Updated: Mar 24, 2020
In my last two posts on the Perfection Paradox, we examined in detail the three primary assumptions that undergird much of the evangelical Christian argument for why Jesus is a necessity for our lives. Those assumptions are as follows:
Although the critiques I have leveled against these assumptions might seem superfluous to some, the consequences of these inaccuracies are far-reaching in their effects. If the three assumptions I have systematically deconstructed are wrong, then the influence of perfection has distorted the Christian faith on every level. In this final post on this topic, we are going to explore three areas of distortion:
The Behavioral: What are the moral obligations of being Christian?
The Motivational: What is the end-goal of the Christian faith?
The Foundational: What is the fundamental message of the Christian religion?
By examining each of these areas, my hope is you will come to appreciate why the introduction of perfection into the Christian faith is paradoxical. As you will see, this is more than just an exercise in the theoretical. Similar to an infection from a wound, if we don’t root out these inaccuracies, then it will continue to spread and eventually lead to the demise of Christianity.
As was discussed in Assumption 2, there is a common belief in the Christian faith that God expects humans to be perfect. I’ve already provided the biblical/theological rationale for why this is wrong, but we have not discussed the practical ramifications of this belief. In truth, you’re living with them all the time.
Throughout human history, every society has developed their picture of the perfect person. For example, the Chinese philosopher Confucius who lived from 551–479 B.C.E. was educated at a school for commoners where he studied the Six Arts. The six arts are 1) Rites 2) Music 3) Archery 4) Charioteering 5) Calligraphy and 6) Mathematics. At the time, it was believed that the men who excelled in these six arts were thought to have reached a state of perfection, which was why Confucius became a man of great repute.
This idea parallels the Western concept of the Renaissance man or polymath, which is someone who has mastered, and is considered an expert in, several diverse disciplines. Leonardo da Vinci is the most famous example of a polymath as he excelled at painting, science, engineering and mathematics. In this way, the genius of mastering cross-disciplinary studies was associated with perfection. In Assumption 3 of the Perfection Paradox, we discussed how the Jewish Pharisees of the first century believed that if you followed all of the laws of the Old Testament perfectly, you could reach a state of perfection. The point being, every society has their perspective on the path you need to follow to become the best kind of person.
American society is one of the most fascinating in this regard because American colonialism was driven by a desire for religious freedom. As a result, the foundation of our society was formed by the values and mores of Christian settlers. Although, there were a variety of Protestant Christians making their way to the new world, the version that dominated American colonialism were Calvinist Protestants.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Calvinist worldview is that God is in control of everything, including our salvation. God is the one who determines whether you go to heaven or hell. Those who are allowed into heaven are known as God’s elect. The problem is that no one can ever truly know if they are elect or not. John Calvin said that there are only two hints as to whether or not you might be one of God’s elect: 1) if you have a strong faith in Jesus and 2) if you are financially successful. The emphasis on financial success was because God’s chosen people in the Bible, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, tended to be materially wealthy.
Since financial success was critical to a person’s sense of salvation, Calvinists were the driving force behind the American adoption of capitalism. Thus, the American version of perfection is heavily influenced by Calvin’s definition of the elect. One not only needs to possess the outward trappings of success, but also outwards signs of a deep and committed faith. Thus, you need to succeed in every conceivable area of your life:
You need to be highly regarded in your church as a man/woman of God.
You need to be ethical and moral.
You need to be financially successful.
You need to be intelligent.
You need to be happily married.
You need to have beautiful, smart and respectful children and grandchildren.
The more you embody these qualities, the more you fit the definition of the elect. Indeed, the more you embody these qualities, the more you know that God has blessed you because you are one of God’s chosen people. In other words, success is a reflection of obedience. The Calvinists believed that success is directly correlated to the reward God is bestowing upon you for your obedience. The greater your obedience, the greater your success, all of which is a reflection upon your perfection. The opening chapters of Job reinforce this perspective:
There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. – Job 1:1-3
Clearly, Job is rewarded by God with material and familial success for his obedience. This story promotes a simple logic: the closer you are to perfection, the greater your reward. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true. One’s lack of success is a testament to disobedience. When Job loses his family and fortune, Job’s friends view his circumstances as an indication that God is passing judgment on Job for wrongdoing. Therefore, if you buy into this type of theology, there is incredible pressure for Christians to live a “perfect” life.
Of course, what this means is that we are being setup for failure. Indeed, the expectations of Christian perfection have seeped into every aspect our modern society. We are constantly bombarded by images of who we should and should not be. Every day the average person is exposed to thousands of advertisements and these advertisements not only sell us products, but they sell us ideals of beauty, success and happiness. They convey to us what a successful life looks like. Indeed, they’re selling us Job’s life on steroids.
