Hot take: Perfectionism is good. You should be perfect. This is not my hot take. This is actually Jesus, speaking in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Why on earth would he say such a thing?
As someone who struggles with perfectionism, I can tell you that it’s not something anyone should wish upon oneself. For example, I would love to be making more recordings like this, and perhaps I would, if I weren’t a perfectionist and hadn’t already convinced myself of the false belief that nothing is worth doing unless it is done flawlessly. I hate my perfectionism. And yet Jesus comes along, in what is certainly the most famous sermon of all time, and tells us to be perfect. So…apparently we should be perfectionists? I think the answer is yes, but I don’t think what he means by “perfection” is the same as what we generally mean.
Obviously everything Jesus says is miles deep and we’re usually only scratching the surface, so I want to try to explore a deeper view of what it means to be perfect…in a sort of roundabout way.
Recently, a friend of mine asked me a very interesting theological question. He said, “At the end of the Bible, in the New Jerusalem, when all things are made new–a new Heaven and a new Earth–assumedly we will still have free will…so isn’t it possible that there could be another fall? If Eden were perfect and we sinned, then why couldn’t it be the same in The New Jerusalem? How are we not somehow destined for an everlasting cycle of fall, redemption, fall, redemption? Great question. And…this brings us back to what we mean by the word “perfect.”
For most of us in the modern world, what we mean by “perfection” is basically “flawlessness.” Usually when we think of perfection, we almost imagine something man-made, something mechanistic: producing the same outcome over and over in the same way. Like a perfect machine. And, of course, this is why we have rightly concluded that perfectionism for human beings is unhealthy. Humans aren’t machines! Not only is it unrealistic for us to produce the same flawless outcome in any situation, it might not even be desirable if we could. At some point, you’ve probably thought or heard someone say, “I’m not sure I want heaven to perfect. Wouldn’t it just be boring? Everything and everyone acting the same way. Nothing surprising. Nothing new.” It’s a good point. That kind of “perfect” vision of heaven doesn’t sound that great. But maybe the problem is not with heaven, but with our definition of “perfect.”
It turns out, in the Bible, the word perfect doesn’t really mean what we mean by it today. It doesn’t generally mean flawless; it means something more like: complete. In Scripture, something is perfect when it is brought to its full maturity, when it becomes everything that it was meant to be.
So if we apply this definition to the Garden of Eden, we would have to conclude that Eden was not, in fact, perfect. Rather, Eden was good, as Genesis tells us over and over. He created this and that, and it was good. And human beings were very good. But it doesn’t say perfect. And, in a sense, it was not yet perfect, because it was not yet complete. It was only the beginning. The garden was a place of potential. God gave Adam and Eve things to do. He told them to tend to the Garden, to name the animals, not to eat of a certain tree. And all of this was so that their relationship with him and their relationship with one another and their relationship with the world could be brought to more and more maturity. He told them to do these things because they were destined for more. Even though they were sinless, there was so much that they had not and could not yet experience. If they had only listened and obeyed and continued to walk with him–they would have seen the world itself grow into full blooming maturity–and they would have grown into beings of unimaginable glory. That is the tragedy of Eden.
So…Eden was good. Eden was not perfect. And…the New Jerusalem is a promise of something far greater than Eden ever was–not just a return to Eden, but rather Eden completed: men and women and all creation brought to their full maturity in Him. If what we believed about the New Jerusalem were that there would be this sudden flip of a switch–or wave of a wand–and then everything would be perfect or flawless, then yes, that might be a fragile existence–perhaps susceptible to another fall. But the vision isn’t like that. Because the New Jerusalem is not so much flawless as it is…finished, mature, complete. It cannot fall again any more than an adult could suddenly become an infant again. I cannot hate what my heart has learned over time to love or love what my heart has learned to hate. There is no going back. That is the difference with Perfection as maturity as opposed to Perfection as the flip of a switch. All susceptibility to sin is gone. We have grown out of it, not magically, but necessarily, because of what the Spirit of God has done in us over time. The New Jerusalem–a city in the place of a garden–could not go back to what it was before.
When we’re honest with ourselves, we already have a sense that our modern notion of perfection is flawed. This is why we recognize the unhealth of perfectionism striving for flawlessness–not just because it’s unrealistic, but because it is undesirable. We don’t even want the end it would produce. Heaven as a grand machine, homogeneous and predictable, producing the same outcome over and over–seems more like a nightmare than it does like the new creation. And that’s exactly what it is–because we’ve settled for the wrong notion of what it means to be perfect. The vision of the New Jerusalem–the notion of being perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect–is a promise not of flawlessness but of finishedness–each of us in his or her own way–being made into the men and women we were meant to be. An infinite diversity of beings brought to full harmonizing maturity in Him.
And…this is not merely a FUTURE vision. The beauty of the Christian understanding of perfection is that it’s not just something that will happen one day, by the fragile flip of a switch, but something that is happening now. We tend to believe that “one day” we will be perfect in Christ. And we tend to mean that one day we will be flawless. But that is not as good of a promise as the one we have been given. In a way, it is easy enough to believe, as a matter of historical fact, that Christ died for us 2000 years ago. And perhaps it’s easy enough to believe that we will be perfect one day. The hard thing is to believe that we are being made perfect this very moment by the power of His Spirit in us–not flawless, but mature: more free, more alive, more human–until one day, when we will be everything he meant us to be. His love loves unto purity. That is your destiny right now. And every day between now and then, that perfect outcome is being realized as you walk by faith. Every day, in Him, you are growing into that person that you were created to be. Which means that each day is of infinite worth, because it is making you more and more into a citizen of that new creation, where all will be new and all will be perfect. So…receive this as a promise and live in it now: be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.