One of the most controversial commands Jesus gave His followers was to seek perfection by loving their enemies.
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For He gives His sunlight to both the evil and the good, and He sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect [τέλειος], even as your Father in heaven is perfect [τέλειος].” – Matthew 5
Now, it is certainly a challenge to love your enemies, but it is impossible to be perfect. Only one person is perfect, Jesus Christ. The rest of us are flawed, broken, sinful, or imperfect in one way or another. So what was Jesus thinking when He commanded those following Him to be perfect?
There have been many different perspectives over the 2000+ years of Christian thought on this challenge by Christ to pursue perfection.
Perhaps the greatest advocate for the possibility of perfection was John Wesley, one of my theological heroes and the founder of what became the Methodist movement, who defined Christian perfection as “that love of God and our neighbor, which implies deliverance from all sin” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection). This total love for God and others Wesley described as “entire sanctification” and served as his basis for calling all Christians to pursue perfection. And yet, although he firmly taught that this love of God and people was only possible through grace in faith, the challenge implied in Wesley’s call to perfection is clearly that purity of some quality is supposedly achievable by finite and imperfect people.
Wesley accepted that Christians “are not free from ignorance, no nor from mistake … They are not free from infirmities, such as weaknesses or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection) and so on, and so allowed that there could be flaws, imperfections, areas of ignorance or lack of education, and so on, but he believed that through a perfect and uncompromising love of God a Christian could and should “be filled with so entire a love to him that you may love nothing but for his sake” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection) and by this love could therefore achieve the command that Jesus made in the book of Matthew to “be perfect [τέλειος], even as your Father in heaven is perfect [τέλειος].”
Wesley struggled to close the gap he saw between his aspiration to holiness and his own flaws and the flaws of other believers and wrestled to redefine perfection as a state that was achievable for all believers to inspire a more robust and practical theology — one that could change lives and fulfill God’s promises here on earth — where so much of what had come before him relegated any sense of perfection to the afterlife or the select few saints upon whom God had conferred an unusual degree of holiness. Wesley’s success was in grounding the theology of holiness into the lives of all believers, but his teaching on the possibility of perfection also left believers striving for a goal that separated experience and observation from their aspirations and hopes. People were left attempting to demonstrate perfection, sanctification, and holiness to each other, instead of accepting that no one is holy but God, and all people are simply recipients of His goodness, His grace, and His love.
So, given that I firmly believe that no person is capable of perfection apart from Jesus Christ Himself, how is it possible that God would command so great a disconnect from the human condition and character as to suggest that we could be perfect just like He is?
Did God intend that you simply live in the full awareness of your own inadequacy? Was He rubbing your errors, your sins, and your flaws in your face? Or was He unrealistic and inaccurate in His ask?
The secret to understanding Christian perfection is to realize that no Christian is perfect, and that perfection is not a requirement or a prerequisite for a relationship with God.
God is not asking you to be holy, pure, or perfect. God is not expecting you to be holy, pure, or perfect.
God is asking you to be “τέλειος”, which is Greek for “mature” or “full grown”.
God is saying that loving all people is a sign of maturity.
God is setting the goal that all believers should mature, should grow, should develop, should improve, should increase, should round out their character, their understanding, their integrity, their behavior, their perspective, and all of the other aspects of their life in connection and following the example He set for us.
God is not offering something out of reach, God is asking us to take the next step, and then another, and another.
God is not commanding us to be or pretend to be anything other than what we are — flawed, imperfect, compromised, and broken in indefinite variety.
God is offering that we accept the eternal spectrum of growth and change which is the life He promised us — a life empowered by grace to pursue and receive increasingly, abundantly, above, and beyond super natural blessings, super natural favor, super natural peace, super natural joy, super natural fulfillment, super natural wisdom, super natural love, super natural health and life and goodness and integrity and maturity.
Far from being a barrier or an obstacle, a requirement or a prerequisite to achieving God’s presence or deserving God’s attention or goodness, when Jesus declared that you will be “τέλειος” Jesus was offering you the gift of perpetual change, evolution, development, increase, improvement, and abundance of every manner of goodness that He designed and promised over your life before you were even born.
When Jesus said, “Therefore, you will mature just as your Father in heaven is mature”, He was not asking it of you, He was speaking it as a blessing over you, He was believing and declaring it as a gift, He was establishing once and for all the opportunity you have to accept a life of continual increase and continual improvement, a life full of better and better blessings, a life rich in a lasting and permanent relationship with Him that brings your maturity deeper and fuller every day and opens the way to your ultimate destiny which is eternal life with Him starting today.
So, take the opportunity today to step into your destiny, experience the favor, the abundance, and the goodness that God is offering you, and embrace the revolution of grace that God has spoken over your life.
God isn’t asking you to be perfect. God is asking you to be His.
God isn’t setting an expectation of where you are starting your journey with Him. God is enlisting you in the process of change and increase that will be your eternal life with Him.
So, if you want a better life, if you are ready for a change, Jesus is speaking this blessing over you right now, “you will mature [τέλειος], just like your Father in heaven is mature [τέλειος].” – Matthew 5