We all know the standards of beauty and success created by advertising are impossible for us to achieve and we are left feeling inadequate. You need to have the perfect body so you can marry the perfect person so you can have the perfect family who wear the perfect clothes and live in the perfect house that is all paid for by the perfect job. And you need to make all of this look effortless.
Sadly, our society is simply mirroring the messaging of the church, which tells us that we are not good enough as we are and that we need more to be complete. Paradoxically, Jesus’ original message to his followers was the exact opposite. Jesus spent a great deal of time with people who were considered far from perfect—prostitutes, tax collectors and lepers.
These were the outcasts of society and his message to them as marginalized people is that God accepts you just as you are. Jesus never tells them that they have to be perfect. Far from it. Jesus understands that they simply need to be loved, accepted and forgiven. Furthermore, Jesus has stern words for the uber-religious who pass judgment on “sinners” (Mt. 23:27-28; Mk. 2:13-17; Lk. 7:36-15; 18:9-14). For Jesus, the expectation of grace is far more powerful than the expectation of perfection. Besides, why would anyone want to be part of a community that tells them they are constantly lacking? And yet, this is the message being projected by the church all the time, which is why people are leaving in droves.
In Assumption 1 and Assumption 3, we discussed how Christians apply perfection to God and Jesus. Both assumptions are inaccurate. Rather than being omnibenevolent (all-good), the Hebrew God is held responsible for the good and evil we experience in the world. Indeed, God’s being contains both good and evil. Likewise, if Jesus’ moral compass was so finely honed from his birth that he never made a mistake, then he could never truly claim to understand what it means to be human. To be human is to err.
What we have yet to discuss is how these two assumptions distort the end-goal of the Christian faith. They create what is known as an inverse relationship. The more Jesus and God become perfect, the more the Christian faith focuses on afterlife. Conversely, the more Jesus and God are seen as imperfect, the more the Christian faith focuses on this life. Let’s explore the differences.
As we discussed in Assumption 3, the reason why Christians often promote Jesus’ perfection is because of the perceived need for him to be the perfect sacrifice so that we can be forgiven of our sins. However, there are other unintended consequences that adjoin this belief. When Christians hold up Jesus as having lived a perfect life, it changes how Christians approach Jesus’ teachings. If Jesus is perfect, then his teachings are also painted with the brush of perfection.
A Christian, by definition, is someone who models their life after Jesus’ life. We do this by living according to Jesus’ actions and teachings. When we view Jesus through the lens of perfection, he sets the bar for our behavior beyond what any of us can reach. In other words, if Jesus is perfect, so are the expectations of his teachings, which makes them unattainable. If only a perfect person can follow Jesus’ teachings, then why should we even try?
It quickly becomes pointless for us to take Jesus’ teachings seriously because there is no way we can ever truly integrate them into our lives. This perspective has several consequences. The first is that we can never truly be like Jesus, which means his way of life is beyond our grasp. The second is that we cannot contribute to Jesus’ primary purpose—the creation of God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus declares this goal at the beginning of Mark’s gospel:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” – Mark 1:15
God’s kingdom is a place where every human has food to eat, clothes to wear, a home in which to live and medical treatment for their illnesses. In essence, God’s kingdom is a place where no one is forgotten. There are two ways God’s kingdom will be created. Either we have to wait for Jesus to return from heaven to create God’s kingdom or Jesus expects his followers to create God’s kingdom on earth in the present. If the former is true, then we are simply preparing ourselves for Jesus’ second-coming. If the latter is accurate, then we become Jesus’ hands and feet in the world.
Interestingly, your perspective on Jesus’ perfection will determine which road you choose to follow. If you think Jesus is perfect, then we cannot be like Jesus and, therefore, lack the ability to create God’s kingdom on earth. Hence, you will be waiting for Jesus to return because we are incapable of completing the task. Likewise, if you lower the bar and Jesus becomes imperfect, then we have the capacity to become like Jesus. We can follow his teachings, live the life that he lived and accomplish the task of creating God’s kingdom on earth.
These are two very different kinds of Christianity with two very different kinds of motivation. If you can’t be like Jesus because he is too perfect to emulate, then you follow Jesus so that you can be forgiven. Since you can’t change the present world because you are far too sinful, the point of this forgiveness is to provide your soul with access to heaven when you die. While you’re waiting for Jesus to return to establish God’s kingdom, you preach the Christian message to get other people to believe in Jesus so their souls will go to heaven when they die. In this way, the Christianity of Perfection is inevitably focused on the afterlife rather than this life.
On the other hand, if Jesus is not perfect and you can become like him, then you follow Jesus because you can live out his teachings. Through those teachings, you can have a measurable, positive impact on the world. Because you’re not waiting for Jesus to return to establish God’s kingdom, the responsibility lies on your shoulders to serve the least and the lost. While you serve your community, you preach the Christian message to get other people to believe in Jesus so they can become the best versions of themselves and help shoulder the responsibility of contributing to the creation of God’s kingdom. In this way, the Christianity of Possibility is inevitably focused on this life rather than the next.
