“I’m perfect in my imperfections,” she said. It was one of those trite phrases common enough these days to be nearly cliche. I’ve probably heard this popular platitude thousands of times, but this time something struck me. The phrase was used about the Christian life. It was used to argue that since God made us, He must have intended us to be imperfect, meaning we are perfect as we are, we are perfect as imperfect. This is a trope in many pop songs: our imperfections make us who we are, and we should be content to remain imperfect. Consider “Flaws” by Bastille:
All of your flaws and all of my flaws
They lie there hand in hand
Ones we’ve inherited, ones that we learned
They pass from man to man…
All of your flaws and all of my flaws,
When they have been exhumed
We’ll see that we need them to be who we are
Without them we’d be doomed.
On the one hand, these lyrics do capture something true about human existence. Some of our flaws are inherited from our parents through biology and original sin. Others we learn through our own actions. These latter flaws are the self-inflicted wounds of sin. These are the vices that damage our relationship with God and others. We can’t ignore the reality of these flaws. But where Bastille goes wrong is in equating our identity with our flaws. We do not need them to be who we are. The truth is that these flaws corrupt who we are and who we are meant to be. We are not made to be imperfect, but to be perfect.
In the midst of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called the crowd to something radically different from what Bastille offers. “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Blunt and startling are these words, but the command is unavoidable. We must be perfect; we cannot be content with imperfection.
But is perfection even possible? When someone is called a perfectionist these days, it is usually meant as an insult. Sometimes this is because the individual in question is fixating on non-essentials or exaggerating little things. But it seems that there is also a certain pessimism about perfection. It simply seems impossible. And, quite frankly, these pessimists are right; perfection is impossible. We can’t make ourselves perfect. Our wounds are too deep for us to heal ourselves. Without grace we would be swallowed up in our imperfections and flaws. But, as the old spiritual says,
There is a balm in Gilead,
To make the wounded whole;
There’s power enough in heaven,
To cure a sin-sick soul.
For Christ, as St. Jerome reminds us, “enjoins not impossibilities but perfection.”
Perfection is not impossible, but it sure is hard. Our flaws are deep, those inherited and those learned. Our disordered inclinations and vices cover our souls with the pockmarks of sin, but we do not need these flaws. We need not always be imperfect. Grace working in and with us can make us perfect. For many of us this perfection may not come in this life. Yet, God has provided for our weakness. Even if we only limp along imperfectly here on earth, we can look forward with comfort to Purgatory, where our souls are cleaned of all imperfections and our wills strengthened, our very selves made perfect. Then, without our flaws we will be not doomed, but blessed. Then, we will be perfect in our perfections.
Image: Gustave Dore, Sermon on the Mount