Those words, so often repeated during my elementary school years, desperately urged us students to relax, to ease up on ourselves and others, and to be content with simply doing our best. Unfortunately, in recent years, it’s become evident that the mantra fell upon deaf ears. According to a 2017 study by the American Psychological Association, perfectionism is on the rise, with millennials leading the charge. Not only do we measure our success against unrealistic standards, we also expect others to do the same. This kind of societal pressure, fuelled no doubt by the ease of comparison afforded to us by social media, can be discouraging at best and debilitating at worst. After all, who could possibly live up to the ideal of perfection?
The good news is, there exists a reprieve. Surely, amid the chaotic striving that makes up so much of our modern lives, we have our faith to reassure us. I mean, if anyone is capable of loving us just the way we are, it’s Jesus, right?
That might be an easily accepted position, save for the existence of one rather problematic Bible passage.
“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”Matthew 5:48
Who hasn’t read those words and come away scratching their head? If worldly perfection is an impossible goal, how much more so is divine perfection? How can we possibly be perfect as God is perfect, when we can’t even reach perfection on a human level?
An Unsteady Definition
Thankfully, there exist some key differences in the type of perfection demanded of us by the world and by our God. Worldly perfection is exclusively focused on external behaviour, on our conformity to a set of standards from which we are expected to derive our worth. In this model, however, success is described in very arbitrary terms. Dressing the “right” way, saying the “right” things, working at the “right” kind of job. That vague word, right, can mean different things at different times, thus leaving us with uncertain parameters within which to measure our success. The result of this unsteady definition is the pressure to simply succeed at everything, all the time. The goal is no longer simply focused on specifics like jobs, grades, or material goods, but extrapolated to become an overarching goal—that of consistent success.
Living within this paradigm, we come to believe that success will cause others to like us, will increase our standing in society, will make us more valuable—even more lovable. But there’s a flaw in this design, and it’s that failure is inevitable.
Failure by and of itself can be a very good thing. It teaches us about ourselves, helps us to hone our skills and abilities, and forces us to adapt, learn, and grow. Failure is, in a sense, the only conceivable path that one can take in order to reach the end goal of perfection. We must try and fail if we are to grow and succeed. So to define perfection as consistent success, the flipside of which is the absence of failure, we are, ironically, being set up to fail.
Buying into this concept of perfection will negatively impact how we view ourselves, how we relate to others, and—most importantly—how we relate to God.
If we believe that our worth and lovability stem from what we do and how well we do it, after all, we might be tempted to believe the lie that we must reach a certain level of perfection before we can be worthy of receiving love—from ourselves, from others, and even from God.
The Truth about Perfection
Brothers and sisters in Christ, do not fall into this trap! God doesn’t define perfection in the same way we do. He knows that we are human. He knows we are frail. He knows we are on a journey, in progress, not yet having reached the final goal, and he loves us just the same as if we already have.
Still, that doesn’t change the fact that God commands us to strive after a seemingly impossible goal. So how do we go about doing that? The words that precede Christ’s command provide some insight.
The challenge to be perfect is not a stand-alone statement but the conclusion of a long discourse that spans the length of Matthew 5. It begins with the Beatitudes and progresses through a series of statements that effectively set a new standard for the Jews of Jesus’ day: “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you … ” Jesus is not merely content that his followers refrain from evil—he now insists that they practice love. No longer will it suffice to refrain from murder; now we must keep from speaking poorly of others. No longer is bodily fidelity enough; now we must be faithful to our spouse in heart and mind also. No longer are we allowed to stop at merely loving our neighbour; now we must extend such love to all—even to our enemies.
“For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”Matthew 5:46
Only after all of that does Jesus utter the words, “be perfect.”
God Provides Both Problem and Solution
Perfection, therefore, in the eyes of God simply means that we must love as he does. At first glance, this may seem daunting, but the truth is, Christ issued this decree not to tie up burdens too heavy to carry (Matthew 23:4), but to relieve us of said burdens by laying upon our shoulders a yoke that is both easy and light (Matthew 11:30)—a yoke that binds us to him.
Left to our own devices, it is true that we would never be able to successfully live out the command to be perfect—to love in such a radical way. There is only one way that we will reach our goal, but unlike the worldly paradigm of perfection, in which the one thing necessary for success is perceived as an obstacle, in the divine economy, the one thing necessary is the surest and quickest means in which to fly along the path to perfection—and that path is Christ himself.
The command to love was born out of love itself, given to us to draw us closer to God. He loves us so powerfully and incomprehensibly that he wants us to be close to him, so close that we are no longer two beings but rather, we are made one in him. And so he has created a scenario in which the only way that we will successfully carry out the divine decree—the only way in which we will truly be perfect—is by fulfilling his wish, by being so closely united with him that we respond to others with his love and not our own.
Divine perfection, then, is not to be found in a lack of failure, but in conformity to the very nature of God. Thankfully, it is not what we do that makes us perfect, but what we allow God to do in us. It’s not our perfection that earns God’s love, but rather, God’s love at work within us that makes us perfect!
So yes, God does command us to be perfect. But he also gives us the means to do so—his very self.
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Isabella Bruno is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker who is head-over-heels in love with the Catholic Faith. You can find her online at isabellabruno.ca, where she shares inspirational love stories, highlights people pursuing their passions, and opens up about her own journey to love.