In Matthew 5:48 Jesus utters this short, symmetric, and straightforward command: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (ESV) Somewhat ironically, the linguistic simplicity and clarity of this statement appears to be in contrast with the depth and ambiguity of its meaning. We understand that God is perfect, and that we must be perfect also. This much is clear. But, what is the meaning of “perfect?” How do we understand perfection?
For much of my Christian life I imagined perfection to be a state you arrive at, in which you cannot make a mistake. It was a static place from where one cannot fall, err, or fail in any way. I imagined this state to be like a fixed point at the top of a trajectory. It was much like Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover.
In this view, once you arrive at perfection, you are bound to remain static, because any change would imply a change for the worse, since there is no better place to reach, no higher status to achieve, than perfection. So my idea of perfection was very abstract, robotic, and insular.
This conceptualization of perfection, however, did not seem adequate, because I could never see beyond that point of perfection. If perfection is the ultimate, the highest, the last, a perplexing question lingered: “How does one live after reaching perfection?” Or, if you will, “How does one live in a perfect state if such a state does not allow for movement?”
Further study and reflections on this matter led me to question and change the entire paradigm of how I understood perfection. Two major ideas proved pivotal to this paradigm shift.
(1) We were created in a perfect state in which we were meant to grow.
Consider these excerpts from Ellen White’s Patriarchs and Prophets:
“In six days the great work of creation had been accomplished. … God looked with satisfaction upon the work of His hands. All was perfect, worthy of its divine Author, and He rested, not as one weary, but as well pleased with the fruits of His wisdom and goodness and the manifestations of His glory.”
“Everything that God had made was the perfection of beauty, and nothing seemed wanting that could contribute to the happiness of the holy pair; yet the Creator gave them still another token of His love, by preparing a garden especially for their home.”
We learn here that God’s creation was perfect, and this includes Adam and Eve—humanity before the Fall. Interestingly, in this state of perfection, before the Fall, human beings were meant to develop and grow. White writes:
“God placed man under law, as an indispensable condition of his very existence. He was a subject of the divine government, and there can be no government without law. God might have created man without the power to transgress His law; He might have withheld the hand of Adam from touching the forbidden fruit; but in that case man would have been, not a free moral agent, but a mere automaton. Without freedom of choice, his obedience would not have been voluntary, but forced. There could have been no development of character. Such a course would have been contrary to God’s plan in dealing with the inhabitants of other worlds. It would have been unworthy of man as an intelligent being, and would have sustained Satan’s charge of God’s arbitrary rule.”
God’s ideal for the beings He created in a perfect state was that they develop, and freedom was the necessary context for this to take place. This quote speaks plainly about character development. Furthermore, there was to be physical and mental development:
“To the dwellers in Eden was committed the care of the garden, “to dress it and to keep it.” Their occupation was not wearisome, but pleasant and invigorating. God appointed labor as a blessing to man, to occupy his mind, to strengthen his body, and to develop his faculties.”
Finally, White also speaks about intellectual, emotional, and relational growth:
“So long as they remained loyal to the divine law, their capacity to know, to enjoy, and to love would continually increase. They would be constantly gaining new treasures of knowledge, discovering fresh springs of happiness, and obtaining clearer and yet clearer conceptions of the immeasurable, unfailing love of God.”
Ellen White’s statements indicate that in the state of perfection there is movement; there is change for the better! The whole of the created person was meant to grow and develop—physically, mentally, emotionally, and relationally. This was God’s plan for mankind before the Fall. This idea that perfection includes growth is, perhaps, as paradoxical and incomprehensible as the concept of eternity. Our finite minds simply cannot fully grasp the possibility of this. Yet even without a deep study of these passages, the exposition is unambiguous. Now let’s took a look at the second notion decisive for my paradigm change.
(2) We are relational beings, created in the image of a relational God.
Recent theological scholarship has alerted us to the errors of centuries-old theologies that fashion God more according to Greek philosophy than to the description of God in the Bible. Such a God is distant, entirely outside of time, and incapable of entering our history. He is a God who does not change, nor move, and therefore cannot be relational, for relationship involves movement. He is static, isolated, and completely transcendent. Much like my idea of perfection.
Contrary to this picture, the Bible portrays God as personal, immanent, and relational; a God who touched us at creation, dwells with us, took our form and was born into this world, and is ever present to guide us and love us. Moreover, not only is God in a relationship with us, the triune God exists as a relationship of mutual love and common purpose, and it is such an intimate unity that He desires for us to experience as well.
Seeing that the social dimension is such a fundamental aspect of being human, it is therefore, in a context of relationship, that we were meant and are called to be perfect. This paints a vastly dissimilar picture of perfection than an abstract, static, and emotionless point on a trajectory.
White seems to address this, too:
“Man was not made to dwell in solitude; he was to be a social being. Without companionship the beautiful scenes and delightful employments of Eden would have failed to yield perfect happiness. Even communion with angels could not have satisfied his desire for sympathy and companionship. There was none of the same nature to love and to be loved.”
As evident from this quote, God’s ideal for us involves not only relationship with Him, but also relationship with fellow human beings. The biblical idea of perfection, therefore, is one that necessarily exists in a context of relationship—with God, and with each other. This should not be surprising, given that our identity, generally as human beings, and in particular as unique individuals, depends largely on our relationships. Yet it is not something we consider very often.
Going back to the Bible verse about perfection, and having put some of the Greek biases aside, we can see, upon a closer look at the statement, that…
GOD = PERFECTION
The definition of God is the definition of perfection. And if God is not a static point, but a personal and relational God, then perfection is not a state to reach, but a way of being, which allows for movement, and change, and relationship—a context in which we can live our fluid existence, including growth and development.
This, in fact is precisely what the verse says: “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perhaps, then, the simplicity of Jesus’s statement needs not be so puzzling after all. If we are to be perfect, as God is perfect, then we simply need to be like God: to love others in a context of freedom, put others first, and value others more than our own life. This is not a place to reach, but a way of being that accompanies us wherever we are in time and space.
The reflections I shared here were part of my never-ending process of growing and discovering myself and God. In this process, I was made aware that even while I believe in a personal and relational God, some reminiscent roots of the Greek view of divinity, that has dominated Christianity for centuries, had remained unquestioned. Indeed, my view of perfection was at odds with my view of God, and recognizing this was freeing and empowering. If perfection is a not a point to reach, but a way of being, then we can be perfect here and now, as we are called to. And if relationships play such a key role in our “being perfect,” then that is something I need to ponder for a while!
 For a good summary on this I recommend Norman Gulley, Systematic Theology: God as Trinity, (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2011). ISBN-10: 188392569X