When I was a young believer this verse in Matthew was often quoted to indicate what my goals should be, and I naively assumed that now that I was saved, I must also be perfect.
“Perfect” seemed to be defined like this: to have no more sinful thoughts or acts; to have no doubts; always to be in perfect peace about troubles; never to question or waver. To admit to anything less would be to show a lack of faith ~ and, of course, that was unthinkable. I was afraid of being judged by my fellow believers, who all seemed to have everything under perfect control. I lived in fear because, unfortunately, spiritual correctness was an elusive goal. This was possibly because I took loving mentoring from most believers lightly and listened instead to a few who chose to be legalistic and judgmental. For many years, I felt anxious about the fact of my love for Christ and the knowledge that even with His strength and comfort and grace, I could not manage to be perfect according to this definition. I tried: oh, how I tried. I pleaded with God to help me; I prayed that I might be all that He wanted me to be. I could not understand how God could demand something of me that clearly was impossible. I had so much baggage that needed to be transformed.
Then, mercifully, I learned that the Greek word used in the passage in Matthew is τέλειος (teleios). This word does not always mean “without error”, but can also be translated as “becoming mature or completed”. I was so relieved to grasp that God was not necessarily demanding that I be perfect now, but encouraging me to progress toward maturity in Him; to grow toward the completeness of Christ’s character which would finally be reality only when I reached heaven. To become mature is hypothetically doable; to be perfect is not.
Spiritual maturity is not necessarily verified by things we do ~ outward things. We can fake the outward façade ~ say the right things, do the right things, act the part. Spiritual maturity is really confirmed by who we are when we are alone in the dark ~ inward things. My understanding now is that the Father wants me to aspire to be like the Lord Jesus: to attempt to demonstrate God’s love by my life. I am to desire to live a life of holiness and consecration to the things of God; to want to be filled with the fruit of the Spirit ~ love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. We are to be salt and light; to act as a preservative in society by encouraging His standards, and illuminate the darkness of the world with the light of the Gospel. My ultimate goal is to submit willingly ~ in all things ~ to His will.
The question now becomes: how to achieve this maturity in Him.
Paul tells us, “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children and walk in love, as Christ has loved us, and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling aroma”. (Eph. 5:1,2 NKJV) Romans 12 begins: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service”. These verses seem like a good place to start.
We have two models which God has given to tell us His standards: the Law, and Christ.
The Law (as represented by the Ten Commandments) explains God’s criteria if we hope to attain salvation by our own efforts. Unfortunately, it is plainly impossible for man to achieve on his own. The Law then becomes a mirror which reflects back to me just who I am; the gauge by which I must measure myself and which shows me just how far short I fall of God’s requirements. It tells me that in my human competence, I can never meet God’s conditions. If I had only the Law, I would be without hope. However, there is a promise: the Christ.
Christ is the completion of the Law. He demonstrates just what God had in mind. The good news is that Christ offers to meet God’s requirements in my place. His is the perfection, the completeness which is acceptable to God and which I fail to meet. Scripture also tells me that because of Christ, the righteousness of the Law may, in heaven, be fulfilled even in me. (Rom. 8:4 NKJV) He becomes my hope.
I was trying in my own strength to be what I thought the Father wanted me to be, and not succeeding. It took me a long time to understand that I am to be a vessel that He, the Master potter, shapes and molds into Christ’s image. This may take me into some challenging situations as He sculpts the rough clay of my spirit into a beautiful thing… but He is also a loving Creator, and His yoke is easy and His burden light. He, as the Potter, allows the various pressures which shape me. It is in how I respond, in how I surrender to His control that change takes place. If the clay of my spirit is stiff and unyielding He may have to apply more pressure, but He promises to stay with me always.
We are told to pursue goodness; to follow after Christ, to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. We are to be obedient to those things we know are in the will of God and to stop doing those things we know are not. We are told to “submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7 NKJV)
He will train me in His own timing and as I can take it in. The critical factor is to be obedient to the light I have been given. It sounds simple ~ but there is a problem. Most of us struggle to hold on to our own wills as hard as we can, and desperately fight against the act of full-out submission. Yet willing submission is the critical key to growth.
God will use circumstances in my life to test my faith, to draw me to Him. These are not tests to show Him where I am weak (He already knows), but to show me where I am weak and where I need to be obedient. As I recognize His authority over me in each situation and submit to His will, I will be developing the fruit of the Spirit, and this is how I become changed. Each act of willing submission will move me farther along the road. Each time I choose to hold on to my own autonomy I will remain slow or stopped.
I think finding the willingness to relinquish the self to God is one of the hardest, yet one of most urgent lessons I need to learn as a believer. I may know what needs to be done and tell myself that I am doing all I can to change. However, in reality I often find myself stubbornly refusing to let go of some detail and let God have it His way. It may be a habit, an attitude, a relationship, or something else. I keep insisting on choosing for myself, trying to shape my own life.
Sometimes I may not even recognize that I am choosing to dig in my heels and resist. This is where meditative prayer and reading the Word comes in. Prayer is not meant to be just a litany of my desires and wants; where I recite a kind of wish list as if He were Santa and I was four years old. It is more of a conversation in which I can tell Him how much I love Him and be thankful; to confess my sins and to ask forgiveness. It is the time when I ask Him for wisdom and solutions to questions which seem to have no answers. It is often when He chooses to let me see my real motives and agendas ~ and I begin to understand what it is He wants from me.
God said, “Be still, and know that I am God.” I must be still long enough to hear Him. As I speak with Him and search my heart, He does not thunder and bluster. His is the still, small voice that penetrates my consciousness and guides me toward His will.
Yes, we are all to be actively serving Him in our families and churches and communities. Yet, there is an inner life of one-on-One relationship which I must also nurture and which is essential in enabling me to live my life as a believer desiring spiritual maturity. I won’t ever be perfect this side of heaven, but I can learn wisdom and develop maturity through the consistent process of trust, submission and obedience until He takes me home.
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:6)