October 19, 2017

A Perfect Life Or A Perfect God?

Years ago, I remember hearing Derek Prince during a radio broadcast tell of a moment in his ministry when God revealed to him that his ideas of perfection were something other than divine. Prince, a somewhat decorous Englishman, was ministering with his wife in a remote tribal village when its people, mostly naked, broke into song and dance as an expression of thanksgiving to God. Initially, the event offended him. Surely God could not be pleased with such uncontrolled exuberance – especially unclad exuberance.

Nevertheless, time stood still for Prince as a flash of revelation flooded through him and he realized his ideas of Christian perfection, whether in modes of worship or anything else, were born out his culture rather than intimate fellowship with Perfection Himself. In that moment, Prince threw off his long-held cultural constraints and began to dance with abandon.

The story has made me re-evaluate my ideas on a fairly regular basis. Born a perfectionist in the traditional sense, I naturally enjoy having every ‘T’ crossed and every ‘I’ dotted. I like things black and white, neat and tidy, safe and secure in every sense. (I will even admit to initially coming to Christ out of a desire to be perfectly compliant rather than a realization of my profound destitution without Him.)

I could categorize my spiritual life into three phases thus far: a pagan era search, a Christian culture hop and finally, a panting and desire for Perfection Himself.

Starting even before an awareness of the need for salvation, I felt a longing. “…He has also set eternity in the hearts of men …” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NIV). Yes, the longing was for eternity, but also for the completeness I instinctively knew existed, but which eluded me. I was driven by some vague notion of perfect fellowship and place enjoyed in God’s original creation. Isn’t all of life a striving to revisit it? If there was a way to know God, I wanted to discover it. If there was a way to rise out of the pain and confusion of a broken, alcoholic home, I wanted to find it.

Since my search began at the ripe age of eleven, the details of my exploration are a bit colorless and uninteresting. I was limited by age, lack of funds, lack of freedom, lack of mobility and a certain lack of imagination that comes with maturity and opportunity. Nevertheless, I did my best to achieve and experience perfection by the means I thought available. I was a people pleaser. The happier I could make my unhappy parents, the better chance I thought I had of obtaining the prize of perfection.

Depending on age and circumstance, everyone I’ve known, almost without exception, has conducted a similar search. Sometimes the modes have been different. Occasionally, the heights or depths or lengths to which someone will go are breathtakingly astounding – sometimes breathtakingly alarming. Without making any judgment on the relative wisdom or foolishness of any of those activities, the bottom line is that trying to achieve perfection of feeling, perfection of circumstance, perfection of being by means incapable and unintended to impute perfection is … well, fruitless, unsatisfying and decidedly imperfect.

Time wore on and I wore out. Seriously, I was tired by age fourteen. I knew that what I was doing was unsustainable. I had friends just as tired as I was for the same reason. I still meet tired people every day caught in the trap of looking for a perfect life in all the wrong places. None of this is really news.

What is scary is that many, maybe most, continue to operate on the same principle even as Christ followers. I did it for years, beginning at age fourteen when I made my commitment to Him. Yes, I can name the day, August 25, 1975. My reconciliation to the Father was sealed on that day. I knew when I awoke the next morning that something of profound significance had occurred. I have been sure of it since, however old habits die hard. Thus began the era of my Christian culture hop.

It’s a crazy dance that involves jumping through hoops repeatedly. All the striving and unrest that characterized my pagan era search manifested anew. How surprised I was to discover that trying to be a good Christian made me even more tired and my goal of a perfect life seem even more elusive. True, none of the new pursuits seemed inherently bad. In fact, one could argue that a natural consequence of pursuing the spiritual disciplines is refinement.

What’s so tiresome is focusing all that energy and devotion on pleasing other Christians and striving to make ourselves more desirable in our own eyes. Oswald Chambers refers to it as having “our eyes upon our own whiteness.” Hoop jumping puts the emphasis on doing rather than being, on personal performance rather than abiding in Perfection.

