Growing up, I was a gymnast. I spent hours in the gym training and competing. While I never reached elite status, I have enough experience to know that gymnasts at every level have the same goal: perfection.
Gymnastics is a sport that is defined by the idea of perfection. Every skill is judged according to a strict standard that measures your proximity to perfection. I practiced every leap, flip, and turn over and over until I could execute it perfectly. And then I’d do it again. Nevertheless, my best was usually far from perfect. I had my share of mistakes and falls. And it wasn’t just that my skills that were flawed. There were also sprained ankles, callused hands, and sore muscles. There was always something to show that I was not perfect.
The idea of being perfect has stayed with me all these years since retiring from gymnastics, and often with negative results. Perfectionism can make me overly critical of myself and others. With perfectionism, I put pressure on myself and feel guilty when I make mistakes. Perfectionism makes me so afraid of failure that I avoid new challenges and experiences outside of my comfort zone. In perfectionism, I am never content because there is always something in my life that doesn’t measure up.
As Christians, the idea of perfection can be confusing. We know the saying, “nobody’s perfect.” But we also know that there is an exception to this rule. In the person of Jesus, we see a life lived perfectly. Jesus was perfect, and we are supposed to be trying to become more like Jesus, right? Jesus even says in Matthew 5:48, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So is perfection the goal?
This verse might seem like Jesus is promoting perfectionism, but perfectionism in Christians can produce some of the same problems that it produces in me: criticism, judgment, guilt, pressure, fear, avoidance, and discontent. Some have suggested that we take Matthew 5:48 as Jesus reminding us of our need for Him since perfection is a standard we can never reach.
But there is another way of reading this verse if we explore the word “perfect”. In the original language, “perfect” could also be translated as “whole.” Wholeness is a helpful concept when we consider what Jesus’ life was like. Jesus was sinless, but he was also human. He felt hunger. He felt tired. He had aches and pains. He experienced grief and loss. He suffered. None of that sounds like “perfection” to me, but it does sound very human. All the imperfections in our lives show us our need for God, but they also remind us that Jesus can relate to us in experiencing those things. His perfectly sinless life was still filled with the fullness of imperfect human experiences.
There is another verse that can challenge our view of perfection. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul describes the thorn in his flesh, the burden that he repeatedly prayed for God to remove. But God had other plans. He answers Paul in verse 9 saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”
If we dig deeper here, “perfect” is really closer to the idea of “complete”. God is telling Paul that his weakness is not something Paul needs to fix. Instead, the thorn in Paul’s flesh is where God wanted to show up and show off. Once Paul understood that, it changed his view of his weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, he writes, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
For Paul to boast in his weakness meant that he was freed up to be used by God in amazing ways. I am still learning this myself. In the past year, I have taken steps to follow God’s call in pursuing a career as a writer. My work has been accepted to a few places, but I have also received rejections. Normally getting a rejection would trigger my perfectionism, make me feel ashamed of failing, and leave me too fearful to bother trying again. But God has been reminding me that His power can overcome my inadequacies. I’ve been learning that being imperfect doesn’t mean that I can’t be whole. And I’m clinging to the truth that Jesus joins us in our disappointments and forgives our mistakes.
What would it mean for Baseline to embrace wholeness over perfectionism? How can we as a church collectively boast in our weakness so that the power of Christ may dwell in our community? I have some suggestions:
We can engage in hard conversations about racism and the messy work of doing justice even though we may not always get it right because being whole means confronting sin in ourselves and the world.
We can ask hard questions of the Bible and not settle for easy answers because we accept that God will not be forced into any boxes we try to put him in.
We can allow our plans to be upended when we sense God moving in a new direction because we know that God’s grace is sufficient for us and his plans are good.
We can embrace those who have disabilities, are difficult, or are disenfranchised because we realize that they are not problems to be solved but are whole people too.
In gymnastics, on rare occasions, someone will score a perfect 10. But in life, none of us will ever be perfect. We have heaven to look forward to for that. Until then we can be grateful that Jesus knows what it’s like to live in this imperfect world, and that God can reveal His power in us through our weaknesses.