The very beginning of the Bible opens with God creating the world. One aspect that is worth noting is how God evaluates his own work:
"And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good [....]" (Genesis 1:3-4a NIV)
And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:9-10 NIV)
The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:12 NIV)
God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:16-17 NIV)
It's interesting to see that God doesn't evaluate his own craftsmanship as "incredible," "amazing," "incomparable," or "perfect." He simply describes it as "good." It's almost as if something being "good" is enough reason for it to not need to be anything else. In God's eyes, "good," apparently, is good enough.
If this is the case, then what are we supposed to make of it when we hear a statement like this:
In Matthew 5:48, Jesus says “Be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
This verse, alongside verses like it, has put a lot of pressure on some people to look, act, and feel perfect. The natural outgrowth of this thinking is perfectionism -- “the refusal to accept anything short of perfection." Unfortunately, this kind of thinking can all-too-often become normative in church circles, with people defining and judging their own spirituality, or the spirituality of others, on the basis of extremely demanding standards.
But what is actually going on in this passage? If we look at the verses preceding 5:48, we see Jesus is not talking about wearing the right clothes, singing the right songs, eating the right food, or even observing the Sabbath the “correct” way.
In Verses 43-48, Jesus is talking about loving our enemies. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Being “perfect” does not mean you don’t make mistakes. It means you are trying to learn and grow into the kind of person who loves others like God does. It means we take the character of God revealed in Jesus seriously and live it out in real life relationships. It means we see the personhood of any other person as they are in Jesus as legitimate, and thus, desire to learn to love them more fully.
The kind of internal, personal “change” that comes from perfectionism is not real, sustainable change. Real, meaningful moral growth needs a healthy foundation, and that starts with finding our identity and salvation in Jesus, so that we can admit when we are wrong - imperfect - without losing our sense of self-worth or value.
People with a perfectionistic attitude may sometimes have a hard time receiving criticism, even if it's legitimate, because their faith is not fully embedded in Jesus' sufficient work and unconditional love for them, but rather in their own imperfect, ever-shifting, uncertain ability to earn love and acceptance by outwardly (and maybe inwardly) "performing" perfection. There is danger here in two extremes: the person who trusts in their own "perfectionism" may either dismiss legitimate criticisms and corrections glibly and defensively - "of course I didn't do anything wrong, I don't do wrong things." Conversely, a different perfectionist might collapse under the weight of a criticism - feeling like a total failure without any value, as if they can never recover from even the slightest critique. This second type of person might simply "comply" with the critique out of shame, without ever being able to internalize the issue, reflect on it, and achieve real growth.
In either case, someone is trying to maintain a sense of perfection - either by denying that they have any flaws, or by attempting to undercut their perceived flaws by shaming and guilt-tripping themselves, hoping that doing so can balance out their imperfections.
Jesus does not desire either of these paths for his followers. "Perfect" is a journey, and the journey of a lifetime. Making a mistake is not supposed to be the end of the world, but instead, a stepping stone towards growth. God expects us both to aim at moral and ethical excellence at the same time as being realistic about ourselves. Look, for example, at these lines from the epistle of 1 John:
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7 NIV)
Notice in the verses above, the Elder sets out a clear and strong moral standard. Then he goes on:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10 NIV)
Part of the process of Christian "perfection" is actually acknowledging and accepting the fact of our own imperfection. This step is constantly necessary for cleansing, for a fresh start, and for relief from feelings of guilt and shame. John makes this point absolutely clear:
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. (1 John 2:1 NIV)
The guidance that Scripture gives us is not just "be perfect, or else." Rather, we are told to aim at the perfection of God's love as we see it in Jesus, and then to trust the mercy and compassion of God to hold on to us as we stumble and struggle towards that goal. We are not trying to get there to prove anything. We are being guided and led along a path of growth, where acknowledging imperfection is expected.
Perfectionism robs us of being human and reduced us to compliance just to look good. But God desires love from us. And he extends grace to us in all our mistakes.
- Read Isaiah 64:6. What do you think it means for even righteous acts to be "filthy rags?" How can righteous actions be impure?
- Read Matthew 23:27-28 and think about the concept of religious hypocrisy. Have you ever met someone who manifested this type of behaviour? Have you yourself ever tried to make yourself look better than you actually are on the inside? What does it feel like to encounter this kind of thing? Do you feel disappointed in others? In yourself?
- Read this selection from the first two chapters of 1 John. You will notice that John uses some very polarized language about light and darkness. What else do you notice in these two chapters? What do you find encouraging? What do you find challenging? What is the ultimate commandment, the central thing that defines people who have been shaped into the image of Jesus? Do the standards emphasized here seem attainable to you?