Realist artists paint life with blemishes, wrinkles, and scars. Idealists paint a subject as they imagine it could be. Both are important. Ideals give us direction. Realism gives us traction.
However, without wisdom, both have their downsides. Realism can cost us our dreams. Idealism can consume our days in a futile search for perfection.
We need wisdom to see how idealism and realism relate to each other, especially in matters of faith. The Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of a wisdom that ends up showing us how much He loves us (proverbs 9:10; 1 john 4:18-19) and acknowledges that God is good enough to inspire us with His ideals, merciful enough to accept us as we are, and too loving to leave us as He finds us.
The idealism of the Bible. In a perfect world, we would live forever. That’s how the drama of the Bible opens and closes. Everything is good—paradise at the beginning and paradise at the end.
Someday weapons of war will be recycled into garden tools (isaiah 2:4), and lambs will eat safely beside wolves (65:25). The apostle John wrote, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (revelation 21:4).
Yet, the idealism of the Bible is not just about the future. It calls us to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It emphasizes the moral rule of “love,” and the virtues of “joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (galatians 5:22-23).
No one consistently lives up to such ideals. How can we relate to a God who removed the first man and woman from their garden paradise after doing nothing more than eating a piece of fruit He had warned them about? How could we ever feel safe with a Creator who imposed pain and death on our world for what appears to be a minor breach of trust? (genesis 3:16-19).
The realism of the Rabbis. One answer comes from first-century Judaism. Some rabbis taught that if we keep just one law because God commanded it, it is as if we have kept the whole law.
At first look, this approach sounds like a great solution. We all know that none of us can keep all of the law all of the time. Maybe we can keep some rules some of the time, or at least one rule one time.
But would any wise teacher of the law really mean that as long as you don’t kill your neighbors it’s okay to steal from them? We must be missing something. They must have been talking about keeping one law in such a way as to honor the rest.
The realism of James. Whatever the rabbis meant when they took a “one for all” approach to the law, another teacher expressed our accountability to God differently: “Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (james 2:10). And the rest of James’ letter shows a wisdom that is realistic about the ideals of God. When James presses the logic of law, he is pushing people who have already been forgiven to remember the principle of love that is at the heart of every law of God (2:12-13).
James was writing as a follower of Christ (1:1) whose faith in Christ compelled him to pursue the ideal of loving his neighbor, because he had received the forgiveness and mercy of God (2:8). In down-to-earth ways, he urged those who had accepted Christ to reflect His heart (1:26-2:8).
James was writing to people who were being persecuted for believing in Christ. He knew they needed wisdom to demonstrate their faith while they were being battered by all kinds of troubles and temptations. So he wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (james 1:5).
The wisdom James offered was the insight that God Himself wanted to give His people so they could reflect Jesus in the most realistic of conditions.
The realism of Jesus. In contrast with religious leaders who condemned and separated themselves from those they regarded as morally inferior, Jesus was a friend of sinners. Luke took note of the way Jesus linked these friendships with wisdom. He quoted Christ as saying, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by all her children” (luke 7:34-35).
If Jesus had avoided and condemned those who needed Him, He would not be remembered and loved for His life-changing wisdom.
Instead of condemning people caught in self-destruction, Jesus was kind to them. He reached out to people others avoided. He touched lepers, respected women, and loved children.
Jesus personified the wisdom of God. By His example and teaching, He brought together inspiring idealism with rugged realism. Nowhere do we find a clearer picture of what it means to be faithful to the highest principles while offering mercy to the most broken people.
When Jesus pressed the self-righteous with the logic of their moral idealism, He did so to lovingly humble them (matthew 5:20-48). When He offered mercy instead of morality, He did so to show that He had come not to condemn but to rescue (john 3:17; 12:47).