Many people stumble over the word perfection, as it is used in the Bible. It occurs frequently, yet we know that the perfect men of the Bible were not sinless. Noah became drunk. Abraham certainly equivocated, if he did not lie directly. Job got provoked and said bitter things against his friends. Then Paul, in the same chapter in which he speaks of himself and others as perfect, says: “Not that I am already made perfect – but I press on.”
Perfection, therefore, does not always mean sinlessness. Sometimes the word is used relatively. Noah was perfect in his generation; but if he had lived in these Christian days, his life and conduct would have fallen woefully below the true standard of saintliness. A music teacher says of her little pupil, “She plays perfectly.” She means that the pupil has mastered her exercises and has played them without making a mistake. But the child has only been taking lessons for one term. “Perfectly” refers to the pupil’s work as a beginner, even though there are still years and years of study and practice ahead of her. A green apple may be perfect as any green apple, but it is not a perfect apple yet; for it is not ripe and luscious, as it will be weeks or months later. A Christian child may be perfect as a Christian child – untempted, undisciplined, untrained, inexperienced, and beautiful in their innocence and simplicity, with hard lessons still to learn. But 40 or 50 years later, their life will mean far more.
A mother and her child sit side by side in the same company. Both love Christ and are following Him. The girl is sweet, beautiful, and a picture of grace. She has never known a struggle, has scarcely ever been called to make a sacrifice, and has never found it hard to do right. Her face is fair, without a line. The mother, on the other hand, has had cares and struggles; she fights with evil, has endured wrongs, has carried burdens, has suffered, has had bitter sorrow, has been misunderstood, and has poured out her life in love’s sacrifices. One would say that the child is the more beautiful – the fairer and lovelier in her life. But as the two appear in the eyes of Christ, both are beautiful, but the mother wears the holier loveliness. She has learned in suffering. She has grown stronger through her enduring struggles. The lines on her face which seem to be blemishes on her fair beauty are the marks of Jesus Christ.
The recruit who entered the ranks of the Army only yesterday, and who never has seen a battle, seems by far to be the handsomest soldier in the regiment, with his mirthful dress, clean armor, and unscarred face. But the old solider who is the veteran of a score of battles – his uniform is soiled and torn, his gun is blackened with powder, and his face is marked with wounds and scars; but is he not the more perfect soldier?
In the Scripture passage in which our Lord sets forth the ideal of perfection for His followers, He is referring to the way God loves. Men’s love is imperfect, partial, and incomplete. Human beings only love those who love them. But that is not worthy of being called love at all! God loves in a complete and perfect way. He loves the unlovely. He loves sinners – His enemies! “You, therefore, God’s children, ought to love as your Father loves.”
It was the common teaching in our Lord’s day that people should treat others as others treated them. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus, however, gave a new interpretation: “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” What exactly did He mean? It is not often in our times that a person slaps another in the face. But what kind of actual treatment does face-slapping stand for? It may be regarded as a picture of any kind of personal insult, wrong, or injury. If we desire to know just what Jesus wanted us to understand by His words, we only need to turn to His own life. When, on His trial, an officer struck Him with his hand, did He literally turn the other cheek? No. He quietly asked why He had been smitten. He did not return blow for blow. He endured the insult without resentment, and without bitterness, although He challenged its justice. When we follow the life of Jesus carefully, and note His conduct, we find that He was always most gentle and patient in dealing with ill treatment. He did not resent evil; He did not contend for His rights. He endured wrong, and even insult, without complaining. When He was reviled, He reviled not again. There are certain trees which, when struck with an axe, only bathe with fragrant sap the ax which cuts into them. Injuries and hurts that were inflicted upon Jesus brought out the sweetest qualities in Him. They drove nails through His hands, and then the blood that they crushed from Him became the blood of the world’s redemption.
We can scarcely find a place in this world where personal injuries and wrongs will never touch us. People will not always deal with us kindly and fairly. There will always be somebody who is not gentle, or who misunderstands us. There will always be somebody who says bitter words which hurt our feelings. There will always be one who slights us, who does not invite us to some social function, or who does something which seems to us to be like a slap in the face. What should we do as Christians? Should we act just as the world’s people act in similar cases?
Christians belong to Christ. They wear Christ’s name. They live by a code of heavenly laws. If they are not different from other people, they are falling below the glory of their calling. People think that meekness and patience in enduring wrongs are marks of weakness. But no – they are marks of strength! That is what Christians are for.
