That aphorism is one I've heard many times in my life. It has a long history, tracing back to Voltaire. Shakespeare articulates the idea in King Lear: "Were it not sinful then, striving to mend, to mar the subject that before was well?" Yet as much as it might be familiar, I've found myself pondering it recently as a profound spiritual truth. Let me try to point out two areas I've especially noticed it, one in terms of the church and one in terms of our personal spiritual lives.
People love to complain, and Christians love to complain about our churches. These complaints can come from a good impulse - we want the church to be better than it is. We want it to be all that Jesus says it should be. However, it can also create immense problems. Let me just suggest one way.
The mission of the church is massive. Let me try to make just a partial list of the things the church should be doing:
- Preaching and teaching the bible.
- Creating fellowship and meaningful relationships.
- Gathering for God-honoring worship.
- Administering the sacraments.
- Challenging members to turn from sin and trust in Jesus.
- Proclaiming the good news about Jesus to unbelievers.
- Caring for the poor and needy in our communities and in the world.
- Loving justice and standing for it.
- Giving comfort and counsel to the struggling.
- Mentoring and training disciples and future leaders.
- Visiting and caring for the sick and struggling.
- Teaching and supporting the elderly, the young, parents, children, the married, the single, and people in every station of life.
There are two realities about that list. One, the church should be doing all of it. Every local church should be doing all of it. Those are all important callings. But at the same time, every local church fails in parts of that calling.
I was talking to a young friend who expressed to me their frustration that they weren't being given opportunities to use their gifts in the church they were attending. They were thinking about leaving because of this lack. On the one hand, I resonated with this frustration - they were gifted, and I am personally grateful for the opportunities I was given to grow in my gifts at that age. At the same time, somewhere in the back of my mind, there was this question: "Is that one failure really the grounds on which you're going to judge that church?" If it was, I reflected, we're all doomed.
Again, this isn't meant to excuse those failings. Striving for growth is necessary to keep us from stagnating and dying. It also shouldn't excuse the worst failings of certain churches. We are talking about falling short of perfection, not running wholesale in the opposite direction. There are toxic spiritual communities that one would be wise to leave and abuses of authority and office that should result in judgment.
However, the reality is that growth will always be both slow and incomplete. I think about the church I pastor. It is a wonderful community of believers who are seeking to follow after Jesus. There are many ways they are living out these callings, but there are also ways we as a community are failing. I could list them - they're the things that gnaw in my gut in quiet moments of ministry, leaving me feeling discouraged. Yet even as we try to change them, that doesn't come by flipping a switch. I could name twenty things we could do better, but in a given year we can maybe spend time growing in only two or three. If the demand is that we become perfect now or else a person is done with the church, I simply don't know how any human institution can measure up to that calling. The perfect in those cases becomes the enemy of the good works that God is doing and the good growth He is calling us to.
The same thing can happen in our individual spiritual lives. We often view ourselves with a sort of spiritual perfectionism. Again, that comes from a good impulse. We want to be like Jesus. We want to overcome sin. Those are good drives, and we should pursue them. We should never make peace with the dark and wicked parts of our hearts.
However, the enemy often uses this desire for perfection as an enemy of growth. There was a guy I knew who struggled with losing his temper, flying off the handle multiple times a day. He became convicted of this failure and began seeking to control it instead. This went along for several weeks, but finally, in a moment of frustration he lost it and yelled at a coworker. Talking about it, he said it made him feel like giving up. After all, wasn't he therefore a failure?
The thing that struck me talking to him was that all he could see was his moment of sin while the growth rested in all the other moments of the last month where he had fought and won. His family and friends, they had noticed the change. It had seemed almost a transformation. Yet he was ready to give up the fight because what he was expecting of himself was perfection. Anything less left him discouraged and defeated.
To reiterate what we said first - this doesn't mean it was okay that he lost his temper. The only way to fight sin is on all fronts. Seeking to be imperfect will only harden our imperfections. However, seeking perfection can be just as destructive when it robs us of our ability to try and fail and get up and try again. The perfect is the enemy of the good.
The answer to both of these dangerous perfectionisms is the gospel. We are called, in the gospel, to seek to be like Jesus. To seek to grow into the resurrection life He offers. To embody it in our actions and in our faith communities. But the gospel calls us to do this only after tellings us that the perfect work is done. It has been accomplished by Christ.
Jesus has perfectly obeyed the Father and given us that obedience as our own. When we focus only on our sins we are failing to recognize that we are, down beneath it all, righteous before God because of the cross. Our identity as righteous is secured by Him; now we are simply called to be what we are.
Jesus has perfectly adorned His Bride. The Bible describes the church as a broken and imperfect community. Indeed, it uses stronger language than any of us might muster, calling her a prostitute and a faithless wife. Yet it tells us that this harlot is dressed in white by Jesus, adorned in jewels and seated beside Him at the table of His wedding feast. When we focus on the unfaithfulness and fail to recognize Christ's beloved bride we can miss the very path that leads us to that blessed Supper of the Lamb.
We should seek to grow in all that is good. But we do that free from the bondage of perfectionism because, before we become good, we are made perfect in Jesus Christ. He has made up perfect; let us therefore seek that which is good.