The fruitless pursuit of perfection

Image: Ricardo Viana

Healthy spirituality never leads to striving

I wonder if there is any verse in the Bible that has done more to push people away from Christianity that this from the gospel according to Matthew: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

It is so demoralising. Perhaps, like me, you went through a stage of life where you genuinely tried to be pursue this goal. It didn’t take long to discover it isn’t possible.

I was reminded of this truth reading Richard Rohr’s recent meditation:

Many people give up on the spiritual life or religion when they see they cannot be perfect. They end up practical agnostics or atheists, because they refuse to be hypocrites. This is classic all-or-nothing thinking, characteristic of addicts. Many formal believers keep up the forms and the words, going to church and pretending to believe; but there is no longer the inner desire, love, joy, or expectation that is usually visible in people on the path of union. Mysticism does not defeat the soul; moralism (read “perfectionism”) always does. Mysticism invites humanity forward; moralism excludes and condemns itself and most others. — Richard Rohr, Perfection: A Self-Defeating Path

Thankfully, due to an ever evolving faith, and an ever evolving understanding of what verses like this actually mean, I avoided the path towards agnosticism or atheism. But it’s not always been easy, and there are still many verses in the Bible I wrestle with.

But this I am convinced of: if there is a God, our ability to know him is not based upon our capacity for perfection. Christianity has for too long offered a view of God that depicts a cruel task master, always demanding more, ever ready to hand out penalties (of the eternal damnation kind) when we fall short.

I don’t believe in that God.

If God is love, then our ability to be perfect cannot be a requirement.

Even when the church teaches that we don’t have to be perfect, but are made perfect through Christ, there is still an astonishing post-salvation demand for moral perfection. So many Christians then up endlessly striving in pursuit of the impossible.

This is why Rohr is trying to draw us back to mysticism rather than moralism. Any religion that that focusses us on rules and regulations rather than mystery and wonder will never be life-giving.

The pursuit of perfection is never restful. Perfectionism is defined by striving. And if your spirituality is leading to endless striving, it isn’t healthy. Any religion or spirituality, applied healthily, will always feel restful.

We rest, knowing we are loved.
We rest, knowing we are accepted.

If God is love, nothing we do or don’t do can change how loved and accepted we are.

A recommendation…

Life without rest is unsustainable