December 2, 2013

Christian perfection is . . .

Wanting to do the best that I can has brought accusations of being a perfectionist. But, I’m not one of those people who, if they can’t do it perfectly won’t do it at all. Actually, I like the quote, “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly” yet it just seems to me that giving a task my best effort is more like Jesus than being sloppy about it.

In a several places, the Bible speaks of the idea of being perfect. Jesus said it and so does the Apostle Paul. This can be perplexing for other passages tell us that we are in process and perfection will not happen in this life. This one from Philippians says both . . .

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:7–14)

Paul had an impressive list of credentials before his salvation. He counted these worthless compared to knowing Jesus Christ. Prior to that, his righteousness had been based on his good works and obedience to God’s law, but he knew all that was worthless in the eyes of God. Only imputed righteousness counts, that which comes to Christians by faith in the Savior.

Paul also knew that being like Jesus was God’s goal for Him, and this became his own goal. He knew he was not there yet, but pressed on toward that goal. He called it perfection. When Jesus used the term, He said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Oswald Chambers makes sense of what perfect means. He says this is not becoming perfect specimens of holiness that God can put on display (yuck), but about making us one with Himself. It is about relationship, not being a model Christian that never does anything wrong.

There is a difference between having my life set to serve God or set to manifest God. The former isn’t concerned about me, or about what happens to me. I means a total focus on hearing and obeying God, not being concerned about what people see in me, or that I am and do things others can admire (yuck)
Christian perfection is not human perfection. Instead, Christian perfection is a relationship to God which shows itself amid all of human life to the point that most of what Jesus asks me to do will seem irrelevant and not particularly important. My theology class last week was about God’s providence and how much of it goes unseen. He works in ways that are hidden, even to His people. If I fit into that, then my obedience will not be showy.

Those words, “be perfect” tend to put in mind some of what I’ve already described, a saint with a halo that never slips over one ear or gets tarnished. It is about what I do, not what I am. But this is not what Jesus asks. He wants me to live in a perfect relationship with Him so my life produces a longing after God in other lives, not admiration for myself. Thinking too much about me, myself, and I hinders my usefulness to God. He wants my mind in tune with His and on the lookout for the voice of the Spirit regarding the needs of others. He also wants me totally surrendered to Him so I am never anxious about what happens to me. Perfection is trusting Him and letting Him do whatever He likes without guessing or stressing over any of it.

Perfection has its pitfalls because it can be misunderstood. During this summer’s flood in the town where my sister lives (she lost some of her livelihood), she was at peace with God about those losses and the great turmoil in their lives. Someone who does not know the power of faith accused her with, “What’s the matter with you? You don’t care at all about what happened to you.”

The world does not understand this sort of perfection, the state of trusting God that produces a “peace that is beyond comprehension.” To some, it looks like hardness and not caring, but to others it looks like Jesus . . .

When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:23)

Like Paul, I know that I’m not there yet. However, the Word of God and His Spirit keep pressing me on toward this goal.

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