Although anything taken to an extreme can be harmful or master us in an unhealthy way, I refuse to slam the spiritual disciplines. Prayer, Bible study, fasting, service, and Sabbath have only enriched my life. I do have a few other regrets. There was the time I replaced my Sunday business-type wardrobe with only denomination-approved dresses of a certain length and style. I nearly gave up a life-long study of ballet because a delegation of elders came to tell me I was in sin for wearing leotards. I’ve worn myself into misery and depression being present every time the church doors were open and saying ‘yes’ without fail to every single request for service thrown at me by church folk. And I’m ashamed to say I’ve judged others for a whole host of similar stupid stuff from time-to-time.

Focusing on rules does not get us a perfect life; it only gets us tired and filled with despair. Maybe that’s the point we need to come to in order to realize along with Solomon, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11, NIV). It was the point I came to during a time I refer to as my Great Depression.

That era lasted two years. To reverse the opening line of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, it was the worst of times; it was the best of times. What made it the worst of times was being utterly weak and utterly failed. What made it the best of times was … being utterly weak and utterly failed. All that weakness and failure forced me to my Father’s feet. I remember clearly a moment when I lay in bed one morning dreading to get up and face another day. The thought occurred to me that I was a liability to my family and everyone would be better off without me. That’s when He whispered in my ear, “I love you for who you are, not what you do.”

That day (in 1986), my compliant surrender to Christ (of 1975) turned into a love affair, desperate and needy. That was the day I quit striving (except for brief lapses) after a perfect life and began running after my perfect Lover. A perfect Lover is perfect in His own being, but He also loves with a perfect love. Perfect love defies and supercedes and envelops its unlovely recipient with perfection. Indeed, the more unlovely the subject, the more shiningly apparent the Lover and His love.

Martin Luther, in his letter to Philipp Melanchthon, said, “If you are a preacher of Grace, then preach a true, not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.”

May I draw on this quote to make a point about God’s perfection? If we preach God’s Perfection, then we must preach a true, not a fictitious perfection; if perfection is true, we must bear a true and not a fictitious imperfection. God’s perfection eludes us when we strive to achieve one of our own making. If we are imperfect … and indeed alone we are … then we can be boldly imperfect, reveling and rejoicing in the enveloping presence of Perfection.

After all of Job’s long trials and a deep depression, he made a statement near the end of the book named after him. “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5, NIV). For a long while those words mystified me, but began to make sense that depressed morning in my bedroom. As long as I was trying to achieve my own perfection, or a perfection someone else demanded of me, I was holding Him so far away that I could really only hear of Him. The minute I gave up and embraced my utter weakness and failure, Christ revealed Himself in a way that has had me “panting for” and “longing after” Him since that time.

Derek Prince, in the beginning of his story, saw only an act of creative movement demonstrated by unclad tribesmen, decidedly imperfect by the Christian cultural standards he was accustomed to. In the end, he danced before God, perhaps as David did when he brought the ark of God into Jerusalem. What is the difference? Law versus Love. Culture versus Christ. Performance versus Perfection. Ability versus Abiding.

Jesus said, “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one …” (John 17:23, KJV). As for me, I will take my Love. I will take my Christ. I will take perfect oneness. I cannot do without Him and He will not do without me.

Comments

  1. Wow. This was quite enlightening. Something I will have to give some thought to. Like most of us, a phrase like “sin boldly” in any context is a pretty extreme taboo in my ecclesiastical background. This is definitely a new perspective for me to think about.

    Thank you. 🙂

    • Lisa Dye says:

      Beau,

      I can’t know exactly what was in Luther’s mind as he wrote the words “sin boldly,” but this is how I received them. Like the Apostle Paul who wrote, “What shall we say, then? shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! …” (Romans 6:1,2, NIV), I don’t advocate exploiting God’s grace in order to freely sin. Yet, when we sin, we can have a bold confidence that God’s grace is so perfect and complete, so wide and deep, that our sins are completely drowned in it.

