Be Ye Perfect: What DoesThat Mean?
by Alan P. Medinger
Reconciling God's standard of perfection, and the reality of our imperfection is difficult. The answer is God's grace, but how do we walk in His grace without using it as a license to sin.
You must, therefore, be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." --Matt. 5:48 These words of our Lord come, as we might expect, from, the Sermon on the Mount; at the conclusion of the portion in which Jesus gives us a whole new set of laws which tell us that to look on another with lust is the equivalent of adultery, that anger can be the equivalent of murder, and that we even have to love our enemies.
Jesus' call for us to be perfect is the only standard He could possibly set for us, and yet at the same time, it is an impossible standard to meet. It is the only standard our Lord could offer when we consider the possible alternatives. Could He have said, "Be, therefore, 75% unselfish, 90% chaste, 98% honest..."? Or how about, "Be loving and charitable to the extent that it feels right to you"? No, a righteous and loving God can neither accept sin, nor can He allow us -- given our sinfulness -- to set our own standards. If there is to be a judgment, and if there is pardon for sins, surely a loving God would show us beforehand by what measure we will be judged, and for what we need forgiveness. And yet this is truly an impossible standard; one that none of us will achieve in this life. Our sin nature, our tendency to act selfishly, runs too deep. Try as we will to eliminate all fleshly sins, we will soon find ourselves immersed in pride or judging others. Try to be charitable and give away all that we have, and we find ourselves preoccupied with ourselves and how we spend each dollar and each hour.
How do we reconcile this? How do we live, called to perfection, but knowing we cannot be perfect? There can be only one possible answer -- grace. Between what we are and what we are called to be spans the glorious arch of God's grace. It is both a covering over us, and a bridge to the Father -- His priceless, yet freely offered gift. The mercy of God, through the life, death and resurrection of His Son, has paid in full for our falling so short of the mark. Jesus took on for us the penalty that a just God requires, and through identification with Him we are freed from having to pay that penalty ourselves.
This is the ultimate answer, but for those of us who struggle with sin daily, and that is all of us, it is not an entirely satisfactory answer. A question that immediately comes to mind is, "But how then shall I live today?" Although, perhaps not going so far as to pose Paul's theoretical question, "Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?" (Romans 6:1), we nevertheless sense the risk that we could use God's grace as license to sin. We know that we could presume upon God's grace, even to the point of taking lightly what that grace cost God, thus falling into an even deeper sin than the sin for which we were consciously appropriating that grace.
This is a practical and real problem for those of us who struggle with any type of prevailing sin such as lust or chronic masturbation. How many times can we sin and repent? God's answer is clear, 70 times 70, or all that we need to. But what is happening to our hearts when we start slipping into such a pattern that real remorse for our sin fades, forgiveness becomes routine, and we even find ourselves thinking that we will be forgiven before we sin? Is not the last state worse than the first?
This kind of thinking can easily draw us back into legalism; intellectually accepting God's grace, but so fearful of abusing it, that we strive as if it weren't really there.
I have seen people at both extremes of this dilemma -- the Christian libertines (what a great old word) who would impose on God's grace and the legalists who would act as if it were not available. Both ultimately are slaves; one the slave to his passions, the other a slave to the law. God's way is neither license nor legalism; it is liberty. He calls us to obedience, and calls us to know that we are acceptable to Him -- and therefore should be to ourselves -- even when we are not obedient.
Most of us struggle somewhere in the middle between these extremes, bouncing regularly back and forth between them. I have certainly done my share of bouncing, but over the years as I have come to accept certain principles, it has become less extreme. Let me share them with you.
First, we do need to recognize that perfection is not possible in this life. In our area of ministry, I especially appreciate a quote from C.S. Lewis that went something like, "Perfect chastity is like perfect charity; it is something few of us will experience in this life." We can readily accept that we will never be perfectly charitable -- totally unselfish in all we do. Why can't we accept the fact that most of us won't ever be perfectly chaste -- free from ever having an impure sexual thought? Try as we might, sexual sins are always somehow less acceptable. They should not be.
I have mixed feelings about the the practice of some of the people in our groups who count the days since they last masturbated. By and large these are devout people who truly love the Lord and want to live in obedience to Him, but somehow, their growth seems not to go beyond abstinence. Perhaps so much of their energy goes into control that there is little left for broader growth. There may an excess focus on the law or the on symptoms of the problem. Those whose focus is on broader growth, who see masturbation as a symptom of the problem (albeit still a sinful one) appear to enjoy a greater freedom, and ultimately a deeper healing.
Recognition needs to be made here for the case of true addiction. We have learned from the twelve-step method that where true addiction is present, absolute abstinence is necessary. If you think you might be addicted in some area, read some of the literature on addictions and see if your condition meets the criteria.
I am convinced that in most situations it does not.
To recognize that we may always to some extent sin sexually, is not to deny God's life changing power or the process of sanctification. For those leading the Christian life, progress will be made, and in certain areas sin may cease to be a problem altogether. But some sin will remain, and for many, especially men, the area of persistent sin may be sexual.
Second is the principle that our goal should not be perfection, but pleasing God. Most times when I am first aware of sin in my life, my first reaction is a profound disappointment in myself. I really thought I was beyond that. A person like me should be above that. What arrogance! And how subtle this attitude can be.
We need to regularly remind ourselves that it is God, not ourselves, that we sin against. I almost always use Psalm 51 in my prayers of repentance. Against thee, thee only have I sinned, and done that which is evil in Thy sight." (vs.4) Because I think most clearly in terms of pictures, sometimes I will imagine seeing Jesus hanging on the cross, literally weighed down by every sin ever committed, and I walk up to Him and thrust another one on His shoulders, with a glib, "Here's another one for you!" In my spirit that is what I believe my sins do.
Love is the greatest motivator to obedience. When you find yourself striving, start loving.
The third principle is that our direction, not our position is what counts. I don't expect my son to be perfect, but I certainly want him to be growing--spiritually, physically, intellectually. I believe our heavenly Father feels the same way about us.
The trap here, of course, is that we will fall into rationalization or deception as we tolerate our sins. Change is hard to recognize in ourselves, as is that absence of change. A journal can be a great help in this. It can help us to take that longer view look at ourselves that we need to accurately measure growth.
In the process of seeking growth rather than perfection, we do risk falling into deception. Repeated sin, repeatedly forgiven, can become trivialized or even accepted as abnormal sin". If we allow the voice of the Holy Spirit to become muted, we might even come to deny that a sinful behavior is sinful. What a terrible situation, for to deny our sin is to miss being the recipients of God's wonderful grace. A life in the Body of Christ with real accountability is the best protection from such deception.
The tension between seeking perfection and accepting that we cannot be perfect may always require us to be doing mid-course corrections, but that's okay; God's mercy is so great that His grace extends to this also.
God's standard is perfection. Our life as Christians is meant to be one of perfect freedom. The only way we can reconcile the two is to keep our eyes, not on our perfection or our failings, but on Jesus Christ.
Copyright © 1992, Alan P. Medinger and Regeneration. All rights reserved. Posted on the web with permission.