Hi, John! How are you? We are all well, thanks to God. I wanted to ask you about perfectionism. On the one hand the Bible many times calls us to be perfect: there are many direct passages about aspiration to the perfection: ” Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect etc. On the other hand – perfectionism is a bad thing that spoils life. Perfectionism does not let us be happy with our situation and does not allow us to be satisfied with what we have or are etc. Perfectionism forces us to set unrealistic goals or too high standards. Question: How to better align these two things to strive for excellence, but not become a perfectionist? In many sermons we encourage people to perfection. But we can always be unhappy, because never reach it. Do I understand correctly that the answer is contained in Christ? We can never become perfect by ourselves, only because of Him? This is how we should understand the phrase, ” be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect? Can you help me put things in order in this thinking? Many thanks in advance! I just often preach in the Church, I want to correctly convey this subject with one hand and not leave people with unrealistic expectations on the other – to help people to strive for excellence, about whom the Bible speaks
The Greek word most commonly translated as “perfect” is teleon or teleos, depending on where it shows up in a sentence. This word have a significantly different meaning from the English word perfect. The English word perfect means without flaw or error. The Greek word teleon means mature, complete or “perfect.” When Jesus told us to “be perfect as our Father is perfect” he is giving us a goal to strive to be as mature and complete in our Christ-likeness as we possibly can. A lot of times when you see the word perfect in the New Testament, if you substitute mature or complete for the word, or assume a sort of compromise between the English word perfect and one of the other two English words, then you will get a sense of the passage. Matthew 5:48, when Jesus sets us the goal of being teleon is not the best illustration of this. A better example is Colossians 1:28 in which Paul says that he puts all his energy into presenting all the disciples perfect in Christ. Here, probably complete or mature would be a better translation. By the way, sometimes perfect means perfect (in the English sense). For example, James 1:25 talks about the perfect law, which means without mistake or flaw–the normal English sense of perfect.
About perfectionism, this is not a word in the Greek and it is a bit questionable that they even had the concept of perfectionism. Perhaps the closest in the New Testament to perfectionism is legalism. However, legalism is not exactly the same as perfectionism. We will have to attack the question of perfectionism using Bible principles rather than a definite statement on the subject. What we need is a definition for perfectionism, which you do not supply. Let me give my own definition of perfectionism. It is an grossly exaggerated expectation of a person, either on themselves or on others, that they live life free of sin or mistakes. If I use this definition then, by definition, perfectionism is bad. However, we should be careful about using a definition to decide an issue. One person’s definition of perfectionism may not be the same as another’s definition. Therefore, if we are going to ask about the “evils” of perfectionism, we should be really cautious about making sure that all are using the same definition. I guess I am a bit of a perfectionist about the definition of perfectionism. See…. Even as I use the word, I am NOT using it the way it was defined above.
Let us go back to using my definition from above. By this definition, perfection is applying an unreasonable and unhelpful definition of what it means to be OK. To be OK for a Christian means to be saved by the blood of Jesus and to live a life which is very strongly affected by love and gratitude for that salvation and grace. To be OK implies striving for maturity and being complete in Christ, but it does not involve feeling guilty and inadequate because we fall short of perfection. A perfectionist, by the definition above, cannot live with the kind of satisfaction and feeling of being OK that God wants us to have. Even worse is to apply perfectionist standards to others. This will bring up issues related to Luke 6:41-42 every time (the plank in your own eye illustration of Jesus).
I believe that your idea on this is correct already. In Christ we already are perfect because the blood of Christ makes us as if we are perfect (1 John 1:5-7), so striving to be perfect is crazy. It is like striving to be six feet tall when we are already six feet tall. Surely, this is a waste of time. However, as a follower of Christ, we should be motivated by grace (Titus 2:11) toward being mature (perfect) in Christ. Bible teachers should be sensitive when they teach disciples about the goal of perfection in Christ. Many mature Christians already understand the distinction between maturity in Christ and the expectation to be literally perfect by our own effort. However, many Christians are inherently perfectionistic by nature. These church members need to be reminded every time we talk about the goal of perfection that the Greek idea of perfection is maturity or completeness.
I hope this helps, but it seems you already pretty much have this down.