Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Nature of the Call and the Sin of Perfectionism

In Christian culture throughout history, we have tended to put men on pedestals. Particularly if they manage well in the ‘secular’ sphere. We champion the few who have ‘made it’ in the world’s estimation, however short lived they are: Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin, Duck Dynasty, and most recently Matthew McConaughey (despite the reality that the name ‘God’ can refer to countless false gods). It is well known among historians that Christians have lied by claiming that certain political and philosophical figures have ‘accepted Christ’ upon their deathbed—as if to give Christianity more credence in saying, “See! Even ___________ became a Christian!” Christopher Hitchens was sure to mitigate against such rumors prior to his death, declaring that any claim that he had turned to Christ was a lie or else that he was in death’s delusion.

There remains another strain of thought to which I am a proponent, but which can shoot amiss. Namely, that Christians ought to excel in everything they do; they ought to be the best carpenters, or the best teachers, or the best businesswomen. As Justin Taylor has pointed out, Martin Luther did not say, “The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship,” nor would he have considered saying it. Taylor continues and quotes Frederick Gaiser, “The idea that God is pleased with our work because he likes quality work ‘would be the American work-ethic version of vocation, theologically endorsing work as an end in itself. In the hands and mouth of a modern boss, good craftsmanship and clean floors (or a clean desk or a signed contract) to the glory of God could be a potent and tyrannical tool to promote the bottom line…. [W]hat marks Luther’s doctrine of vocation is the insistence that the work is done in service of the neighbor and of the world. God likes shoes (and good ones!) not for their own sake, but because the neighbor needs shoes….’”

The Nature of the Call
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (I Cor.1.26).
So writes Paul to the Corinthians, and by extension both humbles and encourages us. The Christian faith is indeed for the weak and despised. Oftentimes in our championing of Christian’s who’ve done it, we usurp the power of the gospel—it is Good News!... not because it enables us to throw a football but because being weak, Christ has become our strength: “because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (I Cor.1.31). The gospel rescues those who are frail and fallen; toward the gospel, those who think they have it all together are much less concerned—not because they do not need Jesus, but because the gospel appeals to those who recognize their desperate need, who are ‘humble and contrite in spirit’ who are ‘meek of heart’ and ‘poor in spirit,’ who ‘mourn’ over their sin and the state of the world.

Ironically we can also do this through the testimonies we put before the church: we highlight the ones who were so far gone in drugs and sex and poverty, etc. (so much that it becomes like a contest: “Who’s received more grace?!”), and focusing on the uttermost of their rescue they insinuate that they will never struggle with a drink or a needle, a residual emotional scar or lustful glance ever again. In a strange reverse-heroism, the worst become the best in a way quite absent from Scripture. “The last shall be first,” yes, but if the last are made first in this world, they will yet be last in the one to come. Left to the forsaken corners of constant struggle and doubt are the ones who are truly weak—fighting back the shadow of depression every night they return to an empty bed; being cut and scathed by the enemies’ sabers of temptation and vice.

If that be you, then know the Divine Warrior fills your iniquity. You may never be the best in anything, but it is you whom Christ has adopted as his beloved child. Your weakness proves forth his strength. His love is yours to cherish.

The Sin of Perfectionism
Because of the nature of the call, Christians will never be the best in everything. Certainly, there will be few whom God has so graced with ‘worldly’ excellence in voice, art, physique, intelligence, and anything else imaginable—in fact, I believe he reserves some few in every generation that there might always be a testimony against the brilliant: “Yes, the gospel’s designs are such that the weak are attracted, but nonetheless the strong live in need; neither are they beyond its reach. Indeed, those who compare with you can show its reasonableness to you.”

Do what you do, and do it well. “Do everything to the glory of God.” Pursue excellence. True, true, and true. But when well and excellence become an end in themselves, they forget the glory of God—they do not add to it. Surely more glory is to be had in the exercise of his gifts to the extent they have been given, but the glory is exponential when done toward the right end with the right means from the right motive. There are several axes [plural ‘axis’] at play: the task itself, the motive, the end, the means, the beneficiary, the manner, the time, the alternatives. If it sounds a bit like Aristotle or like Augustine’s ethics, you might be right. I’m not even sure these are the only axes or variables at play.

If you’ve heard (or said yourself), “I’m a type-A personality” or “I’m OCD,” you’ll probably remember that it was said with a bit of prudishness or satisfaction because obviously type-A is better than anything else, and wanting everything clean and always organized is better than the slightest disarray. I’ve even known some people to claim they were one or the other, when they absolutely were not—talk about an awkward roommate moment. My point here, however, is that these personality characterizations are not intrinsically better than another because they pertain to only one (sometimes less) of the parts that make an ethical or God-glorifying whole. And they can often devolve into self-justification or legalism or perfectionism… in other words SIN.

By what measure do we determine the God-honor in our actions? By tending to every minutiae until it is flawless? By arriving an hour before necessary? Far from it. Those are good signs that you are attempting to prove your worth to God and others. Perfectionism is sin because it determines your worth and value by judging your efforts, rather than the work of Christ. If you can just be good enough, then you don’t have to confront God and learn of your sin; you don’t have to face Jesus, instead you can face the mirror pleased at your accomplishments. The problem is that even your best efforts are as filthy rags, even once you have believed. The condition of sin is so desperate that even after you have been transformed and sanctified, your efforts fail—Christ himself is the author of faith, and without faith it is impossible to please God.

Even in the new creation, believers will be united to Christ by the work of the Spirit. Your glorified deeds of love are still wrought by your attachment to Christ and his righteousness and work. 

The next time excellence hinders you from loving your neighbor, then you are in sin.

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