Does the Bible call us to be perfect as Christ was perfect? Yes, however, when understood apart from a biblical understanding of God’s mercy, perfectionism can kill, as author Khristi Adams illustrates:
· I wanted to be a woman of God so badly. When people would ask me what or who I aspired to be, I always responded, "a woman of God." I would read and quote Proverbs 31, attend women's conferences, and read books on what it meant to be a virtuous woman. In my journey down the road of biblical womanhood, I heard countless messages on feminine virtue, purity, gentleness, and nobility. I remember feeling like an utter and complete failure, unable to achieve any of those things in their completeness. I was devastated further each time I fell short of the "woman of God" standard. Truthfully, I was chasing an image, a fantasy. I was so busy chasing this unattainable ideal that I denied the very parts of me that made me who I was. I listened to those girls as they described an unreachable standard of womanhood, the person they were all hopelessly striving to be. I was heartsick, because they were all so eager to be her, the "woman of God," that they didn't realize that she was already them. I realized that I didn't want to watch them journey down the winding road of shame and disappointment the way that I had.
As Adams correctly points out, this is not only her experience but the experience of many sincere Christians. And understandably so! Christ is perfect, and despite all of our strivings, we will never reach this standard. Result – shame, guilt, despair, and doubts about the entire Christian enterprise.
What then is Adams’ answer? Stop aspiring for Christ-likeness:
· We don't have to aspire to be anyone other than who we already are. From there, God molds us into who he intended for us to be.
Adams is correct that “God molds us.” Any of our spiritual fruit is the fruit of the Spirit, but this doesn’t mean that we have no role to play. Instead, there is a place in the Christian life for striving. The Apostle Paul affirmed this fact:
· Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
This doesn’t mean that there was anything uncertain about Paul’s salvation or his heavenly destination. Instead, Paul has shown us that striving has a role in our lives.
Jesus is our role-model, and we are called to model our lives after Him. This requires us to press on to Christ-likeness. Here are several verses that make this claim:
· “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
· But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy." (1 Peter 1:15-16)
We have no option but to press on! Admittedly, this sounds burdensome, even depressing. As Adams eloquently pointed out, we have repeatedly tried to be perfect and have utterly failed. Does this mean that we have somewhere taken the wrong theological turn? Should we give up trying to be like Jesus?
Certainly not! While our Lord’s ultimate goal for us isn’t despair and self-loathing, the road to glory must pass through this valley of the shadow of death, a place of humbling. And this is necessary. However, Adams seems to have regarded spiritual failure as a bad thing, something that had displeased God. She was not aware that God performs His most important work in the valleys of our lives, in our weakness and brokenness. We mistakenly project our worldview onto God: “When we fail, God loves us less and pulls away from us in disgust.”
In love, God’s commands humble us. For example:
· Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:4-7)
Daily, I fail. I do not pick up my cross daily, at least, not as I should. I do not look towards the needs of others as I do my own. To my shame, I seek my own honor before seeking the honor of others, counter to Paul’s teaching:
· Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:10)
Scripture shames me. I too had denied that I am called to Christ-likeness. As did Adams, I had refused to believe that the Lord had called me to a continual diet of failure and self-despair. It had been too painful.
However, humility is the soil in which all of our fruit grows. Jesus’ disciples asked Him for more faith. He answered that great faith is the recognition that we are never deserving of the slightest thing from our Lord:
· “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'" (Luke 17:10)
Accepting our unworthiness is a goal and not something to run away from. Jesus only ascribed “great faith” to two people, both of whom demonstrated uncanny unworthiness and embarrassing humility (Mat. 8:8-10; 15:28).
How does our Lord humble us? By showing us the extent of our sin and unworthiness:
· Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every [boasting] mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable [humbled] to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become [humbled and] conscious of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)
He tells us that we have to be like Him and how to do it by following His commands. Although we fail miserably and feel shamed in the process, this is needful. Why? To receive the blessings God wants to give us:
· "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:14)
We are not going to humble ourselves to admit our utter destitution if we think that we are spiritually successful and, therefore, deserving. Instead, we have to realize that we are sinners in need of the sheer mercy of God if we are to be exalted. And this is the role that the law plays to lead us to the mercy of Christ (Galatians 3:22-24), again and again.
How do we endure in our humbled, self-despairing condition? By knowing the extent of God’s love (Eph. 3:16-20) and forgiveness for us:
· 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. (1 John 1:8-9)
This endears us to Him. Only when we see our pathetic condition can we also come to adore our Savior as we ought. Actually, this is liberating! He has freed me from trying to prove, even to myself, that I am worthy, that I’ve got what it takes, or that I am a superior Christian. Rather, we come to realize that it is all about Jesus, as it should be! He (not we) has become our righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21).
Indeed, we are called to Christlikeness, but can this be achieved in this life? Certainly not! I have already quoted 1 Peter 1:15-16, commanding us to be holy as Christ is holy. Peter probably quoted this from Leviticus 11:44:
- For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground.
Even the Old Testament required Israel to be holy like God. This command had been communicated to Israel in many ways. For one thing, they had to follow all of God’s commands:
- “But if you do not obey Me, and do not observe all these commandments, and if you despise My statutes, or if your soul abhors My judgments, so that you do not perform all My commandments, but break My covenant, I also will do this to you: I will even appoint terror over you, wasting disease and fever which shall consume the eyes and cause sorrow of heart…” (Leviticus 26:14-16; also Exodus 20:6; 23:21-22; 24:3; Deuteronomy 5:29; 6:24-25; 8:1; 10:12; 11:8, 26-28, 32; 12:28; Jer. 11:3-5; 7:22-23).
