Trying to be perfect

As a kid I hoped that if I worked hard enough I might be able to dunk a basketball like Michael Jordan or throw a football like Joe Montana. I knew the chances weren’t good, but a kid can dream, right?

I don’t remember the exact moment, but one day I realized that, barring a first-rate miracle, it just wasn’t going to happen. I was deflated, and it took a little pep out of my playground practice sessions.

You would think that being around Jesus would’ve also been discouraging for the apostles, only on an infinitely higher plane. They were trying to live like they thought God wanted them to, then they’d look around and see Jesus, the Perfect God in human flesh. That must’ve been a little disheartening. Why even try?

And then Jesus throws in statements like this:

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

Perfect? Like God? Really?

If that’s the standard, we might as well give up now and save ourselves the disappointment of being crushed by always falling short.

But that’s not what he meant, and Jesus’ message actually ought to equip us to obey.

“Perfect” should probably be translated something like “mature” or “whole,” and it relates to what he just said about loving your enemies. In other words, we ought to try to love others without limits—like God does.

But we need to shy away from taking the bite out of it, because he’s throwing down a serious challenge. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount he urges us to pursue godliness, to grow in righteousness, to imitate him.

Here’s the truth of it, though: we’ll never get there, not through human effort. We’ll be reminded every day of how badly we’re missing as we try to be like him.

And that ought to push us closer to him, not further away.

It’s always been fascinating how the worst sinners in Jesus’ world wanted to be near him—the tax collector, the immoral woman, the down-and-out.

Why? Didn’t they realize how far beneath him they were on the righteousness scale? Didn’t they understand that the brightness of his holiness outshone whatever good they had done?

Of course they did. They knew he was infinitely beyond them in every way.

But they saw not only righteousness in him, not only holiness and perfection and power.

They also saw forgiveness, and that, I think, is why they kept coming. They felt compassion when they were with him, something they never felt anywhere else. So they found him, chased him, crowded around him.

And that’s why we keep coming back to him. We keep trying to obey the Sermon on the Mount because he told us to, and we keep failing. Our love always falls a little short of his, and we never turn the cheek as quickly or completely or cheerfully as he did.

And then we remember: the Jesus who was perfect in his obedience and infinite in his holiness is also limitless in his forgiveness.

Living in his shadow doesn’t discourage; it empowers. It doesn’t make us quit; it picks us up.

He’s perfect, because he knew we couldn’t be.

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