We’ve heard the stories so often, and every time with the same ending: tempted by Satan. Resists; does not sin. Tempted by people. Resists; does not sin. Lives in the muck and the dregs and the filth of this world. Doesn’t turn away – and doesn’t compromise. It seems inevitable for Jesus to have been perfect, as though there was no choice. But there was; Jesus wasn’t mounted on “perfect tracks” that made sin impossible. He walked with his feet, one step at a time, because that’s what it means to be human.
At any step, any turn, any breath, He could have said, “Enough. I’m done,” and gone back to heaven. Which would have meant saying no to His earthly calling. Imagine having at your fingertips the power that could take the breath out of every living thing in the blink of an eye. Imagine being able, if you wanted, to snap your fingers and make all your problems go away. Imagine what it must have cost just to keep inside that stifling human body. Philip Yancey compared Jesus’ loss in taking on a human body to the loss we’d have if we turned willingly and awarely into a sea slug. Only infinitely greater.
A pastor once asked a group of students what there was that stood between us and perfection, given the fact that Jesus has completely redeemed us and we are now new creations. The answer he finally got is, “Well, um … nothing, I guess.” Then he said, “But you’re not living perfectly. And why not? You could be.” And he urged us to claim perfection on an everyday basis. When I told my dad this, he said that’s dangerous theology; there was a leader in the Nazarene denomination that believed in earthly perfection, and also that he had attained it. He ended up in an insane asylum. Apparently, he’s not the only one whose belief in his own perfection landed him in a mental institution.
Still, though, is there an argument against the possibility of perfection? As believers, we are fully redeemed by God. Nothing anywhere is stronger than God. We’ve chosen to follow God. So there’s really nothing strong enough anywhere to stand in the way of my living in perfect communion with God, and as a result, never messing up. Sure I still have free will, but it seems that if sin is inevitable, then there’s a big glitch in redemption. And if sin isn’t inevitable, then technically, there’s a way of living perfectly. But I don’t.
It’s a mental circle fit to make a person dizzy. But something feels wrong about the whole thing. It’s like flooring the gas with the car in neutral, and complaining about not getting anywhere. Maybe, if we saw more clearly what perfection is, we wouldn’t waste time arguing about whether and when we’ll achieve it: maybe we’re looking for perfection in the wrong place entirely. God called David a man after His own heart, and David missed very few of the Really Big Sins – there’s murder. Before that: adultery, cheating, lies and misuse of power. Why is David so big in the Bible? If we go bonkers for God enough to dance naked, will God give us carte blanche to commit any sin on the list?
The trouble is, we’re so mixed up we don’t even know what things are big and little. The point values we assign are all wrong. But more than that, the assigning of points is wrong to begin with. When we assign point values and rate sins, we are showing that we misunderstand the nature of sin at its most basic level. Sin is not something you can count and add and subtract. It’s much more like cancer than a list. We’re sick inside; something awful has gotten into the fibers of the way we are, and it’s spreading. This is our problem. And the solution is about healing, not about tabulating. You can keep tabs on every vital sign and still leukemia may come out of remission ten years from now; and when it does, no list will save you.
It is not primarily that we need to stop doing bad things or start doing good things. Mostly what we need is to be different— in the deepest core of ourselves to be made of something other than we are. And there is nothing we can do to remake ourselves. But we can let ourselves be remade. God still has the blueprints for humanity and God has not forgotten what we were intended to be like. And if we say yes, then right now, God will start replacing our insides, exchanging our darkness for light. Sometimes it happens in huge flashes like the one Paul saw on his way to persecute Christians in Damascus. Sometimes it is slow, like restoring a painting. Always it is real. And always it is God; we can’t change our deep-down wrongness any more than we can change the basic makeup of our cells. We can only hold still.
Real perfection has nothing to do with score keeping. It has to do with joyous, overflowing, un(self)conscious love. We are called to be brokenhearted when we fail. But not because of our righteousness tabs or our reputation with the angels: when love fails, hate wins, and something dies. That is the point. To wake up alive in the morning and give our hearts and hands not to killing things but to helping them grow, helping them heal. Claiming perfection can feel like a vise clamping down. When it does, it’s Satan speaking lies of lists and formulas. Don’t listen then. Just live. But sometimes, claiming perfection is like the sky opening, and God’s voice coming down to say, “This one is mine. And I will not give up until I’ve made her whole.” On those days, claiming perfection means getting permission to soar on wings as eagles. On those days, do not fear tomorrow’s traps. Just go fly.[Stephanie Gehring is a 23-year-old self-employed portrait artist, high school math tutor and freelance writer. She spent the first 16 years of her life in Germany and lives in Portland, Ore.]