“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. “ Or so Anne Lamott writes in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I remember discovering this line in seminary and wondering where this wisdom had been all my life.
Up until then, I’d never really understood the need to overachieve as a foreign invasion. I thought it was my own voice telling me to get the A, no matter what. Where does that message come from, that we can be reduced to how we perform? And how do we manage to internalize it so early?
The women who raised me, my mom and grandma, didn’t teach me that. They taught me that I was a beloved child of God and that Jesus loved me no matter what. In the church of my childhood, however, the message wasn’t quite so clear. We were taught to take the Sermon on the Mount quite literally. When we heard “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), we didn’t laugh this off as impossible. We didn’t let ourselves off the hook. Grace was no justification for spiritual laziness. We could be better people if we tried harder, and there was no excuse not to try. Failure to meet the mark was no excuse for not trying to reach it.
It was only much later, when I had the tools to explore the Bible on a deeper level, that I realized that this verse doesn’t mean what I always thought it meant. Some things can get lost in translation, it turns out. For example, the verb here in Greek is in the future tense: “you will be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s less a command than a vision of something we can’t see yet.
Likewise, the Greek word for “perfect” here means something like “whole, complete, or mature.” In that light, a newer translation called the Common English Bible (in the context of a passage about loving our enemies) translates this verse as “just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”
The closest we get to this notion of perfection in our liturgy as Episcopalians is the Collect for Purity at the beginning of the Eucharist, “that we might perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name.” It’s still a high bar, no doubt. But loving the One who loves us unconditionally doesn’t seem quite as challenging as living without failures or mistakes. It might even help us love ourselves a little more easily. If the One who knows all still sees fit to love us, who are we to question that judgment?
Personally, I now prefer Luke’s version in his parallel passage in the Sermon on the Plain. He writes: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Maybe that’s more what spiritual “perfection” – or maturity – looks like. Not the ability to live without error, but the capacity to show mercy to ourselves and each other. If we’re going to put in all the energy it takes to lead a faithful life, we might as well aim for the right mark.