Perfected in Grace
“Billy, if you want everything to go perfect in life, you just need to be perfect.”
These words came from my parents when I was a little boy and have been pretty much engraved on the tablets of my heart ever since.
Not surprisingly, as I entered life, the whole idea of “being perfect” became somewhat of an obsession for me. In elementary school it became the all-authoritative internal barometer on whether life went good or bad. For example, if I hadn’t been invited to Stuart Lockrows' sleepover with all the rest of the kids on the block, or when my father seemed distant or aloof when I wanted to play in the treehouse with the fireman’s pole and the tarzan swing we built, or when I lost the key to my bicycle lock that day and had to carry that darn thing all the way home from school in the pouring rain, or when I just couldn’t take it any more and wound up picking the chickenpox scab in the middle of my forehead and my mom said the scar would be with me forever (which it has), or when my speeding slot car went flying off the tracks and hit Bully Butts smack-dab in the middle of his forehead … it was all because of my inability to be perfect.
I must be doing something wrong, I’d think.
Conversely, when I was invited to go with Michael Hardcastle in the fifth grade and slalom-skied past a pod of porpoises playing in the rainbow spray, or when I landed my first job in coolest place in the world — a toy department at a local department store in the tenth grade, or when I got barreled inside the blue room on a glassy six foot wave and roller coastered off the lip with five seconds of hang time as a college student… it was all because of my ability to be perfect.
I must be doing something right, I’d think. And I need to keep doing more of that.
Yet as I matured, and upon deeper reflection, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the thing. Sometimes when I was "perfect," bad stuff happened. Other times, when I wasn’t "perfect," good things happened. It was all very confusing.
Then I became aware of a holy, righteous, and ominously undefinable Being of celestial energy that ruled the cosmos with a simple swath of his long white beard.
Oh my! Everything got kicked up a notch. How can I ever be perfect enough to please this?
I put on the greatest performance of my life. It was show time! I got my top hat, tuxedo, white gloves, cane and the works and slid across the worldly stage with a dazzling pizazz. I jumped in with both feet, reading mystical books, striving to be in the “here and now,” going out of my way being kind to others, thinking nothing but good thoughts, and staying sexually pure.
I doubt he was impressed.
It was hopeless. Nothing worked. I still came home at the end of the day exhausted from trying to leverage the system in my direction, the words of the Apostle Paul ringing true time and time again: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans (18b-19)
One day someone told me that I needed to give myself to Jesus. “Only then will you have the power to be perfect and pleasing in God’s sight,” they said.
Wonderful, I thought. That’s the key! If I give myself to Jesus I will get the power to be perfect and everything will go well with my life.
It never happened.
Shortly thereafter I found myself wondering if my motivation for coming to Christ had little to do with him and everything to do with me. I mean, did I come to Christ so I could then have the power to be perfect to please him, or did I come to him out of my need for a Saviour? Was my motivation for coming to Christ about me getting God in my back pocket, or was it about bending to his desire to get me into his heart?
We’ve all been there. We say stuff like, “I can’t do life like I know I should. My life is rotten because of my inability to perform. Perhaps if I had the power of God on my side I will finally be successful, get married, land that perfect job, or get pregnant.”
And so it goes. Sadly, under those misguided presuppositions, Jesus turns into nothing more than a personal self-improvement program.
To be clear, that’s not what grace is about. Christ doesn't offer residency in us so we’d have the power to overcome some speed bump, keep the OT Law, or fulfill some inner vow of perfection given to us by a well-intended authority figure, as in my case. His number one priority has little to do with “getting us right” and everything to do with his relentless desire for relationship. For him, it’s all about relationship. Jesus died to restore us with the Father, to re-flock us to Eden, to clothe us with robes, rings, and other yet-to-be-seen accolades of his good pleasure.
This ain't no self improvement program. This is family.
And — while true — Jesus does tell us the we need to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), this desire stems from a heart of gratitude perfected in grace, not an external law seeking divine approval.
There is nothing wrong with one’s eagerness to “rise to the occasion,” yet it when we have the priorities straight, this then remains a work of joy, not obligation. Our obedience to God’s sacred standard is at it’s best performed within the context of relational sainthood, walking in the light of Christ, intertwined within the life, death, resurrection, and ongoing participation of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus.
“Not that I have already obtained all this.” As Paul writes, “Or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
Today when I see that same curse of perfection in those I love — that yearning-churning self-made never-ending performance-based letter-of-the-law type of existence wherein the sun rises or falls based on one’s exterior performance and immovable resolute to religiously keep some deeply imbedded internal vow — I smile. We’ve all been there. A simple prayer, a loving glance, a graceful response melts even the most confident stage presence into a puddle of the Fathers relentless, unconditional love.
And, "I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:18)