Perfection and Christian Faith

January 8th, 2014

Almost Perfect

On April 2, 2013, Yu Darvish was almost perfect. The talented pitcher for baseball’s Texas Rangers took the mound for his first start of the season and proceeded to retire batters with remarkable efficiency. Through eight innings, Darvish had not allowed a single hit, and he hadn’t allowed anyone to get to base by means of a walk or a hit batter. There have only been 23 perfect games in the whole history of Major League Baseball. It takes 27 batters out to pitch a perfect game, and Darvish had already retired 24.

Anticipation was high going into the ninth inning. Players stopped talking to Darvish in the dugout between innings, as is the custom when a pitcher is working on a no-hitter. His pitch count was high for early in the season, but the manager let him keep going. Darvish was developing a blister on his hand, but he wasn’t going to stop pitching.

In the ninth inning, Darvish got two quick outs on three pitches. Even though he was the pitcher for the visiting team that night, Houston fans stood to cheer for Darvish. Only Marwin Gonzalez, the last hitter in the Houston lineup, was between Darvish and history.

Darvish threw the ball and Gonzalez hit it right back to the pitcher, but it went right between Darvish’s legs just under his glove. The shortstop made a heroic dive to try and catch it, but it was into centerfield. A base hit. Almost perfect. But not perfect.

“Be ye therefore perfect,” Jesus said to his disciples in the King James Version of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:48). What could he have meant by such an incredible command? The reason the perfect game is so compelling is because it seems so impossible. To be perfect seems the rarest of human possibilities. But Christian perfection, in streams like the Wesleyan tradition, is not only possible but something we are told to expect. How do Christians understand perfection in an imperfect world?

Pretentious and Impossible

Even if Darvish had made that last out, there would have been many ways to describe the outing as imperfect. He didn’t have his best command. He threw too many pitches. There was still room for improvement. So even our category for human perfection allows room for growth. Does Jesus?

To say that Christians are called to be perfect is to invite the worst kind of ridicule—which is just what John Wesley got, and for the same reasons we might get it today if we were known for preaching perfection. On the one hand, it seems a little pretentious. “Just who do those Christians think that they are?” others might be tempted to say. “Perfect? I don’t think so.” Then they could proceed to point out a thousand ways that we are not perfect.

On the other hand, it seems crushingly impossible. How will we ever attain perfection when we know that there are so many places in our lives that are imperfect? God knows we are weak instruments—earthen vessels. Telling me that I need to be perfect when the level where I am is so far below perfect that I could never attain it . . . well, that just seems cruel.

Wesley and Perfection

Wesley, however, clung to the language of perfection even when friends advised him to tone it down. Throughout his life, he wrote sermons and tracts to explain what he meant by perfection and why it was important. In contrast to both Catholic and Calvinist understandings that talked of perfection as a possibility “in the state of glory only,” Wesley insisted on being open to perfection as a present reality.

Wesley was fully convinced of God’s desire for Christians to experience a fully sanctified life as fruit of a life of holiness. He was just as convinced that God has the power to bring this about. So if we deny the possibility of full and entire sanctification in this lifetime, we are denying the power of God’s grace to transform us and the world. To put it another way, if we’re not desiring to be made holy in this lifetime, what are we desiring? And what are we expecting?

What Perfection Is Not

The concept of perfection can be misleading. For Wesley, it did not mean that a Christian who experienced perfection never made an error. Christian perfection, in his understanding, is no cure for ignorance. It is also not to be construed as freedom from mistakes. “Indeed,” Wesley wrote, “I expect not to be free from actual mistakes till this mortal puts on immortality.” Perfection also does not mean freedom from infirmities, weaknesses, and temptations. The apostle Paul prayed that he might be delivered from an infirmity (a “thorn in the flesh” he called it), and God’s answer back to him was, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Weakness is not the opposite of perfection; it’s a condition for it.

Wesley also believed that we never stop growing, even in a condition of perfection. To whatever extent a person has progressed in the Christian life, one “hath still need to ‘grow in grace’ and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his [or her] Saviour.” This is quite different from the cultural template of what perfection is. We often think of perfection as a static state—unchanging. When you reach it, you’ve arrived. But Wesley’s notion of perfection is dynamic. Christians are always changing and growing.

What Perfection Is

So what is perfection? Jesus gives the command “Be ye therefore perfect” in the context of a series of teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has been teaching about the countercultural realities of God’s kingdom. He says some very hard things, such as “Love your enemies and pray for those who harass you” (Matthew 5:44). This is what precedes Jesus’ command to be perfect. The Common English Bible translates the command this way: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete [perfect] in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (verse 48). Practically, for Wesley as for Jesus, perfection looks like living out the Great Commandment to love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.

This kind of perfection doesn’t intersect with definitions that equate it with flawlessness or being without blemish. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports that there were almost 1.6 million cosmetic surgery procedures performed last year in the United States. Those procedures can correct serious scarring, remove tumors, and improve hand function. But the top five plastic surgery procedures in 2012 were breast augmentation, nose reshaping, eyelid surgery, liposuction, and facelifts. The popularity of these surgeries speaks to some deeper expectations about physical beauty, even perfection, and how it can be achieved.

Athletes may fall victim to unrealistic expectations of perfection as well. The goal of doing the best we can with our natural abilities can spur an athlete to practice, study, and physical training. The lure of performance- enhancing drugs that can do lasting damage is a common danger in professional and other sports, however.

Bodies and Souls

These are ways our bodies can be injured by beliefs about perfection. We can also do injury to our souls when shame and self-judgment block the healing and transforming work of God in us. Believing we can never be good enough for God or for others, we can fall into despair. Perfection feels unattainable.

Above all else, though, being made perfect means being made perfect in love. Love removes us from the burden of erecting barriers to keep God and others out. It moves us to forget ourselves in self-giving acts of service. Jesus called for difficult, uncomfortable, dangerous love. The miraculous thing is that flawed, fallible people are the only ones qualified for this perfection. They are the ones who experience God’s grace.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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