Be Ye Perfect (Podcast experiment)
Some thoughts on perfect love.
Today’s Whatsoever Thought is in podcast format. I hope you enjoy it! By special request, I've updated this post to include a readable form of Be Ye Perfect as well. You’ll find it below.
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Next month, our theme is Authentic Witness. We’ll be looking at the heart work and practical skills development we need to share Jesus in a powerful, genuine way. I hope you’ll join me!
Be Ye Perfect
In college, I had a jogging partner, a compassionate, deep-thinking woman with a generous smile. She also had a really messy apartment. Dishes piled up, laundry strewn about, houseplants gasping their last desperate breath. For years, I thought my friend was phlegmatic.
But one day, when I visited, I found her drawing a beautiful, precise work of art. I tightened the laces on my sneakers while she lamented that her house was not more tidy. I watched as she set a red pencil back in its original tin, then twisted it so the little foil logo faced up. She did the same with the orange, then the yellow, then the green, all the way to the end of the rainbow.
“I don’t know why it’s so hard,” she said.
“Could you be a perfectionist?” She looked at me, surprised, and a little moved, too.
“People don’t normally see that in this mess. But yeah, I guess I am. It’s just so hard to be perfect that I sometimes can’t even start things. How did you know?”
I knew because I’d once met a very smart little girl who refused to do any classwork. When I asked why, she said she was too nervous she’d get something wrong to even begin.
Have you ever been afraid even to write your name on the paper of life, lest you fail the exam?
Psychology Today says this about Perfectionism: “Perfectionists set unrealistically high expectations for themselves and others. They are quick to find fault and overly critical of mistakes. They tend to procrastinate a project out of their fear of failure. They shrug off compliments and forget to celebrate their success.”
I’ve been thinking about perfectionism a lot lately, trying to live with a little more grace towards myself. Experimenting with “done is better than perfect” and “life doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful” and other Christian-ish mantras that would look nice on a fridge magnet or in a cross-stitch. Yet my mind keeps going back to something Jesus said. It’s found in Matthew 5:48, here from the KJV, because that’s how it sounds in my head: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
When this verse has come to mind I’ve wanted to run over to a Strong’s concordance immediately, to figure out what Jesus really meant. I’ve hesitated, though, feeling guilty, as though I’m looking for a loophole.
The thing is, I can see that my attitude towards perfection and Jesus’ attitude are totally different. They’re different wavelengths, on different planets. I have a hard time thinking this verse is telling me to be unsatisfied and discontent, fault-finding and critical, and blind to my growth or that of others.
So, I finally looked it up. The word for perfect here is teleios. But before I tell you exactly what it means, let’s look at just two other verses where this word occurs.
“But when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” 1 Corinthians 13:10-11
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4
And now for the definition: Teleios means finished, complete, perfect, and mature. And that makes sense when we go back to Jesus on that day 2000 years ago when he and his followers hiked up a mountainside and sat down together.
I imagine patches of rough, wild grass and Israeli wildflowers—purple bellflowers, red poppies, yellow daffodils. Maybe the wind rustles in the grass. The Chaffinch, a common bird in Israel, sings every now and then. And Jesus’ followers are listening to Him speak. Sometimes their eyes wander behind him, to the Sea of Galilea, blue and shining in the sunlight.
Jesus has been giving a fresh interpretation of the scriptures, calling people to something beyond rule-keeping, something more difficult and more meaningful. He’s just said that God’s law is not about avoiding mere murder, but about not hating your brother. He’s said it’s not about avoiding mere adultery. It’s about loyalty and purity even when you are alone with your thoughts. And that’s when He says these famous words, this time from the English Standard Version:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus here speaks about the water and sunshine that His Father sends indiscriminately upon the children of mankind. Without water, olive trees turn crisp and brown, kernels of wheat never develop, and household gardens are left unplanted. Without sunshine, a buried seed cannot find its way out of the darkness.
Jesus here compares water and sunshine to love. Jesus is saying that your love is as important to the world as the rain and the sun are to an ecosystem. You have something to give the world, something beyond just looking good or never messing up.
Jesus is saying that loving only those who love you is not teleios— it’s not incomplete. It’s not all that love was meant to do and be. It’s not all you were meant to do and be. Love is sent. It goes. It is on a mission to give.
You are the valuable commodity that God has sent into the world. You are the rain and the sunshine sent to all. You are the salt of the earth—expensive and important—you are of more worth than many sparrows—you are noticed by God.
What I’ve been sharing this month is not that we shouldn’t try to be righteous, or to grow. It’s just that paralyzing perfectionism does the opposite of what Jesus commands us. Perfectionism keeps you in your house, in your tiny social circle, where you can control everything. At least, it has sometimes kept me there.
And this is where we turn to another verse containing the word Teleios. This time it’s in 1 John 4:18:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.
I once had a good friend who absolutely hated this verse. She felt condemned by it. She felt that because she is generally fearful, the Bible had condemned her as unloving. But what if this verse is not talking about her love, or my love, or your love at all… but rather the love of Jesus? What if the verse could read this way:
There is no fear in Jesus’ love, rather Jesus’ perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. The one who fears is not perfect—is not complete—is not mature—has further to go—in the love of Jesus.
If you are afraid, afraid to make mistakes, afraid to love, afraid to share the gospel with someone, guess what? There is more of Jesus’ love for you to experience.
Soldiers joining the US army are weighed before boot camp begins. Guys who are overweight are put on a strict but sustainable calorie deficit, and given more to do with less breaks. But the skinny guys, the underweight?
They get extra cake.
They get double the food, in fact, of the normal guys. Plus more pushups. Lots of pushups.
If you are afraid, there is more love for you, for love is the antidote. It is the soothing balm. It is the voice that believes you can be more, not because you are so rejectable, but because there’s lots of room to fall safely when you’re trying hard to learn to walk. Or to love. Or to do pushups.
I’ll never forget one day when my 3-year-old daughter described for me what it would be like when she grew up. She said, and I quote, “And I’m gonna kwoss da stweet wissout anybody ho’din’ my haaaand. I’m gonna learn!” This confident statement has become a catchphrase in our home. “I’m gonna learn!” Because we can learn. Praise the Lord, we humans can learn anything.
Is God calling you to concentrate on character over reputation? Obedience over rule-keeping? Holiness over perfectionism? If you accept His call, you might mess up in front of people. You might come face to face with yourself and realize you need Jesus more than you thought you did. You might even give up your mascara. But also? You just might be used by God to do something great, for here is our last verse about perfection, from 2 Corinthians 12:9:
“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”