The Lust for Perfection

Something in the human psyche impels us toward improvement, if not perfection.

Everybody wants to feel better, look better, earn more, improve their standing in the eyes of others, have the last word (or laugh), get in better shape, or have more fun. The status quo is the enemy of human happiness. We don't ever want to find ourselves resigned to the idea that life as we know it is as good as it gets.

Carina Chocano, writing in the New York Times Magazine, refers to this condition as "our collective lust for perfection" ("Our Imperfect Search for Perfection," March 19, 2011). Human beings have always been on this quest, in one form or another. Ms. Chocano laments the fact that today's search for perfection is yielding "obviously soulless results."

She explains that this is because our ideal of perfection is self-referential, merely. The perfection we seek is "a kind of sharp-elbowed self-actualization." We want to be the best person we can - however we define the word, "best" - and we can't help but compare ourselves with others as we take up the quest for perfection. These days are resigned to the conviction "That you must outsmart, outwork, outrival and outdream everybody else or consign yourself to a life of frustrated obscurity or worse." She adds, "Perfection has always held a kind of promise, but this conception of it sounds less like a promise than a threat."

If we take up the search for perfection, as it is pursued today, we are almost certain to experience anxiety of various kinds. We just can't realize the kind of body tone, wealth, or sexual excitement that we can imagine. If we don't take up the search for perfection then frustration and self-loathing are sure to smother us.

Where does this need for improvement - for perfection - come from? I watch the birds outside my window as they gather at the feeder or dart through the trees. They appear to be the same as they were last year, and every year before, and precisely as they are described in my field guide, published a generation ago. They aren't burdened by the need for better abs or a plusher nest. This is probably because animals are not able to envision being anything more than what they are, and they aren't prodded and cajoled by advertizing to escape their discontent into the world of the new and better you.

The human longing for perfection is something more than an animal impulse. Jesus spoke truly when he instructed His followers to "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5.48). Our lust for perfection grows within us from two sources. First is the knowledge that we are fallen into sin. Whether or not we admit that our imperfect condition is the result of sin, this is how the Bible accounts for the dissatisfactions and disappointments we experience. We weren't made for this; we deserve something better.

The second source is the knowledge of God which is inscribed on our souls as the image-bearers of God and comes at us 24/7 through the things God has made. Again, some will not agree with this and may even vehemently deny the existence of God. No matter; the Scriptures have it right in this matter, and can account for the human longing for perfection in a more comprehensive and consistent manner than unbelieving worldviews.

We are created for perfection; thus, it makes sense that we should strive for it. The Christian understands that such perfection will not be attained in this life, for we all continue to sin and fall short of God's glory (1 Jn. 1.8). However, the Christian takes up the challenge of perfection nonetheless, looking to Scripture and the Spirit of God to engage us with God's glory and transform us increasingly into the image of His Son (2 Cor. 3.12-18).

The perfection for which we strive is neither moral nor physical. It is a spiritual perfection: We want to be like Jesus! A day is coming, John promises, in which we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 Jn. 3.1-3). In the prospect of that coming day, and in preparation for it, "everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure" (v. 3).

The Christian knows both why we strive for perfection and what is the particular kind of perfection we seek. We are faithful to our humanness, and to our calling as Christians, when we take up this search for perfection without fear, with all our soul and strength, and with a view to becoming more like Jesus and less like our old selves with every passing day (Jn. 3.30).

Additional related texts: Philippians 3.12-16; 2 Peter 1.5-11; 2 Peter 3.18

A conversation starter: "Why are people so addicted to 'self-improvement'? Why can't we just learn to be content with the way we are?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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