by Dale Ryan
Most of us do not welcome the awareness that we are imperfect. We don’t like it when our defects of character are exposed. Sometimes we spend enormous amounts of energy creating false selves so that we can present ourselves to other people in ways that seem less imperfect. But no matter how much energy we spend in the process, it comes as no surprise to others that we are imperfect. Imperfections in others are easy enough to see–it doesn’t take a rocket scientist. We are imperfect creatures. It is obvious to everybody. . . just not always obvious to us.
Regrettably, local churches also sometimes invest lots of energy in trying to avoid appearing imperfect. We dress up, we look our best. No matter how ugly the fight in the car on the way to church on Sunday morning, we try to be on our best behavior as soon as we arrive. The testimonies we allow to be shared in public are all “good testimonies.” But other people see the resulting how-are-you-fine-thank-you culture and either recognize it for the pretense that it is or conclude that they, being imperfect people, don’t belong. All that energy is, in the end, profoundly counterproductive.
So, what are the alternatives?
Well, one approach is to redefine the meaning of perfection and imperfection so that perfection is a little easier to get to. This, it seems to me, is essentially what John Wesley does in his Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Wesley is careful to avoid the expression “sinless perfection,” which he sees as an impossibility. And his understanding of “Christian perfection” also leaves room for what he calls “involuntary transgressions which I apprehend to be naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality.” So if you do something out of ignorance or you make a mistake, you can still lay claim to “Christian perfection.” Because Wesley’s understanding of sin is limited to voluntary actions, he does not seem to think involuntary actions are a threat to Christian perfection. But for those of us in recovery it can be very difficult to distinguish between the voluntary and the involuntary. All addicts, for example, have chosen not to be addicts–usually many times, always unsuccessfully. Consider this: Did we choose our defects of character? Hmmm. Complicated, isn’t it? And that, in my view, is why Wesley’s approach to imperfection isn’t very helpful. The involuntary transgressions in our lives are just as serious as the voluntary sins. Both can fuel our addictions, both can contribute to the unmanageability of our lives.
Another approach, and one I find personally to be of more practical help, is expressed well by the eighteenth-century Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade. He writes “Rejoice every time you discover a new imperfection.” Caussade’s concern is about members of religious orders who have become obsessive about religious practices. He warns about being “enslaved by devotional practices.” To one of his spiritual advisees he writes, “Believe me, you have too many [spiritual] practices already. What is needed is rather a progressive inner simplification.” Caussade knows that good things–even really good things–can enslave us when pursued obsessively. And he knows that when we’re caught in an obsession, trying harder only makes things worse.
For Caussade the central goal of the spiritual life is interior peace. The ultimately hopeless quest to avoid imperfection is a distraction, a dead end. Listen to the advice he gives about how to respond when we notice that our defects of character are causing problems: “If we find ourselves getting impatient, we must bear our impatience patiently, if we lose our tranquillity, we must bear the loss with tranquillity, if we get angry, we must not get angry with ourselves for being angry, if we are not content, we must be content not to be content.” Notice the absence of judgmentalism, the priority given to inner serenity. To this I would add only a reminder that when it comes to our defects of character it is critically important to decide whose job it is to fix them. If it is our job, then we will do it obsessively, get tired and probably give up. But if it is God’s job, then an entirely different reality is possible. May God grant you the serenity you need this day.
For more on Caussade see Ways of Imperfection: An Exploration of Christian Spirituality by Simon Tugwell (Templegate, 1985). You can read Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection here: http://gbgm-umc.org/Umhistory/Wesley/perfect.html