Saturday, March 20, 2010

Must we strive always to be perfect?

This question came up the other day, and the first thing that came to mind was: Jesus seemed to think so, according to Matthew 5:48. I promised to think about it.

So here are a few more thoughts. First is something I was taught as a young believer: Jesus gave us those commands so that we would see they were impossible to do on our own. We would then see that we need his help. It's like the Israelites in the desert in Exodus 13:21 -- with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The point, in other words, is not to choose the most direct path through the desert; rather, it's to trust in the One who makes himself known in the cloud and the fire, and to follow Him.

Now did the Israelites trust God through the desert? Not so much. Some did an absolutely terrible job -- representatives of the ten tribes, who gave a bad report in Numbers 13. The people weren't much better. Rather than believing and obeying the Lord, they wanted to give up.

Will we fail, as they did? Sometimes we will. Does that mean we should stop trying? Of course not! We have these commands from God for at least two reasons:

  • They show us what our God is like -- he is good to all, he has compassion on everyone, he is just and righteous and generous, he forgives sin.
  • By sincerely trying to follow them, we'll better appreciate our inadequacy and inability to be like God. This is like what Dr. Pausch called a head fake, or what The Karate Kid actually learned when painting fence-boards or waxing cars. So although the command is, "Love your enemies," the lesson is "You need Jesus."

I think there are at least two ways to approach this. One is to focus on trying to be perfect. Whenever we fail, we'll come face to face with our inadequacy. This is good because we then are drawn closer to the Lord. As the author of Hebrews tells us, "He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and the wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness" (Hebrews 5:2).

The danger with this first approach, of course, is that we'll fall into the trap of the scribes and law experts of Jesus' day: rather than following God's commands, which are at turns impossible or difficult to quantify, we create quantifiable goals which are also easier to meet. So we have to steer clear of that trap.

Another approach is to seek the Lord, as the Psalmist writes:

One thing I ask of the Lord, 
     this is what I seek: 
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord 
     all the days of my life, 
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord 
     and to seek him in his temple.
The hope would be that by meditating on the Lord's wonderful attributes -- his eternal power and divine nature, his generosity and mercy and goodness and compassion and holiness -- we would become like him. This is I think the idea behind what John tells us in 1 John 3:2-3 -- that we become pure by hoping in him, and we become like him when we see him as he is. We resemble what we worship, according to this theory.

A pitfall with this approach is that we might focus only on the attributes of God that we feel comfortable with, the attributes that we already have. So people who have angry personalities, who like to tell others what to do -- these people may find it all too easy to focus on the wrath of God and forget about compassion and mercy. Those who have the gift of mercy may be inclined to see God as a warm friendly kind of character and forget about moral purity.

Well, it's not surprising that there are pitfalls no matter what we do; we are indeed beset with weakness. How do we move forward and avoid the pitfalls? As with other issues, the process is simple but not easy. Here's how I'd summarize it:

  1. Read the Bible frequently with a desire both to obey God and to know his character.
  2. Obey what you know God wants you to do, and avoid what you know God wants you to avoid.
  3. Participate in corporate worship; listen to sermons; pray individually and together.
  4. Have spiritual friendships where you discuss your concerns, your understanding of God's character and will, struggles, etc. These friendships should provide mutual encouragement, with enlightenment, exhortation and accountability as needed.
  5. Repeat steps #1-#4 for a lifetime.

A final comment: A young friend told me recently that "when I try to seek God, even though I don't always succeed, everything goes better." Now there's a good word. It reminds me of the verse that says "those who honor me I will honor" (taken rather out of context but still true -- 1 Samuel 2:30) and this from Proverbs 16:7: "When a man's ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him." Also related: Romans 2:7: "To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life" -- or more succinctly, "Seek me and live" (Amos 5:4).

Note it doesn't say "if you do it right"! Look at Abraham (the friend of God) and some significant mis-steps he took, or Jacob/Israel, or David. Abraham misunderstood God when he was right there; we're obviously going to misunderstand the Bible since we live thousands of miles away and thousands of years in the future. And he lied about Sarah. Jacob was a great deceiver, hardly a paragon of moral rectitude, and yet the Lord identifies himself as "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." And King David with the adultery and murder and coverup, and yet he was the man after God's own heart.

So we strive, we'll blow it, God will bless us anyway. Sounds like a plan!

No comments: