March 1, 2013

In the Sermon on the Mount, after Jesus has encouraged us to look beyond the law to the condition of our hearts, He says, "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Later, after Jesus illustrated the impossibility of human perfection to the rich young man, the man became discouraged and "left in sorrow." Jesus told his disciples, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" Matthew 19:26.

Does God expect perfection? Are we to become perfect people in order to assure our salvation? How do we get there? Must we become perfect before we can be useful for God's kingdom? These questions are raised often in counseling. Our awareness of our inadequacy often threatens to cripple us for service in God's kingdom.

I have struggled personally with these questions recently. When this article appears in FWL, I will have been the clinical director at Cross Connections for almost a year. What a privilege to be able to work with the body of Christ, to learn from seasoned Biblical counselors, and to guide God's people toward counseling relationships in which they will grow in Christ. And yet, in this year, I have been challenged in every area of my life -in my spiritual life, in my body, in my marriage, as a parent, as a professional, and as a helper.   I often look at my inadequate management of the trials in my life and groan to God, "How can I expect to help others when I don't have it all together? When the inadequacy of my sinful self is still so very apparent?" The temptation is to be defeated in the face of my imperfection.

In looking through the Bible, I am reminded of Gideon, the reluctant hero; Moses, the stuttering speaker; David, the adulterous king; Rahab, the rescuing harlot; Peter, the ashamed witness; Paul, the murderous missionary; the list of imperfect servants - servants who served WHILE relying on the grace and forgiveness of God - seems to include every significant account in scripture. Only Christ lived a perfect life and offered this life as atonement for our sin. If we were able to overcome our sinfulness - able to become perfect - God's sacrifice of His son for us would not have been necessary. Jesus asked His Father in the garden for another way - there WAS no other way!  

In Hebrews 5:2, Paul explained that a high priest in the Old Testament could "deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people." The priest - the one who served the people by interceding for them with God - looked to God for his adequacy. Paul tells us that "all have sinned and fall short"(Romans 3:23), and that "I do the very thing that I hate!" (Romans 7:15). Clearly God has, by His strength, empowered imperfect people for His service.

So, my expectation that I should be perfect BEFORE I serve others is rather a prideful one! After Paul describes what loving behavior looks like in detail in I Corinthians 13, he tells us that we only know in part right now. "But when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away." It is only possible for us to know what real love looks like dimly, as if we were looking in a mirror. But, even with this clear knowledge of our own imperfection, we are encouraged to follow Christ's example, to love one another, to seek God.

Paul continues to speak of his imperfection in II Corinthians 12 when he tells us about having asked the Lord three times to remove an imperfection, his "thorn in the flesh" given to him to keep him "from becoming conceited." Imagine, Paul, the writer of much of the New Testament, the missionary to the gentiles, the spiritual father to so many Christians, being transparent with the churches of his day about his own inadequacy! Paul states that God's reply to him was, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

The rich young man in his focus on what he could do in his own strength gave up and left. In seeing that it was impossible for him in his own strength to become perfect, he quit! It is not what we do for Christ that makes us complete; but it is what Christ does for us daily as He draws us to Himself for forgiveness and strength that makes us able to be useful in God's kingdom. May we continue to serve the Lord, resting in the strength, forgiveness, redemption, and peace of God as we say with Paul and to one another, "I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong"(II Corinthians 12:10).

Susan Reusser, LCSW