“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” - Matthew 5:48
What are we supposed to do with that? Perfection? Really?
There are really two solutions that people create to the shocking reality of this statement. After all, Jesus couldn't have actually meant be perfect. The solutions: Jesus either meant just "try your best" or he believed that perfection was within our reach.
Both of these miss the point.
Perfect vs. Good Intentions
Let's take the first solution, Jesus really meant "try your best."
The problem with the idea that Jesus is after good intentions is that the rest of the Sermon on the Mount suggests exactly the opposite. “Don’t commit adultery” becomes “don’t even lust.” “Thou shall not murder,” becomes “don’t even call someone a fool.”
All throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is raising the bar. Jesus is calling his followers to go above and beyond what they’ve been commanded to do so far. Jesus doesn’t lower the expectations, he raises them.
So when Jesus says, “Be perfect,” there’s really no good reason to believe that Jesus is doing anything other than raising the bar.
Perfection vs. Perfectionism
Now the other solution that people believe is that perfection is attainable. If you want an example of what this looks like in the Scriptures, you can look at Jesus’ interaction with the religious leaders. Paul himself references his own behavior as “blameless” in Philippians. Imagine the level of obedience that would allow Paul to call his own behavior "blameless." The religious elite of Jesus day had perfectionism figured out.
Perfect, however, is different than perfectionism.
Perfectionism is a driving desire to look perfect, to act perfect, to work perfect. But the reason a perfectionist is a perfectionist is this underlying sense that they aren’t good enough and a driving desire to make sure nobody ever sees that.
Brenè Brown in an interview about perfectionism said, “When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun and fear is the annoying backseat driver.”
I need to do enough, be enough, make enough, work hard enough, be devoted enough. I need my family, my career, my home, my faith, my spirituality to reach a certain level. And if I can do all those things, it minimizes the pain. If I'm good enough, I can minimize this underlying feeling that I'm not. If I work hard enough, I can ignore the pain that comes from failing. If I'm devoted enough, I can feel like I've justified my disobedience.
Perfectionism is our self-made strategy for protection.
This is what Brenè Brown refers to as a “20 ton shield.” We think it’s protecting us but it really just weighs us down. The only thing perfectionism does is hide who we really are. It hides the insecurity. It hides the failure. It hides the struggle. It hides the sin. It doesn’t help.
Ephesians 6:13 describes a different way to protect us. “Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground…” and then it says, “take up the shield of faith.”
Faith believes that the shame that rides shotgun doesn’t get the last word.
Faith believes that the thing we are afraid of doesn’t have the power of us.
Faith believes that the behavior that we are guilty of that it won’t define us.
Faith protects us.
Faith protects us because it clings to perfect not to perfectionism.
Faith protects us because it clings to perfect not to good intentions.
Faith clings to the perfection of Jesus, not our own perfection.
Jesus is perfect where we fail to be. Jesus is perfect because we fail to be. Jesus is perfect because we can't do enough. Jesus is perfect because we will never try hard enough. Jesus is perfect because the bar is raised and we can't measure up. Jesus is perfect because we are not.