The Gospel of Imperfection

The Gospel is for losers

The proud, the arrogant, the blind, the halt, the lame, the penny-pinchers and the big spenders, the manipulators and the gullible, the doubters and the believers, the thieves, the liars, the murderers, the slanderers, the poor, the ignorant, the lazy, the tight-fisted and the self-indulgent, the impulsive and the fearful, the indifferent and the cynical, the gluttons and the ascetics, the hypocrites and the self-righteous, the foolish and the false, the bullies and the weak.

Have I left anybody out? Oh yes—the perfect.

The perfect don’t need the Gospel.  

For years self-help and business books have focused on achieving invulnerability, finding quick solutions, crushing one’s opponents, and using Machiavellian techniques to get ahead.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed an emphasis on being honest about our weaknesses. For example, Brene Brown’s presentation on vulnerability and recognizing one’s needs is the fourth most-watched TED Talk at 25 million views. The second most-watched TED talk is Amy Cuddy’s research on how our bodily stance can give us the confidence we lack for social encounters. Medium.com is a unique writing site built by the co-founder of Twitter. A constant theme of Medium’s posts comes from start-up entrepreneurs rhapsodizing about failing upward, launching out to new adventures, enjoying one’s failures, and learning from those who keep trying despite their constant failures.

Social media’s uptick of interest in our failures and mistakes isn’t reason enough for Christians to follow along, but the fact is we were there early. Christians know a great deal about missing the mark and falling short.

I’d like to explore a perspective on life which I think we deny. It’s a view which runs against both the officially optimistic attitudes of the self-help industry and the prosperity gospel business, yet it’s more realistic and hopeful than either of them. We ignore this viewpoint to our detriment, and in fact denial of it has damaged thousands of Christians through the centuries. But rightly understood this alternative view offers us a way to fully experience God’s grace in our lives.

We could call it the Gospel of Imperfection. There are three major points. The first is realism about our human condition, the second is finding language and symbols that truly reflect our spiritual experience, and the third is about living in humility.

Realism about our condition

Three things we can acknowledge about the human condition:

We are severely limited — we don’t have the strength, the will, or the resources to do life right;

We are deeply flawed — under the surface, close to the heart, we are all broken;

We are immature — we resist change, act badly when we don’t get our way, and become murderous when challenged.

In a word: We are imperfect. To be human is to be imperfect.

“We must somehow strip ourselves of our greatest illusions about ourselves,” says Thomas Merton, “frankly recognize in how many ways we are unlovable, descend into the depths of our being until we come to the basic reality that is in us, and learn to see that we are lovable after all, in spite of everything!

“This is a difficult job. It can only really be done by a lifetime of genuine humility (Merton, No Man is an Island).”

BUT: Matthew 5:48 commands us, “Therefore be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” the final lash of the whip for lazy Christians.

How many of us have struggled with this over the years, wanting to be sinless, yearning to be perfect so that God will accept us, only to realize how far off that perfection lies and how impossible it will be to achieve it. Yet the pressure to conform is constant if we listen to certain refrains.

We’re told that all that stands between the world and the final judgment is a perfected church that has informed the whole world of its rights and responsibilities under God’s laws. In fact, the delay in the Second Coming is because of us, our lack of passion for the message, our sinfulness, our disobedience. Thus, we thwart God’s sovereign will and timetable. We prolong the agony of the world until we can perfectly reflect, individually and as a church, the character of God. In this view Seventh-day Adventists are the center of the universe. Let’s hope the world never discovers the real reason why evil continues or the persecution will begin in earnest.

Marilynne Robinson says, “We all know about hubris. We know that pride goeth before a fall. The problem is that we don’t recognize pride or hubris in ourselves, any more than Oedipus did, any more than Job’s so-called comforters (Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books).”

What we might not realize is that the Greek word teleios, translated “perfect,” does not mean “to be without sin or flawless”, but rather is that which is “fully complete.” In the context of the whole passage that follows Matt. 5:48, “be perfect” means to be compassionate to all, to treat others equally and fairly.

To be perfect is to be complete, finished, whole. Nothing to be added or changed.

Even at our best we are open-ended, incomplete, limited. There is more in play here than meets the eye.

Language and Symbols

The second point is that for many of us the language and the symbols of conversion and daily living have changed from our childhood and youth. Language and symbols matter. Some move us, some leave us cold. I can recall Weeks of Prayer as a teenager in which we were exhorted to “surrender all,” and to be ”washed in the blood of the Lamb,” so that we might throw ourselves “at the foot of the cross.” I find that much of the 19th-century language about Jesus in hymns, sermons, and devotional material appeals to a sensibility that I lack.

Do you respond more naturally to a command or an invitation? Do you commit to God through love or duty? Perhaps both: duty sometimes leads to love, whereas what we do in love does not feel like a duty–unless it’s required by the one who is loved.

