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.

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