Being Perfect While Becoming Perfect
Reading time: 9 minutes
“Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48, NIV). God’s emphasis is on who we are, rather than what we do, and he says “be perfect,” not “do perfectly.” Perfection is one of his attributes and he is the standard for perfection – “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Repentance, changing the way we think, is a key to being perfect. Getting our eyes off ourselves long enough to recognize God and our relative insignificance is an excellent first step. Then being willing to lay aside selfish priorities and accept God’s perspective is an excellent second step.
God’s perspective is perfect; he sees everything exactly as it is and exactly how it affects everything else. He sees the effects of sin – past, present and future. He sees the futility and foolishness of living in sin. He knows that everything associated with or perverted by sin will eventually fail and be destroyed. God sees the “big picture.”
He takes everything into account and in that sense his perspective is complete, entire or full. He rejects anything that would detract from the flawless nature of his kingdom, which eventually will include all of creation. His attitude therefore is undivided, dedicated and unblemished. That is the sense of God’s perfection, and it is the perfection he says we’re to have, too.
God sometimes asks us to do something that’s impossible in our own ability, but everything he says is attainable with his help. Perfection is achievable, it’s our duty, and it’s our hope. We can accept God’s command to be perfect and begin to pursue perfection despite our lack of understanding.
Perfection is relevant to our stage of growth. A parent expects one level of maturity from a two-year-old and a much different level from a twenty-year-old. A toddler’s behavior might be acceptable and even cute, but would be unacceptable from a young adult.
Perfection relates to our spiritual and mental state, not to our actions. Action is the result of perfection, not its definition. Perfection is not strict adherence to a list of commandments, so we can’t attain it through obedience (see Heb. 7:11). Instead, it’s an attitude, a spiritual and mental state constantly focused on God. Who we are determines what we do. We will sin as Christians, but our sinful actions don’t make us sinners. We’re righteous because God declares us so, not because we act a certain way. Our actions are proof of our condition, not the cause.
God demands perfection of his people, which seems impossible and unreasonable if we think like the world. Human nature’s perception is based on human abilities, and godly perfection is humanly impossible. God’s plan, however, requires only our willing cooperation; he performs the actual work. As Jesus said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Elsewhere, Jesus said, “Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23), so our faith makes perfection possible. Our responsibility is to accept the work of God and change the way we think.
A young child helping his father does imperfect work. It may even require greater effort for the father to train him, demonstrate correct methods, correct the problems he creates, and clean up his mess. But the father is (or should be) grateful for his child’s commitment to him and his desire to learn and help. The child may serve with a perfect heart, but cannot do perfect work. Likewise, we must focus on developing a perfect heart through repentance.
As we saw earlier, Jesus said we’re to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Our heavenly Father is the only legitimate standard of perfection, though our human tendency is to compare ourselves with other people. We can always find someone who is worse than we are in some way and we can use them to justify our imperfection and feel good about ourselves. Biblical perfection, however, is absolute, not relative. The only standard for comparison is the absolute perfection of God himself. This destroys any hope of achieving perfection by any human effort. On the other hand, it creates confidence that God does the work so we don’t have to.
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:43-48)
The word “therefore” in the last sentence shows this command is a conclusion or summary of the previous sentences: love those who hate you, and cause good to happen to both good and evil people. God’s perfection expresses itself in his love and causes him to bless everyone. Again, by human effort this is impossible. As God’s children, however, we have his Spirit within us, and the Holy Spirit provides what we need to become perfect.
Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9). Think about it: Jesus, the Son of God who never disobeyed or sinned, learned obedience and became perfect. This same Jesus described himself as the visible, physical representation of God, and tells us to be perfect as God is perfect. This verse also identifies a relationship between suffering, obedience and perfection. Learning obedience through suffering is a vital step toward our perfection, as it was for Jesus.
Suffering, itself, doesn’t produce perfection, however. Scripture is clear that it is God who does the perfecting. As always, we cooperate with God, and he produces the results. Our willingness and obedience make it possible for him to perform his work in us.
The question naturally arises, What kind of suffering makes me perfect? Jesus suffered persecution, so that contributed to his perfection, but he suffered in other ways, too. While it appears he lived without material possessions, it may be that was part of his commitment to perfection. As the Son of God, maybe the ultimate way for him to attain perfection was giving up everything he was and possessed to become a human. He became a perfect sacrifice for every sin, which suggests he had to face and overcome each of them. In fact, Hebrews 4:15 states, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.”
The specific commitment required for perfection may be unique to each person, just as their salvation experience is unique to who they are. Jesus challenged a rich young man to give away his wealth to be perfect (Matt. 19:21). If poverty were a universal virtue, however, why did Jesus teach that we should help the poor and provide for their needs? Should we instead try to become impoverished like them and not violate their piety by meeting their needs? Of course, that’s not the case.
Jesus required his closest disciples to give up their former occupations and dedicate themselves to full-time ministry. He didn’t require that of all his followers, however. God asks total commitment from all of us, but our expression of that commitment will be as unique as the character he gave us and his plans for us.
Perfection is both progressive and revealing. The more we become like Jesus and examine ourselves in light of Scripture, the more we see our imperfections. Don’t get discouraged, though, because God is fully aware of our faults and has chosen to substitute Jesus’ perfection for our imperfection while we become perfect. It’s still a shock to have our imperfections revealed, because as a sinner we learned to cover them up, justify them, ignore them, or even consider them assets.
Perfection in our relationship with God makes everything else – possessions, achievements, status – comparatively worthless. We should be willing to discard everything mankind considers valuable, so we can focus on and be perfectly minded about everything God considers important.
- Identify a specific attitude you have that prevents you from becoming perfect.
- In what ways does that attitude cause you to be “double-minded,” a part of God’s kingdom but in conflict with kingdom goals and principles?
- List several ways you can change your thinking to overcome that attitude.
- David was a man after God’s own heart; when he sinned, he immediately turned to God for forgiveness and reconciliation.
- What practical steps can you take to develop a similar attitude?
- What sinful ways of thinking will oppose your efforts to turn to God, and what can you do when that happens?
- Paul wrote, “whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:7).
- How does maturing change your priorities and attitudes?
- Identify some priorities you used to have as a new Christian that you now realize are not important.
- Which of your priorities do you need to change because they’re incompatible with God’s?
Perfection relates to our spiritual and mental state, not to our actions. Action is the result of perfection, not its definition.