How do we imagine Jesus? As a king? A prophet? Our Father or a brother? Is he not all of that and more? Can you imagine walking with him in deep conversation down the Emmaus road or would you be tongue-tied in his presence, like waiting to get an autograph from a celebrity? At any point in our lives we may need one role in particular, but not to the exclusion of the others. We change, we evolve, life bears down on us and we need a savior, a comforter, a healer, a guide. Each role is different and we respond differently to each one. Our needs change, but Christ meets us where we are in the moment.

The thing is, we cannot predict what touches us most deeply about Christ or even where it might come from. We can’t even know what we need from Christ, except that we know we need Him.

It might be a song on the radio, a passage of Scripture or a poem read alone late at night, news of an unspeakable tragedy, or something a friend says that wells the tears up in our eyes and leaves us longing for God. All we can say is that we see in a glass darkly and what we usually see is a dim and muddy likeness of ourselves. Most of us are perfectly capable of beating ourselves up over our sins. We don’t need others to do that and Christ won’t do it.

Merton says, “We cannot find Him Who is Almighty unless we are taken entirely out of our own weakness. But we must first find out our own nothingness before we can pass beyond it: and this is impossible as long as we believe in the illusion of our own power (Merton, No Man is an Island ).”

So there it is: when we’re honest with ourselves about our weakness and imperfection, Christ finds us. That’s the flash point between us and Christ—our honesty and Christ’s incomparable response.

But God is not left without a witness and there are many paths that lead to the top of the mountain.

Christ for me is both a living symbol and Real Presence, a past historical figure and my mysterious companion in the present, the Word of God made flesh.

T.S. Eliot’s lines in The Waste Land lift the veil slightly:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

–But who is that on the other side of you?

Attention to this point is to find the metaphors and analogies that resonate to our lived experience.

Humility as a Way of Life

The final point in the gospel of imperfection is the role of humility. Humility is really the hinge upon which all of this turns. It’s about our imperfection and our great need. It’s a way of regarding God and religion from the basement to the rooftop, down to up, from us to God.

Humility is the working mindset that results from gratitude. Gratitude for what, you might ask? Well, for one thing gratitude for giving us reasons for living instead of shuffling off this mortal coil. Albert Camus famously said there is only one serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. This is the question that demands an answer from each one of us. Everything else amounts to games. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but for a lot of us the glass is almost always half empty. It takes the upside-down thinking of Jesus for us to see it as half full, with the possibility of it brimming over someday.

I think it’s revealing that the word ‘humility’ comes from the same root as ‘humor’ and ‘humanity’. The root word is humus, and humus is earth or dirt. To be human is to be made of the earth, as ancient and as glorious as the stars, and as common as . . . dirt. We’ve all come from the same stuff, so to speak. We’re all humus.

So humility is paradoxically the virtue that we aspire to without testifying that we’ve got it. Humility is seen, but not heard; others may tell us they see it in us but if we brag about it it’s pretty certain we don’t have it. To be humble is to not make comparisons.

But the glory of the creation story is that this mud can aspire to magnificent things. Humility as a way of life is remembering where we came from, Who sustains us, what we are capable of doing. It’s not about living with constant shame or feeling ourselves to be worthless or whipping ourselves for our sins.

And it’s not about inflicting that sense of worthlessness on others either. That’s humiliation—standard fare in the power arenas of our age. Humiliation is imposed on us from the outside and is a capitulation out of fear. Humility says comparisons are foolish and dangerous: “the problem with both ‘first’ and ‘last’ is that both are extremes (Kurtz and Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection).”

Humility speaks from the inside and whispers our need of God. Gandhi said humility is a state of mind, but humble people aren’t conscious of their humility. C. S. Lewis put it succinctly when he said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” And it doesn’t hurt to have a sense of humor about all this.

Marilynne Robinson says of Jesus, “It is his consistent teaching that the comfortable, the confident, the pious stand in special need of the intervention of grace. Perhaps this is true because they are most vulnerable to error . . . (Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books).”

And Thomas Merton concludes, “The relative perfection which we must attain to in this life if we are to live as sons (and daughters) of God is not the twenty-four-hour-a-day production of perfect acts of virtue, but a life from which practically all the obstacles to God’s love have been removed or overcome (Merton, No Man is an Island).”

Living this way would change a lot about our relations with others. I think it would change how we got along in our communities too. If we thought about ourselves less and about others more it would turn our world upside down. We’d be better drivers, more caring to our spouses and partners, more interesting in conversation, and safer to be around. We’d be less anxious—humble people don’t have anything to prove. I think we’d listen more and probably pray more mindfully.

So here’s the thing: nothing I’ve said here is new or original. This is the Gospel before it became a job. Being realistic about our imperfections, finding language and symbols that reflect our experience, and living in humility, humor, and gratitude puts us squarely in God’s neighborhood.

I’ll give the last word to Thomas Merton:

“As long as we are on earth our vocation is precisely to be imperfect, incomplete, insufficient in ourselves, changing, hapless, destitute, and weak, hastening toward the grave. But the power of God and His eternity and His peace and His completeness and His glory must somehow find their way into our lives, secretly, while we are here, in order that we may be found in Him eternally as He has meant us to be (Merton, No Man is an Island).”

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