“Practice makes perfect,” right? We grow up being fed this idiom as the advice that will ensure our success. We’re told that no matter the skill, we are able to master it by simply repeating it over and over. We have taken this simple motivational saying and turned it into a life motto. But deep down we struggle with believing it is true. If it were true, then the American Idol audition episodes would not be as funny to watch. The truth is we know that we can’t be perfect, at anything, ever. But unfortunately so many of us still buy into this saying as an undisputable truth.
There’s a difference in wanting to do something well and needing to be perfect at it. One motivates you to continue to work hard and allows you to enjoy progress and success, even in the moments of failure. The other drives you to overreach in the area of practice, which often steals the joy of doing, creates burnout and causes feelings of never being “good enough.” When times of failure come; because they always do, even for professionals, or you meet the person that is better than you, it’s crushing. That often leads to more striving and more burnout or simply just quitting. Either way the potential for a defeated heart becomes greater and greater.
The Bible Doesn’t Necessarily Help
Unfortunately we’ve moved away from simply seeking proficiency toward seeking perfection. But, as previously mentioned, we know deep down that perfection isn’t attainable. Again unfortunately that doesn’t stop us. Sometimes it can seem like even scripture adds to this problem. Scripture like Matthew 5:48 only seems to feed our need for perfection. In that scripture Jesus actually says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” There it is, be perfect.
We automatically assume that He’s telling us to be perfect in all things, rightly conclude that it is not possible while on earth and often either ignore it and continue on our Christian way, or discount Christianity (or at least the Bible) as a whole. But, as with much of scripture it isn’t that simple and when we take a single verse out of context, we do more damage than good.
Biblical teachers have shared a couple different thoughts on what Jesus is talking about here. He says this while giving a long sermon (called the Sermon on the Mount). During that sermon Jesus elevates much of the previous laws that the Jews had been trying to live by. He equates hate with murder, lust with adultery and tells them that it is not enough to not wish their enemies ill will, but instead they must actually love them. Then, right in the middle of it, He says to be perfect.
I’ve heard it suggested that He is telling us to be perfect in our intent to follow the law as He explains it. The idea is, as humans, we are incapable of being perfect in action, but our intent can be perfect. It is basically us repeating Paul’s cry that, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” I do believe that this is true. As we allow the Holy Spirit to sanctify and mold us into the likeness of Jesus, our intent to follow Jesus’ commands can be made perfect even though our ability may lack. But I’m not sure that’s what Jesus was talking about here.
Pursuit, not Perfection
Another way I’ve heard it interpreted is in the immediate context of what Jesus was talking about, specifically loving your enemy. The Greek word that Jesus used is different from other occasions when He said “perfect.” On this occasion the word means something closer to “mature.” If Jesus was saying to be perfect in the context of loving your enemy, then that changes the perspective on perfection. If this is true, Jesus is telling us to love perfectly; as the Father loves, so shall we. While that in and of it self is a hard task, if there is anything we ought to be practicing to perfection it is the ability to love. Jesus spends the few verses before v. 48 talking about how easy it is to love you friend, but the real defining factor of His follower is the ability to love their enemy. That is another blog for another time, but the good news in this is that He isn’t telling us that we need be perfect in all things.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive toward perfection. If we are pursuing Jesus we are moving toward perfection, but our goal is not perfection, it is Jesus; He is the prize, perfection is not. The best part is when Jesus talks about us being made perfect, as in whole and complete, He doesn’t say it to us, but instead during a prayer, He asks God that we, as a church, “may become perfectly one.” God never puts the onus on us to be perfect.
Practice for Pursuit
The truth is that we are not perfect and we can’t be on this side of eternity. Our flesh will continually war against our desire to do the will of God. We should strive to be perfect in the way that we love others. That should be the one area that we hold onto the idea that practice makes perfect. But, no matter how much we practice we won’t be perfect in every way it means to follow Jesus. We are going to fail. We are going to sin and fall short. We are going to be harsh with our children, upset our spouses, anger a friend, but God’s grace is sufficient for our imperfections. If He has that much grace for us, shouldn’t we have the same for each other and even for ourselves? It is in Him that we have the strength to keep on. Instead of holding onto “practice makes perfect” we would do better to view it as “practice breeds pursuit.” That means that as we repeat the things that Jesus modeled for us a desire is produced to pursue Him more.
Practice does not always make perfect, but it does bring us closer to the One who is.