Max Lucado once shared a story about the dangers of comparison. His mother would tell him and his brother to clean their rooms. One time, when Max’s mother told him that his room was not clean, he took her to his brother’s room (which was much messier) and said, “See, my room is clean; just look at his.” His mother, however, immediately took him to her room and said, “This is what I mean by clean!” Max’s room may have been cleaner than his brothers, but it still wasn’t clean. There is an old saying: “I may not be perfect, but I am certainly better than my neighbor!” But, here is the problem: Jesus never said be better than your neighbor. Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
God is perfect and we are commanded to be like Him.
Our standard for righteousness is not our neighbor; it’s our Lord. The danger of comparison is that we usually compare ourselves against someone we believe is “worse” than we are so that we feel better about ourselves. Jesus calls His followers to remember that they are children of God and, therefore, should reflect the character and likeness of God. We are to imitate and be like our Father in heaven.
Identity, Not Activity
The call to perfection is not simply a call to do better. Christianity is not about trying to do better or be better. The fundamental message of Christianity is that we are sinful and need our sins forgiven. Being forgiven, we are now pleasing to God and He is working in us to conform us to be more like Jesus. The call to perfection is a call to remember who you have become. Alistair Begg rightly said, “It’s not a call to activity; it’s a call to identity. It’s not a call to do more good stuff. It’s a call to know Christ and have him change you from the inside out.” The call to perfection involves refusing to sin, but it is more than refusing to sin. It involves doing what is good, but it is more than just doing what it is good. The call to perfection is for us to do the right thing for the right reason.
Perfection is our Goal
What does it mean to be perfect? The word is sometimes translated as “mature” or “complete.” “Perfect” is the ideal translation because the word is used to describe God Himself. God is perfect and we are commanded to be like Him. This is important because God does not call us just to be good. Our goal is not to be better than our neighbor or our brother or sister; our goal is to be holy, righteous, and perfect.
Our goal is not to be better than our neighbor or our brother or sister; our goal is to be holy, righteous, and perfect.
Remember that the theme of the Sermon on the Mount is righteousness. The righteousness required to enter the kingdom of God “surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matt 5:20). God’s standard is high because He wants us to display the character and love of God. The reason Jesus calls us to forsake hatred and adultery is because He wants us to be holy and set apart from the world. It’s for this reason that Jesus also wants us to go the second mile, let your yes be yes and our no be no, and love our enemies. A.W. Pink has said, “The moral excellency of the Divine character is the copy and rule set before us, and nothing short of that is to be our sincere, ardent and constant endeavor.”
Perfection is our Desire
If our desire is perfection, we will “make no plans to satisfy the fleshly desire” (Rom 13:14). The command to be perfect should make Christians uneasy because we recognize that we are still sinful. In this life, we regularly wrestle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Can we be perfect in this life? The truth is we will never be fully perfect in this life. Be wary of a person who says they no longer sin. (If they continue to maintain their sinlessness, ask to speak with their spouse and/or employer.) The Apostle Paul wrote about himself, “Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12). Perfection must be our goal and our desire and how we respond to our sin is very important.
The truth is we will never be fully perfect in this life…but it must be our desire to reflect the character and the goodness of our Heavenly Father.
Consider what your response is to your own sin? Do you explain it away? Seek to ignore it? If so, you are not striving to be perfect like your Father in heaven. But, if your response to sin is to mourn and grieve, you are striving to be like your Father in heaven. Anyone who excuses their sin with the statement: “Oh well, I’m only human” is in serious spiritual trouble. The command from Jesus is not to be a sinful human, but to be perfect and godly. Is that your desire and goal? Remember, you are being conformed into the image of Christ (Rom 8:29), are to “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:8) and “pursue holiness” (Heb 12:14).
Perfection and Humility
We have to be very careful when we discuss the pursuit of perfection. There’s a difference between striving to be perfect and being a perfectionist. A perfectionist is someone who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection. A perfectionist will sacrifice love and friendship for perfection. Perfection for them is the goal and everything and everyone else is a tool. We are not called to be perfectionists who demand that everyone perfectly satisfy our desires. We are not perfectionists who refuse to tolerate failure. Perfectionism is rooted in pride. The pursuit of godly perfection should produce humility in our lives, not pride.
The standard of righteousness is not your brother or your father. Our standard of perfection is our heavenly Father. As we pursue perfection, we humbly recognize our failures. As we pursue perfection, we must keep in mind Jesus’ counsel: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Humility is the key to the purifying pursuit of perfection.