Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
Nobody’s perfect. This is a familiar adage, one with which most of us readily agree. And yet sometimes religious folk have a difficult time accepting their imperfections. “I’m not perfect, but I should be. It’s my fault that I’m not. I need to work on it. I could be perfect if only I’d make better choices. Perfection is always a possibility, even if I constantly choose not to make it a reality.” So the thinking goes. All too often, this can lead to shame, hopelessness, and other negative feelings that I do not believe God endorses.
One of the most fascinating Bible stories, in my opinion, is that of Adam and Eve. Never mind how much of the story, if any, is to be taken literally. I think Adam and Eve teach us profound truths about our fundamental role as human beings who stand in some sort of relationship to God. I’ve been amazed at just how many insights the Adam and Eve narrative has provided me. There are some intriguing possibilities lying between the lines of the Genesis text, many more than I’m sure I’ve even realized. That being said, I’d like to explore just one of the ideas that recently occurred to me, which considers what Adam and Eve can teach us about perfection.
Within the first couple of chapters of Genesis, God issues two commandments. At Genesis 1:28, God tells Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth.” In the second chapter of Genesis, the tree of knowledge of good and evil is introduced (see verse 9). This results in a second commandment at verse 17, where God prohibits eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When Adam and Eve subsequently partake of the tree’s fruit, they are banished from the Garden of Eden. This is frequently referred to as “the fall.”
Some have suggested that prior to the fall, Adam and Eve were incapable (whether biologically, psychologically, or otherwise) of having sexual intercourse. If it is true that the Adam and Eve story should be understood in this way, it raises an interesting question as to how Adam and Eve were supposed to fulfill the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth. It would seem that the fall was a necessary stepping stone to discharging this particular duty. This may appear unproblematic at first. If God is all-knowing, then presumably God knew that Adam and Eve would partake of the forbidden fruit. It may even have been a part of His plan. But what concerns me is not the de facto inevitability of Adam and Eve partaking of the fruit. It’s that, on this interpretation, God issued a set of commandments that could not be mutually satisfied. It isn’t just that Adam and Eve undoubtedly would partake of the fruit. It’s that they could not obey every commandment that God had given them. They were literally incapable.
Was God being unfair to issue Adam and Eve commandments that they were not capable of satisfying? Not necessarily. Perhaps as a perfect being, God must demand perfection. That is, perhaps God cannot endorse less than perfection because … well, that would be imperfect. If it was best that Adam and Eve multiply and replenish the earth, then that is what a perfect being would demand of them. That would be the standard to which Adam and Eve must be held. Interestingly, if Adam and Eve themselves were perfect beings, then presumably they could have complied with all of God’s commandments. They would have had the knowledge and/or abilities necessary to multiply and replenish the earth, and they wouldn’t have needed to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They would already be knowledgeable, and so the fruit would have served no purpose. (Likewise, the serpent could not have beguiled them.) The point I am making is that God issued a set of standards that complied with perfection but which imperfect beings therefore could not—and not just would not—live up to.
In my mind, this shifts the way we should think about perfection. Or, perhaps more importantly, it shifts how we should think about imperfection. We are imperfect beings. That is our nature. Because this is our nature, we literally cannot satisfy all of the commandments. We don’t know how and we don’t have the means. The best that we can do is venture forward, doing our best to satisfy the commandments as well as we understand them, knowing we will forever fall short. That is why we need a messiah, a redeemer, someone in whom we can be made perfect. It is not because we are inherently awful, but because we are works in progress. What we must keep in mind is that, even as we progress, we are imperfect. We aren’t omniscient, omnipotent, or omnibenevolent as God is. And so we cannot live up to His perfect standards. Not yet anyway. For us perfection must wait until the next life, when we become “heirs of God” (Romans 8:17) and “inherit all things” (Revelation 21:7). What this tells me is that imperfection is fundamentally a matter of our mortal nature, not a matter of choice. Granted, we can make poor choices. We can willfully do terrible things. And we can’t excuse these actions simply by citing our imperfect natures. And yet it’s also true that not every instance of failing to live up to the commandments is an instance of being a bad person or of doing things “wrong.” Yes, you’re imperfect. But all that means is that you’re not done progressing. It means nothing about the direction in which you’re headed.
Interestingly, when we look at key passages in the New Testament (such as Matthew 5:48, which is quoted at the top of this post), we find that the original Greek term that is translated as “perfect” is τέλειος (or teleios). This word suggests being in a state of completion. Indeed, even Jesus speaks of being perfected in this sense. Alluding to his forthcoming resurrection, Jesus taught: “The third day I shall be perfected” (Luke 13:32). If we take Jesus at his word, then even he was imperfect. Why? Because there was more work for him to do. He hadn’t yet fully satisfied the demands of God. If we are in the same boat, it should come as no surprise. At the very least, we shouldn’t consider it such a strike against us if we are, at any given moment, undeniably imperfect.
Despite the above considerations, Jesus is not the perfect example of an imperfect person. Only an extremely radical Christian—one that deviates sharply from the traditional Christian narrative—would suggest that Jesus was ever guilty of sin. A good case can be made that Jesus’ sinless nature is essential to the Christian faith. That sets him quite apart from his followers. But my point is that the relationship between sin and imperfection is not as clear-cut as it is often supposed. Sure, sin entails imperfection. But imperfection does not entail sin. It is my view that part of what we are meant to do on this earth is learn how best to allocate our finite spiritual resources, knowing that we cannot—and not just will not—do all that we are asked. Putting it crudely, we must decide which commandments we will obey on a moment-by-moment basis. And we must choose which forbidden fruit we will partake of, living as we do in a world where even the best available fruit rarely comes without blemish.