We need to once again embrace the grace of God that not only saves, but also perfects, and empowers us to stand before God confident in the work of Christ.
Grace is enough. The same grace that began a good work in us will indeed see it through to completion on the day of Jesus Christ’s return. Praise God!!!
Let us forsake the ways of the world in its pursuit of perfection in externals and recognize that our individual and communal perfection is found in Christ alone.
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