Perfection and Excellence – What do we strive for?

Mediocrity to Perfection and Excellence

‘Perfect’ it seems has become a dirty word today, and even amongst Christian circles, which I find exceedingly curious. On Sunday I preached at my church (St Matt’s Prahran) on the line in the Lord’s Prayer ‘your will be done, on earth as in heaven’, as part of our series on the Lord’s Prayer. In the sermon I referred to Romans 12:2, where Paul speaks of discerning the will of God, and specifically describes it as: ‘will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Rom 12:2). As part of this I spoke about striving for, and conforming our will to God’s perfect will, and the implication for this as we work out God’s will in our life is that we too need to be striving for perfection and holiness in enacting that perfect and holy will (c.f. Phil 2:12-18). This suggestion was met with significant consternation and challenge, from a variety of angles, and at one level perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Yet in many ways I am, and let me explain why.

Romans 12:2 describes God’s will as ‘good and acceptable and perfect’ and the Lord’s Prayer calls us to pray that ‘your will be done’, essentially through us as God’s hands and feet in the world. Although we may not perceive or understand the perfection of God’s will from our perspective, scripture still affirms its perfection. However, certainly ‘Perfect’ has some different connotations and excess baggage in our modern world, but it doesn’t mean that it is bereft of meaning. To translate it as anything less than ‘perfect’ in the traditional sense is translationally and theologically doing ourselves a disservice. Rather it is up to us to redefine, or in this case restore the definition of the word, through our understanding and speaking about of the perfection of God and his will.

But as people we are certainly not perfect, a quick scan of the news headlines shows in stark contrast our imperfection and failings. So how do we, as imperfect people, do the perfect will of God? Firstly I think we must acknowledge that even if we strive for perfection we won’t achieve it. Most, if not all, of our human endeavours, no matter the high quality and strivings for perfection, fall short in many ways. So many ways that we even have coined an -ism for it: ‘perfectionism.’ Now this certainly has its own set of failings and ‘costs associated with consistent failure to meet the high standards demanded.’ It is a trap we can fall into, and a danger we must avoid. However, if we are to be doing the will of God this doesn’t mean we don’t strive for the perfection of God’s will.

The danger of not aiming for the perfection of God’s will was keenly noted by Francis Schaffer in his book Addicted to Mediocrity: ‘The modern Christian world … is marked, … one outstanding feature, and that is its addiction to mediocrity.’ While he was focused on the realm of arts and culture, his astute observation applies further afield. Often Christians so keenly recognise our human failings that we don’t strive for the perfect will of God, and settle for something far less than that. A mediocrity that only minimally glorifies God in the world.  A useful book I have read on this recently was Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue by Andreas Köstenberger. Although it focuses mainly on academic scholarship, the virtues he writes about are applicable to all walks of life.

So how do we strive for the perfect will of God, while balancing that with our own human failings? Firstly I think we strive for God’s perfection, but in the full knowledge that now we will only achieve excellence. We may have to cap our expectations and endeavours so that we don’t fall into human perfectionism, all the while keeping in front of us the vision of that future perfection. It means more than just getting by, or ‘P-s make degrees’, or just scraping over the line. Secondly, it also means that we don’t create a type of ‘works righteousness’ based cultic practice around our personal perfection. Ultimately our perfection is found in Christ, not in our own endeavours, as it is Christ who has saved us, not by our own works. Finally, those good works prepared for us to do, we should do them to the best of our ability, eschewing mediocrity, praying that God’s perfect will be done, and working from that perfect script, even if we know we will only achieve excellence on this earth.

Chris

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