“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Perfect. Did you hear that? Perfect. Jesus said “Be perfect, as God is perfect.” What a burden. No-one can do it. We are all going to come up short. “Perfect” is a problem–it leads us to perfectionism–a psychological term for people who:
Strive to be flawless,
Set excessively high performance standards, and
Relentlessly criticize themselves and others.
We have a culture of perfectionism. Perfectionism begins early; at a young age, parents and teachers encourage children to become high achievers and give them actual gold stars for work well done (and in some cases, punish them for failing to measure up). When we get older, we’re told to reach for the stars — and often end up with hands full of clouds. Perfectionism can turn us into workaholics. It makes us highly critical of ourselves and others. It can make us so fearful of failure that it stifles creativity, and keeps us from sharing who we really are in all of our human imperfection.
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Her talk on Shame is one of the most watched TED talks. Brene Brown says: “So here’s the secret, when perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun — and fear is the annoying back seat driver.” Guided by perfectionism, shame and fear we say: “Everything is perfect! My job is perfect! My marriage is perfect! My children are perfect!” Brown calls perfectionism a “20-ton shield” that we carry around to protect ourselves from getting hurt — but in most cases, perfectionism simply prevents us from truly connecting with others. I think of perfectionism as a mask; behind the mask of perfectionism, we know we aren’t perfect–so we feel ashamed and lonely.
Is that what Jesus was teaching in the Sermon on the Mount? How to be perfectionists? Absolutely not. It is the opposite of what Jesus taught. Trying to be perfect is like trying to be God; it is a tragic human mistake. The meaning is lost in translation. Perfect isn’t what Jesus meant at all! The original Greek work that is translated as “Perfect” from the Sermon on the Mount is Teleios. It comes at the end of a section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is teaching people to treat everyone equally, as God does. The sun shines and the rain falls equally on the righteous and the unrighteous. To be Teleios actually means to be compassionate in a way that treats all people fairly. Jesus is teaching people: “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.”
That might be do-able–we can all sigh with relief–except there is that difficult teaching about non-violence: Do not resist an evildoer. Turn the other cheek. Forgive people. Pray for your enemies. What kind of people are these Christians? Who can do this? Who can encounter an enemy but not have a hostile reaction. Who can respond with love?
Let me tell you about Charles Adams. He is a Christian, and he believes passionately that all people should have a safe, clean source of drinking water, and he has made many trips to Haiti to place sustainable water filters in poor communities. I knew him when I was a child, growing up in Connecticut. He and my mother worked for the same company, developing educational programs for underserved adults. He even built a fence at our house.
Adams works with Rotary International, and the nonprofit Pure Water for the World on clean-water projects. He was kidnapped from his car as it was in gridlock traffic near the Port-au-Prince airport. The kidnappers tore him out of the car. As he struggled, they began shooting at the ground close to his feet. Armed men surrounded him, and hustled him and his Haitian driver through alleys into the area they controlled. They held him in the Cite Soleil–a slum of rubble and concrete block shanties near the airport. This is a 70-year-old man with a pacemaker. The gang wanted $500,000 as a ransom for Charles. “The gang that had me was making between $30,000 to $50,000 a week in ransom,” Adams said. “It’s like catching fish. It’s a big business. I kept telling them I worked for a non-profit and there was no way they’d get half a million for me. They took my cell phone and started dialing for dollars.”
“At all times we were guarded by one shotgun, one automatic weapon, and one rifle,” Adams said. Later in the day, his driver escaped but Adams remained. “Actually, I got to talk to the gang a good bit about how to set up clean water projects in the area they controlled. I suggested that they could save the lives of thousands of the children of their own people who were dying in Cite Soleil with clean water, and I suggested that this would be pretty good PR for their gang, both to the public and to the people they fought to control. They expressed some interest in that. Every time someone new came into the room, I’d stand up and introduce myself.” Finally, near the end of the day, Adams met the head man–Burman. He walked in wearing a Boston Red Sox cap, and listened to Adams explain the water filtration system.
“The day after they captured me, Burman, the Boston Red Sox guy, came in, reached out a hand to help me up, and said; “Mr. Adams, put on your clothes; you’re free to go.” I was really surprised at that and hardly believed it. He repeated it and said that I could have my (Budget rental) car back (they had gotten it in from where we were kidnapped into territory they controlled),” Adams said. “During the walk out, the guards explained that they would have to provide protection for me to leave Cite Soleil or I would be kidnapped by another gang. They kept telling me they weren’t bad people, this was their job–the only way they could make money.” Charles Adams is the only person who has been released by the Haitian kidnapping gangs with no money being paid.
A dot of goodness
He found the way to love his enemy–he found the tiniest bit of goodness in Burman, and focused on that. Burman might be a completely terrible person, but he loves his children. He wants them to be healthy. He wants them to have clean water. Charles Adams saw him through that lens of goodness. It shifted the situation, he responded from the place of caring for people, and Burman ultimately released Charles, without a ransom.
Jesus said: “Love your enemy. Be compassionate. Treat everybody equally.” You might say to Jesus: I hear you, but I can’t do it. And he says: You can, but you need me. I’m laying out the challenge–do the best you can. I’m your back-up. Jesus says: with me, even loving your enemy is possible. That’s the Good News. That is Grace. And trusting in Jesus is better than trying to be Perfect.