      If we are resting our confidence on anything other than His grace (i.e. our ability to not sin), we are those “fictitious sinners” Luther described with the same self-righteousness as the Pharisees. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11, NIV).

      His grace is such an amazing gift, born of passionate love, perfect power and a heart of compassion. I cannot thank Him enough!

      ~Lisa Dye

      • Lisa,
        Great post. While your experiences are personal, they are not unique. A proper sacrifice is a broken spirit, and contrite heart God will not despise (Ps. 51).
        As for Luther’s statement, “sin bodly.” It simply means “whatever you are going to do, do it well.” Luther understood that while we can refrain from outward sins (murder, adultry, etc), we cannot refrain from always being a sinner who sins and is sinful. So Luther says, whatever you do, because you do it, is tainted with sin, real sin. And since you cannot escape this malady in this life, whatever you do, do it well and trust in the mercy of God in Christ.
        The goal of the Christian life is not to try to stop all sin, something we cannot do as your post so wonderfully teaches. Rather, the goal, as it were, is to lean upon the greater and far stronger mercy of our Lord and God. It is as St. John says, “When our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts” (1 John).

        Peace be with you.
        +Pr. Lovett

      • I liked the post. Thank you. & Welcome to iMonk.

        Btw if you read through all of Luther’s letter to Melanchthon in which “sin boldly” was said, Luther had to spend so longer reassuring Melanchthon — Is it right to give communion to such and such a person? How about that upcoming wedding — there are some questionable circumstances — will I sin if marry them? Will I sin if I don’t? — That’s the kind of thing which drew out the reply in Luther, “Sin boldly! Trust the grace of God more boldly.”

        Take care & God bless
        Anne / WF

  2. That is a wonderful essay, Lisa. Thank you for sharing the story of your journey with us.

    Beau, http://www.ntrmin.org/Be%20a%20sinner%20and%20sin%20boldly%20web.htm#a2
    About an inch and a half on that page, the author explains about Luther writing “sin boldly.”

    If you do an internet search on the words “Luther sin boldly” you will find some other good things too. Basically, he is not saying that people SHOULD choose to sin, but that they WILL sin and that they need to boldly acknowledge that, but also acknowledge that God’s grace is more powerful than any sin. Others who have studied Luther can likely explain better than I can.

  3. a flash of revelation flooded through him and he realized his ideas of Christian perfection, whether in modes of worship or anything else, were born out his culture rather than intimate fellowship with Perfection Himself.

    I weep for how much damage has been done in the name of Christ by people who conflated their culture with godliness. It behooves us all to deeply and regularly reflect on how many of our beliefs about God, worship, and what is “appropriate” and acceptable are actually from our culture and personal preferences rather than from Heaven.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      This became quite a shtick during the Age of Colonialism, when Christian missionaries from what’s now called the First World insisted that all native converts dress/act/and copy their White Christian Missionary Betters in every way. The pop-culture reference that comes to mind is the New England Puritan missionaries to Hawaii in James Michener’s epic novel, trying to turn the Polynesian Hawaiians into Proper New Englanders in every way. (Including wearing many layers of black woolens in Hawaii’s tropical climate.)

      And through Saudi oil money and Wahabi theology, modern Islam is doing the same with “Arabization”, insisting (with the usual Islamic force) that ALL new Muslims (and non-Arab Muslims) become Arab Tribesmen in all but ethnic appearance.

      And wasn’t the first Church Council in the Book of Acts a knock-down-drag-out over whether new Christians would have to become Jews first? When “Jew” meant an entire Semitic Tribal culture with all its cultural baggage accreted around Torah?

      • This became quite a shtick during the Age of Colonialism, when Christian missionaries from what’s now called the First World insisted that all native converts dress/act/and copy their White Christian Missionary Betters in every way.

        Yeah, this is pretty much what I had in mind. It’s both infuriating and deeply tragic that so many native cultures were simply smothered out of existence under the excuse of religion and “civilization.”