There are some people who exact a great deal from their friends. It is even the case in some homes. One of the specific illustrations which Jesus gives tells us how to treat such exactions. “Whoever shall compel you to go one mile, go with him two.” In every life there are compulsions – things that we have to do, not of choice, but of necessity. There is much selfishness in the world, and there are those who must endure its grind. But there are two ways of submitting to these impositions and exactions. We may do it sullenly, with bitterness and repining; or we may do it cheerfully, with a song, in the spirit of love.
The Master also says that we are to do even more than we are required to do. We only make life harder for ourselves when we do unpleasant duties in a bitter, sullen way. But we take the unpleasantness out of our unwelcome tasks when we do them in a loving, cheerful way! Some people have a hard time getting along with others because they measure everything, and insist on never going a step farther or doing a thing more than the strictest interpretation of duty requires. There are husbands and wives who live that way – careful, on the one hand, to exact of each other every particle of duty; yet also careful, on the other hand, to never do a particle more than the letter of duty demands.
But that is not love’s way! If one mile is down in the compact, love goes two – and goes cheerfully! If courtesy requires a little attention, love shows twice what is called for. We are to overdo our kindnesses, rather than make them exact fulfillments of rules of etiquette. We are to give help, not merely to meet pressing needs, but to more than meet those needs. That is the way to carry out the lesson, “You therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Let us take the other duty used by the Master in illustration: loving one’s neighbor. “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.” Certainly! But they reserved the privilege of deciding who their neighbor was. He must be a congenial man who belonged to the same religious sect that they did. He must be a man who would not fail to return kindness in a generous way, showing favor for favor. “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” The words are quite familiar to us – but do we try to live them any more than the Jews in our Lord’s time did? How many of us really love our enemies? How many of us actually pray for those who persecute us? That is what we must do if we are going to learn our lesson: “You therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
It is easy enough to love certain people and be kind to them. It is easy, in our evening prayer, to ask God to bless those who have been kind to us during the day, who have spoken approvingly or encouragingly to us, who have helped us over the hard places, and whose love had brightened the way for us. But is it as easy to pray for the man who was angry with us, the one who spoke falsely of us, or the other person who refused the favor we asked and tried to injure us? Yet that is the way the lesson runs: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” When we have learned to really do these things, we are drawing very near to God. Then the word is being fulfilled in us: “You shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But while we still hate others, while we are bitter against them, or while we are envious or grudging, we have made little progress toward perfection. “For if you love those who love you, what rewards have you? Do not even the publicans the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the heathen do the same?”
Here we have the test question of Christian living: “What do you do more than others?” It is not enough that Christians should be just as good as other people; Christ expects them to be better. What are people Christians for, if not to do more than others? “You therefore shall be perfect.”
Christian love ought to show itself in all holy service, in thoughtfulness towards others, in kindness, and in readiness to help. It is said that when Dr. Temple was the headmaster of Rugby School, he visited the boys one day when they had been sent to clean out the pigsties. One of the boys went to him and asked, “Am I forced to do this dirty task?” “I suppose not,” he replied; “you are not exactly forced.” “May I go, then, sir?” asked the student. “Yes,” answered Dr. Temple slowly; “give me the rake.” He was going to do the dirty work himself. The student said, “I don’t want you to do it, sir.” “Somebody must do it,” was the reply. The young man took the rake and did the work, and never grumbled anymore.
Thus it was that Christ took His place in life as one who served. He took the lowest place. When none of His disciples would do the servant’s part – when they shrank from it and asked, “Must we do it?” – He answered, “No; you are not forced to do it. Give Me the basin and the towel.” And before they knew what He was doing, He was on His knees, washing their feet. How the Master’s lowly service shamed the proud disciples that night! How it ought to shame us today, when we are still too proud to take the servant’s place and do the hard and lowly things! Let us learn the lesson as the Master Himself illustrated it: “You therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If we are ever to reach that blessed attainment, we must begin to do the things of perfection now and here.
Have you prayed to the Lord today and asked Him for grace to be able to love others – in your home, your church, your neighborhood, and beyond – in the same way that He Himself has shown His amazing love to us?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this article! Feel free to leave your reflections and ask your questions below.
God bless you and your family, this day and always.
All for our King’s glory,
photo by Lydia Bennett | Lenspiration.com
This post is another installment of Miller’s Monday Musings, a weekly series that is published every Monday on my website. The series features selected writings that have been adapted from the works of James Russell Miller (1840-1912), a much-beloved Christian author and pastor who is well-remembered for his practical thoughts on Christian home and family life. Learn more about this weekly series by clicking here.