Let’s go back to the end of October in the year 2008. For fans of Philadelphia sports this might have been our last great moment. Brad Lidge, the Phillies closer, records his 48th save of that year to help the Phillies win the World Series. He was perfect that season. Perfect. Every time Lidge entered the game when the Phillies had the lead, he maintained that lead, thereby saving the game. He did that 48 times that year. He’s a legend for that.
Roy Halladay, another Phillies pitcher, on May 29, 2010, did another perfect baseball thing. He threw a complete game and only faced 27 batters. In baseball, there are three outs in each inning and nine innings. Every time a batter went up the plate, they were out. This has only happened twenty times in baseball history. Perfect again.
One of the reasons I think we should strive to be perfect is because as John tells us, God’s love has perfected us. Paul says, he’s perfectly loved us, perfectly forgiven us, and perfectly renewed us—he presents us as holy and blameless, above reproach. James tells us to approach trials of various kinds and produce steadfastness among us—our steadfastness makes us perfect. Through his ever-cleansing love, we can do now do impossible.
We might have some resistance toward this idea. It’s possible that we have perfectionist parents that made us feel like an A-minus was an F. Or we placed those expectations on ourselves. Perfectionism has a dark side that we’ll venture into in a moment.
But the endless excuses might have their own dark side too. Our first through might be to give compassion to ourselves, to forgive ourselves, to just be OK with whatever mistake we make because God forgives us and we never really forgive ourselves. We do this to the point of losing any sort of discipline in our lives. We justify our reliance on marijuana, or our addiction to social media or steaming TV, our constantly being late for work or for friends, our unorganized schedule, or never seeming to get to that precious prayer time or our retreats.
Of course your attempts won’t work. Nothing works, but Jesus anyway. But that doesn’t mean you should try to strike everyone out, that you shouldn’t hustle.
I’m often amazed at the people that think they are too hard on themselves—usually I never agree with them. (Sometimes I’m thinking, “um… you might want to be harder on yourself, like pay your student loans or your rent on time, try stay friends even after you have a fight, try not to have that fourth beer, or try to skip your breakfast joint.”)
Most people that are too hard on themselves don’t really give themselves much of an excuse. Word to the wise: it’s better for someone else to tell you that you’re being too hard on yourself than declare how mighty you are and how gracious you are being with yourself. The pattern for people that are too hard on themselves is that they actually have fruit to show for their hard work, but often don’t think that’s enough. It’s not perfect enough. They are disciplined, organized, and capable—but they never see it. They want more, they want everything to work out perfectly. They aren’t just interested in success, they are going to keep doing it until it’s exactly right.
In some way, Lent is about getting rid of all those excuses and trying to do something that’s hard. It’s going to be hard, you might suffer and struggle—I guess that’s the point. It’s about repentance, it’s about changing, it’s about moving toward Jesus. Moving closer to the Perfecter of our Faith, Perfecter of our Life, Perfecter of His love. And people will see us doing our best—our best in the worst circumstances. Jesus followers tend to make great employees, great friends, and great allies. They are hard workers who serve others with humility because they are ultimately serving someone Greater.
But what about when the perfection is the thing you need to give up? An endless pursuit of perfection as if that is what saves us is something we need to die too. Jesus still needs to save us of our perfectionism.
The trouble with perfectionism is that it doesn’t work. Pursuing perfection is one thing. Being perfect, well if you don’t rest until you are, well you might hurt your back like my boy Roy Halladay did and end your career for that reason. The obsession with perfection might burn us out ultimately and might make us spiral into a life of “I’ve been too hard on myself, so whatever.” We might lose the consistency and reliability we are known for because we weren’t perfect at it. We might lose motivation since eventually someone will get a hit off of us or we’ll blow a save. We might just get rid of our discipline and just pursue hedonism—if we can’t be perfect, we might as well avoid all of the pain of trying to.
Sometimes the result of perfectionism is not producing anything. Our projects never get done because we need to complete every detail perfectly and instead of just trying to do get into the game, we never think we are ready because we don’t think we can be do without flaw.
The truth is we’ll inevitably disappoint someone, we’ll eventually sin, we might even break our Lenten discipline once or twice when it’s not the Sabbath. Don’t use that as a reason not to give God your best. But don’t use it as a reason not to give God anything.
I mean, the passages we referenced call us to perfection, claim that God’s love is what perfects us, and Jesus seems to command us to be perfect. When we are dying to the god of perfectionism, we need to wrestle with this passage too, especially because we are so often quoting the Sermon on the Mount.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Be perfect like God? How can that even be possible? I think it’s important to note that there isn’t an “or else” clause in this passage. It’s a command, and Jesus’ commands carry some interior consequences as well external ones, but God’s judgment isn’t one of them. Grace works more perfectly than our inability to be perfect works.
That’s actually the point of the passage. Context is important—quotability? Less so. One more passage.
So often we think that perfection means being blameless. The perfection that Jesus is talking about has to do with not being perfect, but loving each other anyway. Love your enemies (which also means you need to identify them), then offer them your love, hospitality, and grace. And if you don’t? Well, you’re as good as a tax collector or a pagan. I suppose it’s normal to hate the people you think of as imperfect. Jesus wants us to perfectly love and perfectly forgive.
Lent is all about that repentance, all about turning away, and all about changing. It’s all about Jesus being willing to love us perfectly despite our sins. May that be the only perfection that we strive for this season.