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Posts Tagged ‘Jesus Christ’

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:48 (NIV)

“This is the very perfection of a man, to find out his own imperfections.” – Saint Augustine

For most of my life I’ve had an ongoing battle with perfectionism but it took me over fifty years to see it as a hindrance rather than a help.

Daily we are bombarded with images of men and women who appear to be highly successful because they strive for perfection in their appearance and professional life. However, if you take a close look at anyone’s life, no matter how “together” they may appear, it won’t take long to discover that even among the best of us there is a much deeper longing for meaning in life and relationships.

Deep down I really know that I’m a deeply flawed individual but it would be nice to appear to “have my act together” to everyone around me so that my faults and failings don’t come out too often.

For those of us who have a personal faith in God it’s easy to quote chapter and verse either to justify our perfectionistic tendencies or excuse our shortcomings or both.

Jesus’ words above recorded by Matthew have often been quoted to me by some who say that God expects “perfection” from people, speaking mainly of the followers of Jesus. The implication is that perfection in this life is somehow attainable through whatever means are necessary to achieve it.

Honestly, that’s no way to live life with a heart for God and it’s not even realistic or even achievable if we stop to think about it.

What was Jesus saying here and does the Bible teach us that striving for perfection is a motivating factor in our lives? Before drawing any quick conclusions just take a closer look at the Biblical language, especially in the case of Jesus’ words.

The Bible speaks of God’s “perfection” as in Deuteronomy 32:4, “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all His ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is He.” (NIV)

The Hebrew word for “perfect” here carries the idea of “blameless” or “without fault.” I think most people with a faith in God and particularly Jesus-followers would have no problem with the concept that God is perfect and unblemished.

However, when it comes to the way the Bible speaks of humans in relation to “perfect” a different word is used. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus uses the Greek word “teleios” meaning “perfect” in the sense of “having reached its end,”  “complete” or even “mature.”  In other words God is perfect and can’t be “matured” any more than He already is but we humans are far from mature. The good news of the Gospel is that God is in the process of “growing” us up as we trust His perfect Son Jesus and live by faith.

In my battle with perfectionism I’ve found that there’s a world of difference between striving for excellence as opposed to perfectionism as a “soul-condition.”  Human perfectionism no matter how well-intentioned is rooted and grounded in pride while the Gospel message of Jesus is one of humility.

Striving for excellence can be very much about serving God and others if our motives are to glorify God in everything we do. Perfectionism on the other hand is a mindset that seeks to avoid being judged or criticized by others. The malady is one of obsession with what others think, or may think of us.

Researcher and author Brene Brown defines perfectionism as “a cognitive, behavioral process, a way of thinking and feeling that says this ‘If I look perfect, do it perfect, and live perfect I can avoid or minimize shame, blame and judgment.’”

The peril of perfectionism is that we can actually become callous to our own humanity so that we don’t have to face our failings and imperfections head on.

The alternative to prideful perfectionism is humility and vulnerability which breaks down pride in our lives and gives us a healthier appreciation of God and true freedom to trust Him with the reality of who we are – warts and all.

Ms. Brown expresses it well when she says, Why, when we know that there’s no such thing as perfect, do most of us spend an incredible amount of time and energy trying to be everything to everyone? Is it that we really admire perfection? No – the truth is that we are actually drawn to people who are real and down-to-earth. We love authenticity and we know that life is messy and imperfect.”

I think our Lord and Maker is more interested in enabling us to serve Him out of faith and love rather than approving of our efforts to create a false image of ourselves. He provided a very humble, gentle and vulnerable Savior to show us the way to do just that.

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“ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’” Luke 10:41-42 (NIV)

Ever since we learned of Robin Williams’ unexpected death this week, we have been swamped with analysis and insights from a wide range of people across the globe who, like myself, appreciated his life work and were heartbroken to hear of his tragic end.

It goes without saying that Robin Williams was loved and admired by many – his films alone had grossed over $5 Billion worldwide. Yet a man of such rich accomplishment was haunted by demons of addiction and depression over the course of his life which overtook him in the end.

We know it’s true but it comes down hard on us in moments like this that a successful career, wealth and fame does not guarantee a happy and emotionally satisfying life. By contrast we know of many people who have very little in terms of the world’s wealth and influence who have happy and fulfilling lives.

Over the last few years I’ve been coming to some conclusions as to why this is so.

Take for example, the story in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus comes into the home of Martha and her sister Mary.  When you stop to think about it, Jesus Christ the Lord and Creator of the Universe has just come into her home and Martha’s response is to get “busy.” Perhaps Martha’s activity is well-intended most likely making preparations for a meal that would certainly have been expected of a host in those days.

The problem arises with Martha when she sees her sister Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus and “listening to Him.” She gets bent out of shape that her sister is wasting precious time, listening to the Lord rather than helping her with all the preparations for the guest of honor and His friends.

Before we get too reactionary here let’s focus on what Jesus is really saying when he tells Martha to leave Mary alone. He knows that Martha is “worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed and Mary has chosen what is better.”

