Being Perfect While Becoming Perfect
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“Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48, NIV). God’s emphasis is on what you are, rather than what you do. For example, the word “repent” means to change the way you think, rather than change your actions. Why? Because who you are determines what you do; your attitude governs your actions. Matthew 5:48 says to be perfect, not do perfectly.
In Matthew 19:21 Jesus told a rich young man, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Although Jesus required the man to perform a specific act, the emphasis was on his condition, rather than his performance. The act of giving away all of his wealth would not make him perfect, because perfection is not a result of your actions. Perfection is one of God’s attributes and he is the standard for perfection — “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). The rich young man’s problem was his attitude, which focused on the pleasure and security he derived from his great wealth, as we can see by his response. He went away sad, because he had great wealth (Matt. 19:22). His attitude not only made him imperfect, but also prevented him from becoming perfect.
Wealth is irrelevant if you have the correct attitude. Wealth and poverty are material, physical conditions that can affect your attitude if you allow them, but a proper attitude makes wealth and poverty meaningless.
As Paul stated, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:11-13).
The key for Paul was an attitude of contentment. The problem for the rich young man was an unwillingness to give up the pleasure of wealth, which prevented him from becoming perfect. The normal human condition is imperfection, obviously, but what does that mean?
Most humans virtually ignore the spiritual realm. Those who acknowledge it frequently want to use it for personal gain through the occult, which promises control, influence, improved personal condition, and so on. The normal human condition is totally self-centered, so that you do things for others because it makes you feel good or promises to benefit you in the future. Carnal thinking motivates you to do everything for selfish reasons. At the least, that is an intensely lop-sided attitude.
From a human perspective, we might say that someone who is totally self-absorbed is undivided or perfect in his attitude, that he is perfectly self-centered. From God’s perspective, however, such a person’s attitude is divided, incomplete, inferior or blemished. The proper attitude is one of total submission to, and orientation toward, God. That is perfection and anything other than that divides your attention between God’s intent and what you want. James uses a similar term, “double-minded” (James 1:8), to describe someone oriented away from God enough to doubt whether God will answer his prayer. Double-minded or divided; both terms describe an imperfect condition.
Let’s consider an analogy that might clarify the process of attaining perfection. When you have a partial understanding of a subject, one aspect of the subject may seem to be of supreme importance. As your understanding becomes more complete, you see that it really is not important at all, although it seemed extremely important earlier. Is it primarily a matter of perspective? You probably thought that one aspect was extremely important in this instance because it was one you were more familiar with.
For example, it can seem very important that you have a nice television. Some people even consider it essential to have more than one television, and they can totally justify having them. But let that person spend a week or longer in a typical third world country, where people have no running water, basic sanitation, medicines or a variety of foods. Is that second television really that important anymore? How about the first television? The issue is seeing the “big picture,” rather than concentrating on a very small benefit available only to a very small percentage of the world’s population.
How might this apply to the biblical concept of perfection? Getting your eyes off of yourself long enough to recognize God and your 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 be totally destroyed. God sees the “big picture.” His attitude takes everything into account and in that sense is complete, entire or full. His attitude rejects anything that would detract from the flawless nature of his kingdom, which will ultimately include all of creation. His attitude is therefore undivided, dedicated and unblemished. Complete, entire, full; undivided, dedicated, unblemished–these describe perfection. That is the sense of God’s perfection, and it’s the perfection he says you are to have, too.
From your extremely limited perspective as a human, being fully committed to God’s kingdom appears lop-sided and imbalanced, or at least a restricted perspective. But it seems that way because self-centeredness makes you want to satisfy itself; besides, the sinful world seems normal, because that’s all you have ever known. You can’t compare your present condition with the perfection of God’s existence, because for now you can’t see God as he is. This means you can’t see the total devastation resulting from sin. Therefore, God’s demand for perfection may even strike you as unreasonable, since your perspective is extremely limited–to the point of blindness–and your natural orientation is to do what you want and reject what others demand of you.
Is perfection attainable? Paul clearly taught that it is, because he wrote to one of the churches that his prayer was for their perfection and he encouraged them to aim for perfection (2 Cor. 13:9, 11).
As is so often the case, God asks you to do something that is impossible in your own ability, but is attainable with his help. Perfection is achievable, it’s your duty, and it’s your hope. You can accept God’s command to be perfect and begin to pursue perfection in spite of your lack of understanding. Jesus stated, in relation to his teaching, “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17). If you do, then you will know; understanding follows obedience, whereas you normally insist on understanding before you commit to doing. Similarly, faith is willing to act with or without knowledge, because its trust is in the one who asks obedience.
Perfection is relevant to your 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. Behavior that might be acceptable from a perfect toddler would be unacceptable from a young adult.
Perfection relates to your spiritual and mental state, not to your action. Action is the result of perfection, not its definition. Perfection is not strict adherence to a list of commandments, but an attitude, a spiritual and mental state constantly focused on God. What you are determines what you do. A person commits sin because he is a sinner; his act of sin does not make him a sinner. Likewise, you are righteous because God declares you so, not because you act a certain way. Your actions are proof of your condition, not the cause.
God’s command to be perfect relates to your attitude and therefore applies to everything you do. This is different from other commands, such as those against killing or stealing (Exod. 20:13, 15), which relate to a very small portion of your life. The opportunity and temptation to steal are usually momentary and occasional. Perfection, however, because of the differences between God’s nature and yours, requires continuous attention and constant vigilance.
Perfection relates to your spiritual and mental state, not to your action; action is the result of perfection, not its definition. It’s a spiritual and mental state constantly focused on God, totally committed to his glory and service.
One key to perfection is renouncing yourself and committing yourself entirely to God’s care. Godly nature causes you to be fully committed to God and not have any personal concerns. This allows you to accept what God says in faith, relying on him to do what is best for you. Perfection in your relationship with God means that everything else is comparatively worthless.