by Meghan Johnston Aelabouni
The new year is a symbolic time to make a life-giving change for some. But many new year’s resolutions are less about health and healing than about perfection: how to get the perfect look, the perfect schedule, the perfect balance. Why is the promise of a “new you” such a powerful draw?
Many of us freely acknowledge that nobody’s perfect — and then we turn around and try our hardest to be perfect and feel guilt and shame when we inevitably fail.
It doesn’t help when, as people of Christian faith, we turn to the Bible and find Jesus saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Is faith really about being perfect like God? No offense, Jesus, but have you met us?
Thankfully, there is good news hidden in this verse. The word we translate from the original Greek into English as “perfect” is telos, which is better translated as “complete.” Telos is really about fulfilling our purpose, like a seed that grows into a plant, blooms, and produces fruit.
Why does this matter? Because part of the problem with the word “perfect” is that we tend to understand perfection as a one-size-fits-all standard we’re supposed to meet. This kind of perfection is impossible and dangerous because it makes difference a problem.
If the “perfect person” in our heads happens to be white, cisgender, heterosexual, married, able-bodied, neurotypical, thin, wealthy, and so on, then all those who differ from this image — such as people of color, trans and nonbinary people, people who identify as LGBTQIA++, people who are single, people with physical disabilities, mental illness, autism or Asperger’s, those who are fat, or those who live in poverty — are judged as less than perfect and treated as less than whole. This is not just theoretical: It happens to people all the time, even in churches.
On the other hand, plants come in all shapes and sizes and hues, and even plants of the same species grow differently. We would never say, “this rosebush has failed at being an apple tree,” or expect any two plants to be identical. Gardens are celebrated not for perfection but the beauty of their variety. Why aren’t humans?
Here’s the good news: God never intended for us to “be perfect” by being the same, and God never asked us to become someone else. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that God wants you to become “a better person” (in other words, a different person). Rather, God’s desire is for us to become more fully ourselves, to be who we truly are. The truth Jesus reveals to us is that we are, already and always, God’s beloved children. God has created us as diverse people and called us very good.
We are not called to be perfect but rather to be perfectly imperfect. Nurtured by God’s grace, we grow to be more completely ourselves, to bear fruit in the world in love and service.
Meghan Johnston Aelabouni is an ordained ELCA pastor.
This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Cafe (Boldcafe.org).