        And while they lack the strength to do so, we still see funadmentalists and evangelicals taking this same approach: the Other is always evil and to be eradicated, rather than considered, understood, and adapted/adopted as much as possible. Heaven forfend they actually admit someone else’s approach to God and spirituality have any merit.

      • And wasn’t the first Church Council in the Book of Acts a knock-down-drag-out over whether new Christians would have to become Jews first?

        You just gave me a bizarre thought ,and it has nothing to do with race.

  4. Thanks, Lisa. The line from God, “I love you for who you are, not what you do” is a message that cannot be repeated enough.

    It appears we are about the same age but still in need of hearing the same thing from God. I was writing a few weeks back while I had Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” going in the background. The song “As” came on and I stopped writing and began to listen. Then I heard the words,

    “Until the day is night and night becomes the day–Loving you
    Until the trees and seas up, up and fly away–Loving you
    Until the day that 8x8x8x8 is 4–Loving you
    Until the day that is the day that are no more–Loving you”

    At that time I felt God speak to my heart, “Jim, that is the way I love you” and I began to sob. Still trying to be perfect and failing at every chance, God took the time to remind me of His unconditional love.

    I wish I really understood that love. I can only suspect we will never fully comprehend it this side of Heaven. And then, millions of years after we arrive, I think we’ll still be exploring the concept of God’s complete and unconditional love.

    Jim

  5. Beautiful. Thank you for writing.

  6. I spent years trying to be a good Christian. Although i still fall into that trap from time to time, for the last year or so i’ve realized (I believe with the Help of God, though I won’t claim i know for sure) that being a good Christian is impossible, as the only people who NEED to be Christians are evil.

    If i could be a good Christian, i quite simply wouldn’t need to be one.

  7. As others have already noted here, those two words “sin boldly” caught my attention, but I took them, in light of all else you said, to not necessarily speak of rebellious disconcern for God’s commandments. Paul writes “God forbid” that we should sin, admonishes us to not “serve” sin, nor to let it “reign” in our mortal bodies. Jesus said “Go…and sin no more”. Without meaning to preach a sermon here, let me say that my journey has brought me to believe that sin is not what we “do”, but what we “are”, in the sense that we “do” not go to God with what we “are”. Apart from our will refusing to face Him in such matters, I have found Him faithful, His grace a reality, and nothing beyond His willingness to walk with me as we work on it together.

    Thanks for sharing your story, Lisa. It feeds the soul……….

    • I made a reply to Beau (above) addressing the “sin boldly” quote that also applies to your comment.

      Your observation that sin is not what we “do”, but what we “are” is similar to something Watchman Nee wrote in “The Normal Christian Life.” “Sin” is our nature and “sins” are what we do as a result. We sin because we are sinners.

      Thank you, Jim!

      • Watchman Nee’s name has been popping up on my radar for some time. I think that means eventually I need to read him.

  8. Hey, just as a miscellaneous side note, while I do get and appreciate the original post, let’s also keep in mind that the knock-down drag-out was more about conforming to the Mosaic Law and Jewish religion than becoming ethnically Jewish (I’m going to say Israelite, for sanity’s sake, to mean the ethnicity, from here out). And in the end, even Paul conceded to five requirements in the results. And even he made one exception with Timothy, because the man had a Jewish mother and Gentile father.

    I’m not convinced ‘boldly’ was the best choice of words, because while I do understand the point, to be ‘bold’ about something is to be courageous, confident, and resolute about it. I might have courage to confess my sin, but boldness, at least in my head, implies a positive end that really shouldn’t be there.

    I’m just saying, had the tax collector in Jesus’ story been anything but contrite about his sin, I’m not convinced that his prayer would have borne any repentance. There’s just a difference between confession and a smirky “Forgive me?”

    Anyway. Again, I do get the actual meaning – the Lit major in me just can’t help but be anal. Blame my age. 0=)

  9. Nothing more glorious than understanding eternal forgiveness. I shared my own similar story on another blog today and your comment about Jesus not doing without you was just eye leaking (cry). Thanks Lisa, amazing grace, how sweet that sound, when what I heard now I see.