“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” PHILIPPIANS 3:12 (ESV)
The above, from Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, contains very serious language and includes a buzz word that has been carefully avoided altogether for centuries of church history. The word is Perfect or perfection. This word and its variant form, unless having to do with Christ or another member of the Godhead, is blasphemy, right? Wrong: according to Paul, it’s the goal with which WE are to strain for, or in other words, to stretch and endeavor to achieve or accomplish. So why does this seem blasphemous? Why does the word “perfection” or the idea of being perfect seem foreign, vast and even contrary to God’s ways?
Perfection = Christ-likeness
Let’s not get hung up on the word perfection, per se. Its equal in this context is simply Christ-likeness; we wouldn’t strive and strain for anything other than Christ, would we? In saying that perfection, or Christ-likeness, is his goal, Paul isn’t inferring that he would be entirely without blemish or fault in his every day life, he is rather saying that complete freedom from sin and a tightly knit father/son relationship with God is worth aiming for.
Our thought process
I believe, in light of perfection, we’ve followed something that’s less than the whole truth. We’re shy to the goal of perfection because in most circles we are taught to be. I think there are two main reasons why we’ve become shy or averse to the concept of perfection. They are the fear of failing, and protection from the fear of failing. As you can see, they are very much intertwined.
1. The fear of failing – Many times we form thoughts or even doctrines around our experiences, rather than the actual truth of the matter. Have you ever heard the statement “you are a product of the sum of your experiences?” This is so far from biblical truth yet often accepted as common knowledge. If our lives were the sum of our experiences then I would still be in enmity with God! So in this ideas are propped up and supported in light of our misunderstanding, but they are entirely rooted in fear. How would fear react to the expectation of perfection, or at least the route in getting there? It would probably develop an alternate way, one that avoids putting on Christ completely and greatly limits the people that travel it. It is essentially permission to fail and this permission comes about through the fear of falling short.
2. Protection from the fear of failing – If we’ve subconsciously or knowingly permitted ourselves to fall short we need to feel OK in doing so. This is where protection comes into the picture. This involves the doctrines that we adopt, like dismissing the mandate of pursuing Christ-like righteousness, that help us cope with the fear of not measuring up. Spiritually speaking, it’s a wall or stronghold erected to help us get by as we carry on with something that we are not designed to entertain.
The Possibility of Perfection
The Philippians 3 verse gives an answer to the question of “why press on to perfection?” The answer is: because Christ Jesus has given you access to do so. Paul is striving to make perfection his own because Jesus made him His own. What does Paul mean by ‘perfection?’ I think he means the state of complete freedom from sin, or the status of being wholly in relationship with Christ, having totally put off the old in trade for the new, and holding a position that’s in sync with the Spirit, as opposed to the flesh.
You may be wondering if this “state” is actually possible. I believe that it is, as crazy as that sounds, and I don’t believe that I’m in danger of blasphemy in saying that. Why else would Paul make it his foremost goal? According to the text, we know that he had not yet attained perfection but that he was, in fact, pressing on to make it his own, or to simply attain it. If we’re on the topic of what’s possible how about Paul’s words in the the next chapter of Philippians, that “[we] can do all things through Christ who strengthens [us].” And what about Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:26? According to the Son of God, all things are possible with God. If it’s possibility that we are talking about, then it sure seems like perfection is possible, if God is the one that gets to define possible in and through us.
There is a disclaimer to all of this perfection talk. It is this: Be Careful. With a clearer understanding of God and His ways comes greater responsibility and obvious room for error. Humility needs to be placed at center stage, because the goal of perfection through Christ can quickly become the false reality of perfection through oneself if we are not watchful. After all, the movement toward perfection either on this side of eternity or the other can’t effectively be traversed without humility.
Read my May 2014 Blog – Reflections from the Mission Field & Christian Perfection for more on this topic.
Joe D’Orsie – Communications & Spiritual Life Counsel firstname.lastname@example.org