When I dig deep into my heart and look closely at my tendency to try to control my life, I often feel sheepish and silly. Perfectionism is such a ridiculous condition for a Christian! I believe that we are all sinners: …for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3: 23 – 25). But, then I so easily slip into behaviors that reflect different beliefs. These include striving to improve myself, ordering my external and internal worlds, and seeking to do the “good” and “right” thing at all times. In other words my actions take on the utmost importance in my life as I basically tell God, “Thanks for everything! I’ve got it from here…”
In Chapter 5 of Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus concludes the challenging directive to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… by announcing: You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48). Yikes! Doesn’t that just sound condemning! I absolutely cannot be perfect enough for God’s standards. Fortunately, God knew this and provided an answer to our human condition by sending Jesus to be the substitute and propitiation for our sins. He upheld the law of perfection and, when we’re united to Him, His perfect righteousness covers our sinful hearts.
There is rhetoric within Christian communities that promotes the idea that we need to earn God’s favor through our actions. Our former pastor referred to these practices as “sin management programs”, as if we could somehow perfect ourselves by managing our behavior. Fortunately, I’m also hearing more honest and true representations of the “Law vs. Gospel” distinction in contemporary Christian music, which makes my heart happy! One example is from a favorite running song of mine, “Even Then” by Micah Tyler:
When the days up ahead look a little bit brighter
But the grip of the past holds a little bit tighter
I’m reminded Your grace never asks for perfection
Oh I’m restored ’cause I’m Yours and I stand forgiven
That simple line (the one in bold!) always grabs my heart. God’s grace doesn’t demand my perfection. In fact, the idea that I need to be perfect is basically a rejection of God’s grace. Grace is completely unmerited favor. I don’t deserve it at all. None of us can earn something that God freely gives out of His divine love. The MercyMe song “Best Day Ever” also captures this beautifully:
Some say, “Don’t give up”
And hope that your good is good enough
Head down, keep on working
If you could earn it, you deserve it
Some say, “Push on through”
After all, it’s the least that you can do
But don’t buy, what they’re selling
It couldn’t be further from the truth…
Some say, “Don’t ask for help”
God helps the ones who help themselves
Press on, get it right
Otherwise, get left behind
Some say, “He’s keeping score”
So try hard, then try a little more
Hold up, if this were true
Explain to me, what the cross is for
The simplicity of song lyrics often captures an idea in such a poignant way, so that I feel it rather than think about it. Truly, if we are able to be perfect enough for God’s standards, why would Jesus have to die for our sins? When we worry about God “keeping score” and tallying up our sins versus our good deeds, we take matters into our own hands rather than surrendering and resting in Jesus’s perfect atonement for us.
Recognizing our neediness before God completely overturns the modern focus on self-actualization. Instead of striving and trying to control the world around us, we can remember Paul’s experience of the thorn in his side: Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2Corinthians 12: 8-11).
God’s strength is made perfect in us when we stop trying to be strong and instead rest in his all sufficient grace. Amen!