Becoming Perfect

But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

This verse, and John Wesley’s teaching on perfection, is some of what I struggle most with as a Christian. I certainly know I’m not perfect, and from where I sit, I doubt I would ever be able to achieve a state of errorlessness on this side of the veil. Wesley taught that it was possible, to some degree, to achieve perfection in this life:

…that habitual disposition of the soul which, in the sacred writings, is termed holiness; and which directly implies being cleansed from sin, ‘from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit’; and, by consequence, being endued with those virtues which were in Christ Jesus; being so ‘renewed in the image of our mind,’ as to be ‘perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect’ ( A Plain Account of Christian Perfectionism, p. 12). 

“In this is perfection, and glory, and happiness: the royal law of heaven and earth is this, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.’ The one perfect good shall be your one ultimate end” (ibid.). Lastly, perfection is “deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin” (ibid., p. 26) and “a Christian is so far perfect as not to commit sin” (ibid., p. 25).

Wesley is right in that it ought to be possible to achieve a “habitual disposition of the soul” towards Christ, and indeed, I know people like that, and I want to become one someday. I also know, though, that those are people who still sin. They are human, after all.

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Jesus’ assertion that we are “to be perfect, even as” God is perfect, though, allows for the possibility that this completeness won’t happen on this side of death. And I think that’s OK: we will become perfect, one day, and while we can certainly strive for improvement, even perfection, in this life, it’s important (I believe) to cut ourselves enough slack to recognize our continuing frailty and humanity even after our justification through grace.

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Kingdom Life and the 21st Century

When Jesus returned to Capernaum, a Roman officer came and pleaded with him, “Lord, my young servant lies in bed, paralyzed and in terrible pain.” Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.”

But the officer said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come into my home. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, ‘Go,’ and they go, or ‘Come,’ and they come. And if I say to my slaves, ‘Do this,’ they do it.” 

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed. Turning to those who were following him, he said, “I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (Matthew 8:5-10)

This passage always used to puzzle me a little. Is Jesus saying that faith is blind obedience? Is Jesus saying that a hierarchical, military-style leadership is what the Kingdom of God is all about? I don’t think so. Jesus is teaching about life in the Kingdom, yes, and obedience, but it’s not the kind we’re thinking of. Jesus knows that the Kingdom has a hierarchy–God is on his throne, angels are there too (and even angels have hierarchies–see Daniel 10, how one angel needed to call on a superior one in a battle), but we’re neither God nor angels–we are distinct and, yes, lower creations. And it’s when we start to imagine ourselves as bigger than we really are, that we start to commit the sin of pride that Satan did before his fall.

There is a way things work. The Roman officer knew it. He knew his place: he knew he could command others, but equally, he knew he was subject to the commands of those above him. And he understood authority. If the superior officer says something will be done, then he and his men made it happen. Similarly, this soldier knew that if Jesus were to give the word, his servant would be healed even from afar, because he respected the authority of Jesus to get things done, and he knew angels and the forces of heaven would move to bring about Jesus’ will. That’s the reason Jesus is so thrilled: Here’s a guy who gets it!

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If we’re honest with ourselves, there’s something about this that rankles us. We come from a 21st century Western mindset, born of the Enlightenment, that holds that we’re all special and empowered. We have democracies, for pity’s sake, we don’t have kingdoms anymore! Unless you live in Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Oman, Qatar, or Swaziland, you have no idea what it’s like to live in a true kingdom. Don’t like your leaders? Vote ’em out!

The Kingdom of God doesn’t work that way. We have one true King, and we are all subjects of his authority. Yes, it feels alien to us, with our representative republics and, at least as Americans, our history of overthrowing kings. But it doesn’t make it any less true. If anything, it makes it a little but harder for the 21st century American to take to his knees before the King.

Giving Up “Lent” for Lent

Here we are in the midst of the 40 days of the Lenten season before Easter, and the most common question people ask is, “What did you give up for Lent this year?”

In years past I’ve done that practice: I’ve variously sworn off fried foods, alcohol, and even doughnuts in some years. Each year I also tell people that I’ve given up smoking; I’ve never smoked, which makes that particular abstinence an easy one to keep.

I’ve come to appreciate, though, that the point of Lent isn’t necessarily to give something up, it’s to draw closer to God. If there’s something in my life that’s more important to me than God, then yes, I’m supposed to replace that with God–hence the abstaining from any of a number of habits for 40 days.

However, since the point is to get closer to God over this time, perhaps we need instead to pick something up. Pick up a Bible and read each night. Pick up a prayer habit each morning over coffee. Pick up a friend, reach out and lift her spirits during a dark time. All of these are more meaningful in building a better, more lasting relationship with God than seeing if you can make it 40 days without chocolate.

So this year I’m giving up “Lent”  for Lent–giving up the mindless giving up, and instead being more mindful of my relationship with God. I’m taking an online class on belief and grace during Lent, and that’s helped keep me framed and focused during this time. I’m being more intentional in my prayer life as well. My hope is these allow me to draw closer to God in a more significant way than ever.

Oh, and I gave up doughnuts too. Because, well, my waistline suggests that’s probably needed also. But that’s another story.

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W. C. Fields Was Partly Right

“Everybody has to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.”

–W. C. Fields

W. C. Fields had a point: we all do believe in something. There’s something each person has to which he or she will hold fast as the most vital, the most cherished aspect of life. Perhaps it’s family and being surrounded by them; perhaps it’s work, striving to achieve and do more. Perhaps it’s money, especially when we’re just starting out and bills are everywhere.

Whatever it is, there’s something we prize above anything else. And so skeptics and disbelievers who say they don’t believe in any god are kidding themselves, in a way. When we’re honest with ourselves, we each have a god, we each have something we have set up in our life that is central, around which we will structure our whole world.

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The challenge of Christianity, when fully embraced and fully realized, is to not choose any of those “gods” of the world–no, not even family (see Matthew 10:37-39!)–but instead to put God at the center of our life. That’s hard! At least it can be for me. If where I put my time, my money, and my effort truly reflects my priorities, then…how many times can I actually admit I’ve put God first?

The Christian doesn’t have to embrace a monastic life, though, to be fully Christian. Over the course of our discussions here, we’ll explore some of how to keep God at the center despite having to live in the world.