“I’m practically perfect, not slightly soiled,
running like an engine that’s just been freshly oiled,
I’m so practically perfect in every wayâ€¦”
Thus sang Mary Poppins, the practically-perfect nanny of stage and screen. And of a slightly creepy children’s book series.
If it’s true, Ms. Poppins comes a lot closer to the ideal than most of us. The goal of perfection is not only intimidating, it’s downright discouraging. And too difficult (and too boring?) to contemplate, as well.
Still, scripture tells us that perfection is not only possible, it’s practical. Why? Because it’s about what God can do with us, and not about what we can do on our own. It’s not about how great we can be; it’s about how great God is. And, most of all, it’s not about an end product, it’s about a process. A process of love.
John Wesley latched onto Christian perfection as a lynchpin of the theology that undergirded the 18th Century Methodist revival. He took a lot of heat for it. He himself speaks of perfection as potentially offensive:
The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them. And whosoever preaches perfection (as the phrase is) that is, asserts that it is attainable in this life, runs great hazard of being accounted by them worse than a heathen man or a publican.
It’s easy to see why! Just the phrase, â€˜Christian perfection’ conjures up images of self-righteous, annoyingly-arrogant, religiously-correct believers who would make Jesus himself uncomfortable to be around. And who would probably be uncomfortable to hang around with Jesus!
The students I teach in the Methodist History and Doctrine classes at Union Seminary find the concept of perfection equally challenging. One of them remarked, It’s weird, it’s confusing, it’s annoying.â€ What exactly does Wesley mean by it?
Wesley knew that people don’t come in â€˜perfect.’ We will never be perfect in knowledge, we will never be free of mistakes, we will never be free of temptations. But Wesley also knew that God can do amazing things with us, given half a chance.
To Wesley, the process of perfection means just one thing: to grow more perfect in the way we love. To get better at love is the goal of the Christian life.
Growing closer to God leaves us more steeped in love. Love for God, and love for our neighbors, both the ones in the apartment next door, and the ones half a world away. It’s a practical kind of love, that needs practice, practice, practice. After all, practice makes perfect.
Therefore be perfect, even as God in heaven is perfect.â€ ~Matthew 5:48