However, the requirement of moral or covenantal perfection is very different than the attainment of perfection. They were called to a perfect standard of righteousness, and yet they all continued to fall far short. However, some sought the mercy of God and found it, as the Psalms so amply demonstrate. David had fallen far short, and yet he found the blessedness of God:
· Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Psalm 32:1-2)
Blessedness, during Old Testament times, was never attained through perfect adherence to the law (Romans 3:19-20) but only through the mercy of God. Why? Because none were ever able to attain moral perfection! At the commemoration of the Temple, Solomon had prayed:
· “If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy…if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart in the land of their enemies… then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause (1 Kings 8:46-49).
Here is my point – although Israel had been called to moral perfection, they could never attain it, even though they had to continue to try. Instead, they had to confess their sins and repent.
It is the same way for the Body of Christ. We are called to perfection, but we all fall far short:
· For we all stumble in many ways. (James 3:2)
· If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10; Philippians 3:12-14)
However, when we sincerely confess and repent of our sins, we are once again given a fresh start, to the glory of God and our gratitude.
However, there are several troubling verses that suggest that confession might not be enough. Instead, we seem to have to attain a certain level of holiness:
· Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14; Matthew 5:20)
How holy must we be in order to “see the Lord?” How can I know that I am good enough to make-the-grade? Reading further, we find that not “seeing the Lord” is equated with falling “short of His grace!” (Heb. 12:15). Could it be that God rejects us because we fail to maintain a certain standard of holiness? This is what it seems to be saying.
To make matters even worse, we find that many verses echo this same requirement. For instance, David wrote:
· “Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!” (Psalm 32:11)
Although this verse looks innocent enough, David suggests that it is only the “righteous,” the “upright in heart,” who have any basis to hope and rejoice in God! Well, how about the rest of us who vainly struggle to be righteous, but perceive that we are unable to make the cutoff point?
I too had struggled to be righteous, but it was becoming increasingly obvious to me that I could never be good enough, no matter how hard I tried. Therefore, I secretly resented God. I wanted Him, but I had no confidence that He wanted me. At other times, I reassured myself that He would accept me, but only reluctantly. However, most of the time, I despaired of ever being worthy enough for God.
Lacking this faith in myself, I turned desperately to the only other possible source of hope – the then-distant Scriptural assurances, and found them. One theologian had written, “What often seems to be God’s ‘no,’ often turns out to be a ‘yes.’” Scripture affirms this!
Evidently, David considered himself among the “righteous,” among those who had a basis to “Rejoice in the LORD” (Psalm 32:11). However, at the beginning of Psalm 32, we see an entirely different picture:
· “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:3-4).
David had been anything but “righteous” and “upright in heart.” He had been harboring sin, which was bringing upon him the disciplinary hand of God. Tradition assigns this Psalm to the time when the prophet Nathan revealed to David his sins of adultery, murder and his refusal to confess these sins. What made the difference for David? How did he come to the assurance of his righteousness and uprightness before God in the midst of his duplicity?
· “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’-- and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).
Even though David’s deeds didn’t earn him the designation of “righteous,” he knew that, what he couldn’t achieve, God could achieve for him:
· “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1-2).
Skeptic that I am by nature, it took years before I could grow in confidence of my “blessedness.” It was just too easy, too good to be true – that God’s forgiveness alone meant “righteousness” and “blessedness,” beyond imagination. However, over time, other Scriptures began to fall in line for me. My Savior opened my eyes to see that my perception of my lack of “holiness,” about which I had been fretting, played an important role.
Brokenness must precede wholeness; humbling must precede healing. It was only through tear-filled eyes that I was enabled to see the rainbow. I slowly began to understand that the gift of forgiveness also included an imputation of His holiness.
Yes, without holiness we are lost (Hebrews 12:14). However, it isn’t primarily a matter of our attaining to a certain standard of holiness, but rather, my Savior sanctifying Himself to fulfill those standards for us (John 17:17-19).
The Book of Hebrews uses Esau as an example of missed “holiness.” Esau was a “profane person” (Heb. 12:16). Why? He had sold his birthright to Jacob for a mere bowl of soup. This was a profane act, because the birthright embodied the promise of God’s covenant, about which Esau seemingly couldn’t care less. This fact didn’t make him any less deserving than his brother Jacob, who had deceived his father in order to steal the birthright of the firstborn. However, Esau never confessed his sin of disregarding God:
· “Afterward, as you know, when he [Esau] wanted to inherit this [stolen] blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind [“repentance” NKJV], though he sought the blessing with tears” (Hebrews 12:17).
Although Esau wanted the blessing, he had little interest in the blessing-Giver, at least not enough to ever confess his sin. Esau’s problem wasn’t sin or the inability to live up to a certain level of holiness. Instead, his problem was a refusal to admit his sinfulness and his need of forgiveness. For him, his brother Jacob was the real culprit, and he therefore planned to kill him.
“Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14) is true, but it doesn’t represent a closed door. Nor is it the last word! Instead, it beckons us to knock a little harder, to cry louder until we see that it’s all about grace, the gift of His righteousness and His worthiness. Scripture is hard, but it’s not needlessly hard. It brings us to desperation, but it does it for mercy’s sake. It informs us of the brutal truth that we are under a curse if we fail to fulfill all the requirements of the law (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10), but then it shepherds the broken-hearted to an unfailing hope. It crushes us so under the weight of condemnation and our failures, so that it might heal us and bring us to a place of liberty (Gal. 3:22-24; Rom 3:19-20; 11:32)!
This doesn’t mean that the call to holiness is just about trusting in the gift of God. It must start there, but it then beckons us to walk, even to run. We are called upon to take what we have been given and, in utter gratefulness, and to pass it on.