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The Paradox of Perfection: What Perfection is Not (Pt. 1)

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Just look at God showing off! This Minnesotan sunrise took my breath away. In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus…and also this awesome display of my Father’s creativity and love.

I have recently agreed to write a review on a book titled, “The Paradox of Perfection: How Embracing Our Imperfection Perfects Us,” by Jeffrey S. Reber and Steven P. Moody. Many of the concepts that I will write about in this post will be from this book, so I definitely recommend giving it a read!  

https://paradoxofperfectionbook.com/

I entered the conference room, answers to the typical interview questions locked and loaded in my mind. I greeted the gentleman standing before me with a smile, firm handshake, and kind remark about his workplace. The interview went well, until the age-old question inevitably snuck up on me – what is a weakness of yours? I froze. What was I supposed to say to that? I work too hard, I care too much? I needed a response– a perfect reply– that masked my shortcomings and concealed my character blemishes with an impressive skill set.

At the root of unwanted weaknesses, puffed up strengths, and expected ideals is the language of perfectionism, ingrained in us all since birth. If you look around you can see it in the smallest messages in our society, the slightest remarks from family members and friends, and even our own unspoken thoughts. The introductory anecdote serves to show, in a metaphorical and relatable sense, how the world speaks the universal language we have all seemed to adopt, in one way or another. The language of perfectionism. 

48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  

Matthew 5:48

Even in the Bible we see the command to be perfect. Not only is the world pressuring flawlessness, but now it seems that God is, too.

If you think about this verse, it can be confusing. If we were perfect as commanded, we wouldn’t need God or his mercy, thus we would have no need for Christ because we would become Christ unto ourselves. On the other hand, if we don’t hold to this teaching, then we are breaking the command directly given to us, thus sinning our way out of connection with God. It seems that whatever way you look at it, this command ends with a severed relationship with our Savior. Why would God command something to deter us away from Him? Or something so unattainable that we fall out of interrelation with him? And there’s the paradox. Either our perfection separates us from the Lord, or our imperfection separates us from the Lord.

Before I go in to what this scripture really means, let me first discuss what it is NOT, in the form of common misconceptions that we tell ourselves and others.

“Perfection is a goal, not an expectation.” I have heard this common phrase before and I’m sure many others have, too. But that’s the thing. Perfection is an expectation. The Bible says “be perfect,” not “strive for perfect,” just as scripture also says “thou shalt not kill,” not “try not to be homicidal.”  If we go by this mentality that “be perfect” is only a mere ideal, then we must apply this to all commands. If we do not, then we are in danger of distorting the Bible and truth, giving way to the questioning of God’s scriptures.

“Come unto Christ and He will perfect you.” The problem with this statement is that we will keep sinning, even after we commit our life to God. How can we keep the command to be perfect if we remain imperfect, even with Christ? Usually, this conjures the response that perfection will come in the end, in the next life, but this only makes “perfect” a goal in this mortal life, falling back to the previous phrase we explored. Not only does it fail to acknowledge imperfections even as a Christian, it makes flawlessness the end goal and diminishes Christ to a short-term mortal placeholder until we can achieve perfection on our own in heaven. It assumes that Christ is only a temporary means to that perfect end.

“All we can do is our best, and Christ will take care of the rest.” I used to like this saying because, honestly, it was catchy and rhymed. But when we say “do your best,” the perfectionist schema sets in and translates this to “do everything right.” Even more than that, this saying suggests that our part in perfection is separate from Christ’s. If we take care of as much as we can physically handle (doing our best) and Christ will take care of his side of things (doing the rest), then perfection, according to this phrase, requires Christ and us to be segregated. And what is our side? Keeping commands that we are incapable of following on our own in the first place?

In Greek, “perfection” was never meant to describe humans or anything of this earth, but instead a metaphysical realm of ideals. The word was coined by Greek philosophers to describe a world that we would never be able to achieve, only imagine.

Realm of Ideal Forms 

  • “Perfection”
  • unchanging, unembodied, atemporal, universal

Physical World

  • inhabited by imperfect things; fallen
  • humans, subject to change and inevitably flawed

As you can see by my makeshift chart, flawlessness cannot exist in our real world. There lies an impassible divide between the realm of metaphysical ideals and of realistic imperfection. If perfection were to be applied to the world in which we live, it would be inevitably crushed. The two worlds contradict each other, therefore they cannot coexist.

Now that you’ve had a mini philosophy lesson, I can go on with why it was necessary to write about. The realm of flawlessness cannot be applied to us; we see this here. It is impossible. The problem? We try to do it anyway. The result of setting unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others is tantalization, the torment of being able to conceive the ideal self with the mind, but never being able to fully achieve it. (Side note: look up where the word tantalization comes from if you like Greek mythology! It makes the word more understandable than my short definition here!) Think about this for a second. We strive for flawlessness and when we don’t attain it, we become disappointed and haunted by the ideal that is barely within our grasp. Perhaps this is why we are never satisfied; the thing we are striving towards only resides in our minds.

So why, you may ask, is this language of perfectionism so fluently spoken among us? Because it hurts when we fail. As Christians, when we mess up or sin, we become regretful and wish we could undo the error. Our mistakes affect ourselves and others, and it is not pleasant. It feels unforgivable. So to avoid harming our closest friends and family, innocent bystanders, and even our own hearts and minds, we choose to do away with weaknesses altogether, in hopes that our ambition for perfection saves everyone from future pain. Knowing that our foolish or sinful actions have permanent consequences, it is easier to envision an ideal to strive towards than to accept reality that slip-ups will happen and take their toll on the people involved.

This cycle usually has another key component involved. Comparison. When we fall short of flawlessness, and we always do, then it feels like the next best thing is to look around at others who seem further away from excellence than we are. We console ourselves with the failures and weaknesses we see in our brothers and sisters, and use this to build up our own morale and security.

“Well today I struggled with               , but                is struggling with               .”

If this doesn’t sound familiar, honestly, I am happy for you! But I think many of us can relate to a similar mindset or dialogue. In order to make up for the guilt felt in not obtaining excellence, we puff ourselves up by comparing ourselves to seemingly weaker followers of Christ. This can lead to pride and self-loathing, all at once. It is a vicious cycle of falling short, tantalization, consolation with comparisons, and another inevitable mistake that repeats itself when we don’t apply the correct meaning of “be perfect” to our lives.

As I am writing this, I realize that this post has become lengthy, so keep reading Part 2 of this post to learn more about the true meaning of this scripture and how it perfects us!

 

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