In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” How are you doing with that? In the piece that follows, Philip Yancey describes the efforts toward perfection made by some religious groups in American history. Believing they could do away with sin and create Utopian communities of perfect peace and harmony, the leaders of these groups made a noble attempt to get everyone to keep all the rules, all the time. It did not work. Every one of them failed. Are you surprised? While Yancey sees no hope for such projects, he does admire the effort.
By Philip Yancey in, A Guided Tour of the Bible, 1989, pages 657-658.
A few years ago I attended a conference at a place called New Harmony, the restored site of a century old Utopian community. As I ran my fingers over the fine workmanship of the buildings and read the plaques describing the daily lives of these ‘true believers,’ I marveled at the energy that drove this movement, one of the dozens spawned by American idealism and religious fervor.
Rockers in the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky
Many varieties of perfectionism have grown on American soil: the offshoots of the Second Great Awakening, the Victorious Life movement, the Shakers, and the communes of the Jesus movement. It struck me, though, that in recent times the urge to achieve perfection has nearly disappeared. Nowadays we tilt in the opposite direction, toward a kind of anti-Utopianism. The recovery movement, for example, hinges on a person’s self-confessed inability to be perfect.
I prefer this modern trend. I find it much easier to believe in human fallibility than perfectibility, and I have cast my lot with a gospel based on grace. Yet in New Harmony, Indiana, I felt an unaccountable nostalgia for the Utopians: all those solemn figures in black clothes breaking rocks in the fields, devising ever-stricter rules in an attempt to rein in lust and greed, striving to fulfill the lofty commands of the New Testament. The names they left behind tug at the heart: New Harmony, Peace Dale, New Hope, New Haven.
Yet most Utopian communities— like the one I was standing in— survive only as museums. Perfectionism keeps running aground on the barrier reef of original sin. High ideals paradoxically lead to despair and defeatism. Despite all good efforts, human beings don’t achieve a state of sinlessness, and in the end they often blame themselves, a blame often encouraged by their leaders (“If it’s not working there must be something wrong with you”).
Still, I admit that I sometimes feel a nostalgia, even longing, for the quest itself. How can we uphold the ideal of holiness, the proper striving for life on the highest plane, while avoiding the consequences of disillusionment, pettiness, abuse of authority, spiritual pride, and exclusivism?
Or, to ask the opposite question, how can we moderns who emphasize community support (never judgment), honesty, and introspection keep from aiming too low? An individualistic society, America stands in constant danger of freedom abuse, and its churches are in danger of grace abuse.
It was with these questions in mind that I read through the Epistles, charting the motives they appealed to. I read them in a different order than usual. First I read Galatians, with its magnificent charter of Christian liberty and its fiery pronouncements against petty legalism. Next I turned to James, that “right strawy epistle” that stuck in Martin Luther’s throat (too much law and not enough grace for Luther). I read Ephesians and then I Corinthians, Romans and then I Timothy, Colossians and then I Peter. In every epistle, without exception, I found both messages: the high ideals of holiness, and also the safety net of grace reminding us that salvation does not depend on our meeting those ideals. I will not attempt to resolve the tension between grace and works because the New Testament does not. We must not try to solve the contradiction by reducing the force of either grace or morality.
Ephesians pulls the two strands neatly together: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith; and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (2:8-10). Philippians expresses the same dialectic: “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (2:12-13). First Peter adds, “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God” (2:16).
I take some comfort in the fact that the church in the first century was already on a seesaw, sometimes tilting toward perfectionist legalism, and at other times toward raucous freedom. James wrote to one extreme; Paul often addressed the other. Each letter has a strong correcting emphasis; but all stress the dual message of the gospel. The church should be both: a people who strive toward holiness and yet relax in grace, a people who condemn themselves but not others, a people who depend on God and not themselves.
Grant me, O Lord, to fervently desire, wisely search out, and perfectly to fulfill all that is pleasing unto Thee. Order my worldly condition to the glory of your name; and grant me the knowledge, desire, and ability to do what is required of me. I pray that my path to Thee be safe, straightforward, and perfect to the end.
Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downward; give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; and give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.
Bestow upon me also, O Lord my God, understanding to know Thee, diligence to seek Thee, wisdom to find Thee, and a faithfulness to the end that may finally embrace Thee. Amen.
–Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)