Perfectionism can be a wonderful gift, a guiding star, a brutal club, or self-absorbed agony. The option we identify with may depend on how we are reading the Bible.
For example, some of the language of the book of Revelation can be disturbingly confusing, because it seems to require “perfectionistic” faithfulness. As indicated in our last post, the seven letters to the churches (Rev 2-3), together with the strong warnings of Revelation 22 make it sound as if a failure “to overcome” puts us at risk of losing everything.
If we interpret perfection and perfectionism like that, they become like a brutal club or whip that is being used to prod us on in fear.
But as we’ve been seeing, that’s why it is so important for us to understand that all of the words of the Bible have a story behind them.
An earlier letter to Jewish followers of Jesus, for instance, explains clearly and emphatically that it is by the one sacrifice of “The Messiah” that we are both sanctified (set apart for God) and perfected (made complete). See Hebrews 10:1-14. Note that verse 14 says, “For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are sanctified.” And verse 10 has already declared, that “We are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Here we find a kind of perfection and perfectionism that is an expensive gift, bought by our God and offered to us.
Interestingly, it is this same letter to the Hebrews that also gives us some of the same “Revelation-like” warnings about what remains for those who don’t “keep the faith” (see later in the same chapter Hebrews 10:24-27).
In both cases (Hebrews and Revelation) those warnings need to be taken seriously by anyone who is not relying on what the Son of God did for us through his “stand in” life, sacrificial death, and resurrection. They are not, however, threats to those who recognize their ever present failures, while relying on the “sanctifying perfection” of Christ to rescue their “soul” and improve their walk.
Those same warnings, however, can also be a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that, because Christ did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves, what we do from here on out doesn’t really matter. The letter to the Hebrews, together with Revelation’s seven letters to the churches (2-3) remind us that a knowledge of what Christ has done for us, together with a prophetic understanding of what he will do for us in the future—are not meant to say that the story has been told… and that all that is left for us to do is to privately, and personally contemplate the wonder of it.
That’s apparently why the author of Hebrews urges us to see the importance of the kind of “gathering together” (vss 24-25) by which we prompt one another to do more than wait and celebrate our good fortune. According to the letter to the Hebrews, the solution to perfectionism is not only to rely on Christ’s acts in our behalf, but also to overcome the self-centered nature of the wrong kind of perfectionism, by “love and good works“–“and so much the more as you see the day approaching.”
Seems to me that this describes a kind of perfection (fullness and completeness of spirit) that is like a guiding star.
Am left with a question that seems to deserve more thought: Isn’t it ironic that the perfection that Christ bought for us, once and for all, is just what we need for the kind of agonizing, self-absorbed perfectionism that is “all about us”?