“As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive on another. . . . And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Colossians 3:12–14).
It often amazes me that something as seemingly simple as how we define or understand a word can significantly transform our lives. Take the word “sin,” for instance. For a long time, I thought of “sin” primarily in one narrow sense—that of transgression or violation of a certain code of behavior, either by what we do or by what we choose not to do. But it wasn’t until I heard the definition of human sinfulness as the “soul turned inward on oneself” (first coined by Augustine with the Latin phrase incurvatus in se), that I really understood how “sin” played a daily role in my life. Not primarily as a violation of a list of do’s and don’ts, but as a daily decision I—and everyone—makes. It’s a decision whether to respond to life’s vulnerabilities and traumas by turning out, choosing vulnerability and deeper connections with God and others, or by turning in and hardening our hearts, disconnecting from God and others.
The second option, curling up in a fetal position and shutting out the threats of the outside world, often feels safer and more secure, but as way of life it ultimately sickens and destroys us. In C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, Orual describes the second decision, to disconnect, this way: “I locked Orual up or laid her asleep as best I could somewhere deep down inside me; she lay curled there. It was like being with child, but reversed; the thing I carried in me grew slowly smaller and less alive.”
I’ve been trying to reflect on how ways of understanding and defining God’s character can affect our hearts in similar ways. Misunderstandings about who God is almost inevitably deepen our instinctive desire to hide and disconnect our hearts from God and others. Other ways of understanding God’s character have the opposite effect: we find our hearts undone by grace, ready and willing to open up to surrender to love.
For me, one of the words most likely to trigger a misunderstanding of who God is, and a corresponding desire to hide, is the concept of “perfect,” coupled with that terrifying verse to “be perfect, as I am perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Immediately the specter of perfectionism that’s long haunted me comes to the surface, viciously pointing out all the many, many ways I am certainly not “perfect,” and therefore not good enough. And even if I counter that reaction with correct theology about God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ, I’m still left drowning in the “not-good-enough” voices, still left with a sense of God frowning from above in disapproval. And I’m still tempted to hide and disconnect who I really am from God.
But as with the word “sin,” there’s a different way to understand Jesus’ invitation into “perfection,” one that does not make me want to cower and hide. Kathleen Norris writes in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, &lduqo;Perfectionism is one of the scariest words I know.” Modern-day perfectionism she describes as “a serious psychological affliction that makes people to timid to take necessary risks.” But there is a different way to understand the word “perfect” as used in Scripture. In its original language and context in the New Testament, Norris emphasizes, the word perfect isn’t about us attaining a super-human standard of achievement. In fact, a more accurate translation might be mature, complete, or whole. Norris concludes that, for a human being, “To be perfect . . . is to make room for growth. . . . becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others.”
When we broaden our definition of what it means for a person to be “perfect”—whole, complete, and ready to give and receive with open hands—we suddenly are left with a deeper understanding of the heart of Christ. Not as someone urging us to try harder, to do more, and to do it better, but as the one inviting us into surrender, vulnerability, trust, and rest. So in Matthew 19, when Jesus tells a man there is one thing He must yet do to be “perfect,” He was not telling someone that there was just one thing left for him to do to reach a standard of “perfection,” He was pointing out something in the man’s life that had a vise grip on his heart. If he wanted to be whole—open to giving to and receiving from others in God’s kingdom—then this man needed to surrender what was closing off his heart from others.
God is perfect—perfect and pure goodness, wholeness, and love. But when we’re invited into God’s perfection, we’re invited into something vastly different from the assumptions I often make about what it means to be &lduqo;perfect,” assumptions tied to achievement and striving. As Brené Brown points out in The Gifts of Imperfection, perfectionism is a “self-destructive and addictive belief system” fueled by the belief that with “perfect” behavior, we can avoid pain.
But the God we see revealed in Christ is not driven by a quest to avoid pain. The God revealed in Christ is willing to enter into all pain and suffering, that we might finally trust and find wholeness in Him. In Him, we learn that true strength is found in vulnerability and surrender (2 Corinthians 12:10). We can stop hiding and find freedom in the “love that binds [all Christ’s virtues] together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:14), love that’s able to carry us into wholeness and freedom.