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “What lies behind you and what lies in front of you pales in comparison to what lies within you.” I think Jesus is making a huge statement about the contrast between our inner life and the external world around us.

I don’t think that Jesus condemns Martha for hard work or a desire to please Him and his company with a fine meal. I think He’s showing us that we, like Martha, can work hard to make sure our outside “world” is a happy place when it’s far more important to sit before Him as He speaks to our hearts.

The “inner life” that we all have, with its thoughts, desires and motives is made for intimacy rather than activity, by and large. By contrast our culture tells us to “do” all the right things on the outside and pay careful attention to our external image and happiness and contentment will surely come our way.

I recall a crisis time in my own life several years ago where incessant activity was killing my inner life. I found myself driven to perform for an unseen audience that literally controlled my existence. Now I know that if I can’t be content sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to Him while the rest of the world goes headlong into crisis with excessive activity, I’ll never be content with who I am or what I have.

Mary had it right but going along with the culture around me I was behaving a lot more like Martha.

Our inner life was designed by our Lord for intimacy and connection with Him. It’s reflected in Mary who somehow knew that when Jesus stepped into her surroundings – nothing, and I mean nothing, took priority over sitting quietly at His feet listening to Him. Things around her took lower priority when her posture was one of surrender to Him.

We can take away many lessons from the life and death of Robin Williams. Regardless of your talents you could get very busy with incessant activity so that the audience watching your performance might be happy for fleeting moments. Or you can take time in silence and solitude to stop and sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to what He speaks into your heart and act accordingly.

I think it’s a choice that makes all the difference – to us and to our world.

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“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” – Philippians 2:5-9 (NIV)

I’m not really sure why the concept of “vulnerability” keeps smacking me in the face everywhere I look. It could be that for much of my life it’s been a hidden theme lurking in the background.

In the spring of 1980 I took an intensely practical week-long course in graduate school entitled “Applied Leadership and Teambuilding.” All the participants of the class went to a conference center and broke up into teams. In addition to reading and lectures we went out on practical teambuilding exercises. Each team member had the chance to lead the group in an exercise at least once during the week. By the end of our time together we had come to learn a great deal about each other – and ourselves!

Our small group leader, Bob, happened to teach Leadership and Psychology at the US Air Force Academy at the time. He was gifted in many ways but was an especially keen observer of human nature. At the end of the course he invited each of us to a private session where he gave us his observations about our strengths and weaknesses. I was obviously more interested in my strengths!

“You’re not very vulnerable. You don’t give much away,” Bob observed in our interview.

I confess at the time I didn’t really have a clear idea of what he was talking about, but I took it by faith that being more of an “expert” in personal relations than I, he must be speaking the truth.

Since that time I have come to learn much more about vulnerability and why I put it to death for so long in my life. It’s a scary place to go. I’ve tried to reflect on what it actually is and why I avoided being vulnerable for so long.

Vulnerability, if you look it up in the dictionary, actually means “open to attack.” When you stand up for who you really are, what you like and dislike, share your opinions, etc. you are subject to being loved, hated, cherished, despised, or any number of other responses.

When you look at the person of Jesus Christ, you see a vulnerable man. He never hid who He really was and was comfortable being who He was. As mentioned in the verses above, being God He was willing to empty Himself of Divine privileges and come to earth as a humble human. He faced suffering and death for who He was, but He also was exalted to the highest place of honor in the universe.

There’s something very powerful and humble about vulnerability that we dare not miss.

Some of us close up, myself included, so that we can avoid or escape the potential criticism or judgment of others. I’m finding now in reading the research on vulnerability that we close off the potential for life and growth, connection and relationship when we take that approach to life.

Looking further back I think vulnerability died very early in my childhood and was never significantly resuscitated until recent years. Painful childhood experiences can shape us in many ways.

When I was either in Kindergarten or first grade I recall a little square dancing exercise we did in class. Boys and girls would cross arms and hold hands with each other, couples standing in a circle. When the music started we began skipping around the circle to the music. It was something about the tile floors in the school or the shoes my parents had me wear, but I kept slipping and falling on the floor whenever we really got going around the circle. My obvious reaction was “I’m not doing this! I’m not making a fool out of myself for the sake of this dumb exercise!”

I still recall the feeling of shame and vulnerability of that experience and internally I probably recognized that I would rather die that visit that place again.

The rebirth of vulnerability has been a gradual reawakening in my life in recent years – with some dramatic steps forward at times. I’m finding now that it takes courage to be vulnerable and to avoid it stems from fear – particularly fear of “what would others think of me.” It took some cataclysmic life experiences of personal failure and the love and rejection of others to allow vulnerability to be reborn in my own life. Painful but intensely productive!

As Easter Sunday approaches this year I’m reflecting once again on the beauty, humility and yes vulnerability of the Lord Jesus Christ. It took immense courage for Him to do what He did – even though He was God in the Flesh.

In humility, love, openness and courage Jesus Christ shared His very life – and death – with a hurting and broken world. Perhaps that’s what He calls His followers to do as well.

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