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Finding Faith in the Search for Perfection

Spiritual growth is about being whole, not being perfect.

Kathryn Slattery

Can you believe it? Another new year. Time for setting goals and making resolutions. 

For me, that means time to start trying to lose five pounds, make regular quiet time, worry less, and pray more…Hold on a minute. These are exactly the same resolutions I had last year!

As we begin 2012, each with our own desires for self-improvement, I’d like to reflect briefly on a Bible passage that had always troubled me.  The passage is Matthew 5:48, where Jesus is delivering his Sermon on the Mount, and says, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your Heavenly father is perfect.”

Perfect? Exactly how perfect? 

For me, Matthew 5:48 was a message that made me feel hopelessly condemned. Perfect. Such a simple, yet spirit-crushing word.

Consider, for example, the trail of human heartache and wreckage caused by striving to meet the impossible standards of perfection held up by today’s image-conscious American culture: eating disorders, alcoholism, drug addiction, anxiety, depression, breakdowns, even suicide.  What a joyless burden it can be to be, to seek perfection in our bodies, our clothing, our work, our houses, our cars, our vacations, our social life, even our volunteer activities. 

And let’s not forget the pressure of keeping up our perfect marriages and perfect children, with their perfect report cards and perfect test scores, who go on to attend perfect colleges, and graduate to get perfect jobs, marry perfect spouses, and produce perfect grandchildren!

As people of faith, who among us hasn’t dreamt of and possibly searched for the perfect church, with theologically perfect clergy who run perfect Bible studies, support perfect missions, and preach a perfect gospel?   

I’ve been a follower of Jesus for a long time now.  But the hard truth is I’m still more inclined to turn on the television and watch Dancing with the Stars than open my Bible. 

My prayer life is sporadic and dominated by personal concerns. Despite my best intentions, I often forget to pray for others. Good works I do are riddled with self-interest, executed at my convenience, to meet my needs. My initial response to a difficult relationship is more often guilt and anger rather than love and forgiveness. 

So what am I to do with Matthew 5:48 and this difficult command from Jesus to be “perfect?”
Imagine my surprise and delight when I recently learned that the Greek word commonly translated as “perfect” in this passage is more accurately translated as “to become whole,” or “to become complete.” 

This means that Jesus asks me not to be perfect, which is humanly impossible, but to be whole.  With this new understanding, Matthew 5:48 has gone from being my most troublesome verse of scripture, to one of my favorites. It’s a wellspring of comfort and encouragement. 

Strive to be whole.  Now that’s a New Year’s resolution I can live with.

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