The idea that we humans could by ourselves master the cosmos took hold in the 19th century. It really got rolling, though, in the 20th—as eye-popping scientific and technological breakthroughs began to accumulate.
But it wasn’t limited to the external world. It began to occur to us that, over the same period, we might be able to master ourselves too. Inner us. Outer us. We began to believe that, given some time, we might be able to perfect ourselves—and our lives.
This ethos thrived in our research universities—in the hard sciences and social sciences. It was embraced by academics and practitioners alike. But it was uniquely and remarkably evident in popular culture.
An 1859 book by a man named Samuel Smiles launched the self-help or personal development genre. His book was a hands-on guide for improving one’s life—and one’s lot in life. It advocated hard work, perseverance and self-education.
The book sold well. But the self-help market didn’t explode until several decades later. In the mid-20th century, books like How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, and The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale all became bestsellers and cultural influencers.
In his book, Hill captured the message of these (and all) self-help books:
“You are the master of your own earthly destiny. … You may influence, direct and eventually control your own environment, making your life what you want it to be.”
The message? Be better! Be perfect.
MODERNIZING THE MESSAGE
Be perfect hasn’t gone away over the decades. Smiles and Carnegie and Hill and Peale—they were just the beginning. We’ve simply upped the intensity of the signal and created new and cunning methods of delivering the message. Some social critics have, in fact, dubbed this moment, our day, as the age of perfectionism.
Mass media still does its job, as do our families and communities. But now social media delivers Be perfect too. First it shows us, in high-res and high-def, how perfect everyone else is—then it inundates us with advice on how to get there ourselves.
We’ve got to be crushing it at work, winning at home—and looking good doing it.
The problem is, of course, human beings aren’t perfect. Not one.
We struggle. We blow it. We make mistakes and sin. We all do.
“It’s clear enough, isn’t it, that we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else?” —Romans 3:19
We’re flat out less than perfect. We struggle with honesty. With integrity. With decency. With patience. With kindness. With self-control. We struggle with pornography and infidelity, alcohol and drugs. We all sin. We do so every day—in ways that are big and obvious, of course, but much more often, in ways that are small and sometimes almost imperceptible.
And if we tallied it all up, if we all made lifetime sins lists—honest lists, complete—they would be, by any measure that matters, indistinguishable from one another. Some would lean toward more socially acceptable sins, for sure. But they would all contain more than enough rebellion and sin to disrupt our relationships with God.
But there’s no room for that sin—and all those mistakes—in a be-perfect culture.
So, what do we do?
Well, we do what humans have always done:
“They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.” —Genesis 3:8
We obscure failures. We conceal sin. We fake it—in the desperate hope that no one will ever learn the truth. Because, we fear, if people knew the real us, the less-than-perfect us, the sinful us, they’d cut us off and cast us out. Families. Colleagues. Community.
When parents and other authority figures are the ones telling us to be perfect, it’s easy to attribute Be perfect to God. It’s a short jump from Be perfect as a cultural demand to Be perfect as a divine command.
THE PROBLEM WITH SIN
Now, does God have a problem with sin? Yes, a big one. But not in the way many of us think. Sin does get in the way of our relationships with him. But the disruption occurs not because God rejects us or turns away from us or anything like that.
Sin disrupts our relationships with God because it causes us to reject him.
God made humans in love and for love. And because of his love, he gave us free will. Standing in eternity, he’s always known each of us through and through—all the way to the end. He’s always known our frailty. Our foolishness. He’s always known we would abuse our freedom. He’s always known we would rebel and rebel and rebel.
“Like an open book, you watched me grow from
conception to birth;
all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared
before I’d even lived one day.” —Psalm 139:16
Standing in eternity, God saw what we’d do—and he made us still. He wanted to be in relationship with us still. He loved us still—outrageously.
He grieves our rebellion, of course. He despises the sin that plagues us. He laments the bad choices we make. He detests the separation we choose. But he doesn’t turn away. He doesn’t reject us for it. No, he turns toward. He sympathizes with our humanity—and offers something better than hiding. He doesn’t recoil; he leans in and offers help.
“It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us.” —Ephesians 2:3–4
He came into our physical world as a physical man. He did what we couldn’t. He was perfect. Jesus came and lived among us and “committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22).
And then he did something astonishing. He turned it all around.
Jesus somehow drew every last bit of our rebellion and sin into one place: himself. He bore it all—past, present, future. And when he died on that cross, all of it died too. He dealt with our sin. All of it. For all time.
“God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again” —John 3:17
That was always his plan, which he formed “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).
Jesus’ victory over sin becomes our victory when we let him into our lives, because we cannot deal with imperfection alone. We cannot mature and become whole alone. No amount of planning or preparation, sheer will or self-discipline or sin avoidance will get us there.
So, here’s the upshot: We’ve simply got to learn to show up in our sin and shame. We must be willing to come into contact with God while we’re still broken and ashamed—in worship, in sacrament, in study, in community, in solitude, in celebration.
And then we need to stay. And keep staying. Even when shame tells us to run and hide.
The order is crucial. Be with comes before become. We’d like it to be flipped, for sure. We’d like to be able to get perfect on our own. But it doesn’t work like that. If we try to flip the order, nothing happens.
“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” —Hebrews 4:16
We tend to think being a Christian is about how little we sin. It isn’t, not really. We think how much or how little we sin is what God cares about most. It’s not.
What God cares about most is that we show up. What he wants most is that we encounter him, experience him, get to know him. Because he trusts himself. When he sees us come out of hiding, he breathes a God-size sigh of relief, because he knows the power of his love and grace and goodness in our lives.
He knows that when we’re with him, nothing can take us down—not sin, nothing.