Be PERFECT? Can’t I just be pretty good?

I’ve been trying to spend more time reading the Bible lately and have been noticing that various passages — often passages that I’ve heard many times over the years — will just jump out at me with new meaning. For example, in Leviticus, we read, “You shall make and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy.” (Lv 11:44) Jesus reiterates this in Matthew, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Perfection is a pretty high standard. I know I’m not there, and I don’t see myself getting there any time soon. I can imagine the response Jesus would get if he were to appear on a modern-day talk show and say those same words:

“Oh, come on! You don’t really expect people to be perfect do you? Isn’t it enough that they try their best?”

“Aren’t you concerned that you’ll make people feel guilty when they can’t live up to this standard? Isn’t this a form of imperfection-shaming?”

“Don’t you think this will alienate imperfect people?”

“Why do they need to be perfect if God loves them no matter what?”

“Who’s version of perfect do you mean, anyway?”

While this verse sets a bar that none of us can achieve on our own, the beauty of it is that it doesn’t lower the bar. It challenges us to try to rise up to it until we can reach it. To the extent that we fail, we rely on God’s love and mercy to take us the rest of the way. Nevertheless, spiritual perfection is to be our aim, and our lives a constant journey in that direction. We don’t measure ourselves against the standards of our time, the sins of others or the sins we could have committed but didn’t, but against the standard of perfection.

This verse also implies that, to the extent we are imperfect, it by our own choice. (“Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault!”) There would have been no point in telling us to be something we can’t be. Jesus doesn’t ask us to be perfect students or perfect business managers or perfect drivers, but he commands us to aspire to the spiritual perfection of our Father. We must detach ourselves from whatever imperfections come between us and God and be willing to let the Holy Spirit perfect us.

It is worth noting that the statement is not, “Aspire to perfection.” It is, “Be perfect.” Here in this present moment, we are called to perfection, to turn away from all that is sinful, all that is not of God, and turn back to holiness. What is holding us back in this moment? What graces do we need to ask for and receive? What temptations are holding us back?

Moreover, this verse reminds us that there really is a standard of perfection toward which we can strive. Perfection is not a moving target; it is we who move in relation to that target. We might get closer in one way but further away in another, the bull’s-eye of the target remains in the same spot. We are not told, “Be perfect, as you define perfection for yourself,” but, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It is God’s standard of perfection that matters; not ours.

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