There are two classical concepts of perfection, one Greek and the other Hebrew. In the Greek ideal, to be perfect is to have no deficiencies, no faults, no flaws. Perfection, to the Greek mind, means to measure up to some ideal standard, to be completely whole, true, good, and beautiful. To be perfect then is never to sin. The Hebrew ideal of perfection is quite different. In this mindset, to be perfect simply means to walk with God, despite our flaws. Perfection here means being in the divine presence, in spite of the fact that we are not perfectly whole, good, true, and beautiful.
Our concept of holiness in the West has been, both for good and bad, very much shaped by the Greek ideal of perfection. Hence, holiness has been understood very much as a question of measuring up to a certain benchmark. In such a view of things, a view many of us were raised in, sanctity is understood very much as achieving and maintaining something, namely, moral goodness and moral integrity.
Such a view is not without its merits. It is a perpetual challenge against mediocrity, laziness, giving in to the line of least resistance, and settling for what is second-best. Such a view of perfection (and the spirituality it engenders) keeps the ideal squarely in view. The flag is always held high, ahead of us, beckoning us, calling us beyond the limits of our present tiredness and mediocrity. We are always invited to something higher. This can be very healthy, especially in culture that is cynical and despairing of ideals.
But such a concept of perfection also has a nasty underside. Nobody measures up. As John Shea so graphically puts it: “Nobody does God very well!” In the end, we all fall short and this leads a whole series of spiritual pitfalls: First of all, we beat ourselves up with the false expectation that we that can somehow, all on our own, through sheer willpower, fix all that is wrong with us. Willpower, as we now know, is powerless in the face of our addictions. Because we don’t recognize this, we often grow discouraged and simply quit trying to break some bad habit. Why try when the result is always the same? The temptation then is to do what we in fact so often do, namely, split-off holiness and project it onto to a “Mother Theresa” and let her carry this for us (since we are unable to do so). Worse still, when perfection means measuring up, we find it hard to forgive ourselves and others for not being God. When the dominant idea of holiness is something that only God can measure up to it is not easy to give others, or ourselves, permission to be human. We carry around a lot of discouragement, guilt, and lack of forgiveness because of this.
Hence, despite the positives that are contained in the Greek concept of perfection, we might well profit from incorporating into our lives more of the Hebrew ideal. Perfection here means walking with God, despite imperfection. How precisely do we do this?
The gospels abound with examples, but let me offer just one: The account of the rich young man who comes to Jesus seeking life ends with an interesting exchange between Jesus and the disciples. The young man has just rejected Jesus’ offer and, as the text so poignantly puts it, has gone “away sad.” Jesus then turns to his followers and says: “I tell you truly that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Luke’s gospel then tells us that the disciples were stunned (literally). They understood clearly what Jesus was saying and they understood just as clearly that they were not capable of ever doing what was just asked. In simple terms, they understood then and there that they would never measure up. Peter gave voice to this consternation: “If that is the case, none of us will go to heaven!” This is one of the few times in the gospels that the apostles actually got things right. They expressed their helplessness, their inability to ever measure up, (“We aren’t capable of doing this!”) to Jesus and he was pleased with that: “For you, these things are impossible, but everything is possible for God.”
We, all on our own, can never measure up. We can never be perfect in the Greek sense. But that is not what God is asking of us. What God is asking is that we bring our helplessness, weaknesses, imperfections, and sin constantly to him, that we walk with him, and that we never hide from him. God is like a good parent. He understands that we will make mistakes and disappoint him and ourselves. What he asks simply is that we come home, that we share our lives with him, that we let him help us in those ways within which we are powerless to help ourselves.