If we were to boil it down, the difference between the Christianity of Possibility and the Christianity of Perfection is simple: One says this world is worth saving, while the other says all that matters is saving your soul. Personally, I believe this world is worth saving, which is why I choose to follow and preach the Christianity of Possibility.
Amidst everything we have discussed in the Perfection Paradox, we’ve left the most significant issue until last. More than anything else, the introduction of perfection skews the fundamental message of the Christian religion. Together, all three of the assumptions we’ve discussed in posts 2 and 3 create the basis of a false narrative.
Many Christians assume that since God and Jesus are perfect, Christianity is a religion created on a foundation of perfection. This idea is reinforced by the belief that God expected humans to be perfect and that Jesus has to make-up for our imperfections. Indeed, Jesus’ sacrifice purifies us from our sins and makes us perfect. Everything in Christianity would seem to reinforce the notion that perfection is the goal, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Christianity is not built upon a foundation of perfection. In fact, Christianity is built upon a foundation of failure. This is most evident in Jesus’ messiahship. The entire purpose of the messiah was to rise to power, become the new King of Israel, form an army, defeat the foreign oppressors and reestablish Israel as an independent sovereign nation. And yet, in the gospels, Jesus achieves absolutely none of those things.
Jesus does not rise to power. He does not form an army. He does not fight the foreign oppressors. The exact opposite occurs. Jesus is arrested by Rome. He’s placed on trial before Pontius Pilate. He offers no defense of his actions. He’s convicted of treason and executed. None of that was supposed to happen. From the perspective of his disciples, Jesus’ messiahship was a total and complete failure.
Jesus’ failure is so pervasive in the early Christian movement that Paul addresses it in the first chapter of his letter to the church in Corinth when he says, “…but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…” (1Co. 1:23) The idea that a failed messiah, a man who was executed for treason, could successfully bring hope, joy and love to our lives doesn’t make any sense on the surface, and yet, this is the reality for those who follow Jesus. Indeed, this notion that failure leads to fulfillment is one of the most beautiful aspects of the Christian faith.
Jesus is the ultimate example of failure and it has always resonated with me that failure is the best path towards a life worth living. Jesus demonstrates to us in the story of his death and resurrection that when you are willing to fail, you open the door to a new and better life for yourself. In my experience, those who lead the most fulfilling lives are also those who are not afraid to fail.
Therefore, if Christianity is a religion of failure, should the church not be a place where people are encouraged to bring their failures? Instead, most churches perpetuate the myth of perfection, which means that everyone who walks through their doors is forced to pretend that their lives are flawless. We dress in our Sunday best, smile like everything is fine and hope no one notices the cracks in our façade. But shouldn’t the opposite be true? Isn’t the whole point of walking into a church to become exactly like Jesus? Doesn’t that mean that we need to fail like Jesus?
I would think the first order of business for any Christian would be to acknowledge all of your failures, faults and flaws. You lay it all out there, not because you’re falling short of perfection, but because your failure is what opens you to that hard and difficult road of being transformed into an entirely new person. Jesus teaches us that, as you learn from your mistakes, you discern a new way forward, which leads you to become resurrected into that person who God intended you to be. Jesus doesn’t want perfect people. He’s looking for failure. As Jesus said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2Co. 12:9)
If Christianity is to survive in the 21st century, then we need to root out the Perfection Paradox. The Behavioral, Motivational and Foundational impacts of perfection are all major reasons why our churches are being drained of potential members. If we continue to reinforce the traditional Christian message of perfection, then people will rightfully run in the other direction. In this way, I want to offer my revision to those three assumptions that began the Perfection Paradox:
God is not perfect. God is responsible for good and evil.
God does not expect humans to be perfect. Failure is part of how we grow as humans.
God does not need Jesus to be perfect. In fact, Jesus’ imperfection means we can be like him, which enables us to create God’s kingdom on earth.
If we begin with these three assumptions, it changes the Christian story quite substantially. No longer is the point of being Christian to gain access to heaven. Instead, the point of Christianity is to embrace a message of anti-perfection. The person who you are is enough. The goal of the Christian faith is not to be morally flawless, but to be the best version of yourself.
In this version of Christianity, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. We are all unique and bring different gifts to the table. The church needs to be an environment not of judgment, but of nurture to bring out those gifts for the benefit of creating God’s kingdom. Can you imagine the kind of difference that kind of Christianity could make in the world? What if 2.2 billion Christians were focusing their gifts on creating God’s kingdom? That’s the kind of Christianity I believe in and that’s the world I’m trying to create. Won’t you join me?