by Becky De Oliveira—
My grandparents wanted everyone to be perfect, and they worried all the time about the obvious fact that we were not. You had to eat the right foods and think the right thoughts and prepare yourself always—never knowing when Christ might appear—lest you be caught on a bad day and be forever lost. The chances of being caught on a bad day, I intuited, were pretty great. My grandparents held out little hope for themselves and far less for us. My mother wore jeans! I listened to rock music! Neither of my parents chewed their food enough times before swallowing! My brother ate too much pizza!
Because I was a kid and the idea never occurred to me, I didn’t interrogate them about what they really thought or what the implications of their beliefs really were. Did they believe each person had to be literally perfect? And what would that even look like? If a person—say me, for instance—were to become perfect, would that fact be obvious to anyone else? Would it even be evident to me? Would I be perfect if I managed to achieve some level of existence in which no other human being could find fault with me? That seems like quite a trick. I’ve even heard people say rubbish about Mother Teresa and Gandhi.
If you, the individual, get to determine what perfection is, well, it seems like a cop out. It’s almost too easy, but it doesn’t seem like there would be any other way to approach the concept since it seems unlikely that humanity as a whole could develop any definitive set of criteria. A single family probably couldn’t agree on what perfection really is. I doubt two like-minded people could agree completely. Religious people would argue that you can know what God thinks perfection is—what He requires of us—since it is laid out in the Bible, but this doesn’t really appear to be true. For starters, figuring this out would involve going through the entire Bible and making a list of all the things that God commands and then deciding whether they are specific to a certain time and culture or whether they apply to everyone always and then implementing these rules in your life. Just observe the average church community and it will become obvious that people cannot reach consensus regarding what God wants them to do. One journalist, A. J. Jacobs, engaged in a pretty entertaining experiment and wrote about it in a book called The Year of Living Biblically. He describes the project as being “about my quest to live the ultimate biblical life. To follow every single rule in the Bible as literally as possible.” I remember thinking, when I saw this book in a Barnes and Noble display case, that I was pretty sure I’d met a few people who’d done exactly the same thing—they just didn’t write about it.
Perfection—if you define it as following rules—is a bit of a cop out because following rules isn’t that hard. For one thing, as Jacobs points out, “fundamentalists may claim to take the Bible literally, but they actually just pick and choose certain rules to follow.” Because everyone does ultimately decide what constitutes a “perfectly” lived life, all you would have to do is create for yourself a list of rules. Lines you will not cross. And then follow the rules and stay inside the lines. Or redefine what they really mean when and if you fall short.
I would imagine that many people really are perfect in this sense. It’s not hard to stick to a vegan diet, to exercise a certain number of minutes per day, to devote a certain amount of time to prayer and Bible study, to be ready for Sabbath right as the sun dips behind the hills. I mean it’s hard, but it’s possible. It can be done. I myself have followed rather elaborate sets of rules—that admittedly changed from time to time, becoming either more or less restrictive depending on how I chose to rationalize them—for long periods of time. What I understand about religious fundamentalists is that there is great safety in ticking off day after day of “perfection.” I’ve often mused to myself that life isn’t really that hard—all you have to do is get through one day without doing anything massively stupid. One day at a time, just like the Alcoholics Anonymous creed emphasizes. But, unfortunately, it is entirely possible to do everything right on a micro level and still end up in a very wrong place in more wholistic terms. You can be so right that you’re wrong.
It’s surprising in many ways that perfectionism remains such a problem for Adventists. With our emphasis on healthcare, one would think we’d have highlighted the link between perfectionism and mental health—particularly depression, anxiety, and suicide—not to mention other health problems such as cardiovascular disease.
There are verses in the Bible that seem to suggest we must be perfect, although the word can be interpreted as meaning “complete” or “mature” rather than “flawless.” Even so, there are far more verses that speak of God’s love, mercy, willingness to accept us, and ability to transform our lives. For instance, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV). This is a statement of fact, not a cautionary prediction based on whether or not we happen to achieve certain goals or exhibit certain behaviors. We are new creations. That is even better than perfect.
Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.