When we returned from enjoying a meal at our local Indian restaurant, a quick trip to the mall, and the L.L. Bean outlet, we visited with them for a while. We get the opportunity to do this 2-3 nights a week and we usually have enjoyable conversations. Last night was no different. At one point in our conversation, though, we got to talking about our formative years. We reflected upon our family dynamics, our relationship with our parents and siblings, and so forth - which caused me to come to an interesting realization that I shared with the three of them. "When I think about where I was as a kid or teenager," I said, "I am amazed that I ever grew out of that. I am amazed that I 'escaped' from those crazy years." And, as I shared with them, it is usually pretty embarrassing to think about where I used to be.
They all agreed. As we looked back on those years, we all realized that we were nothing but self-centered, silly, ignorant brats (my words)! It is quite startling to come face-to-face with this reality. (I shared similar reflections on this a few years ago.)
But then I got to thinking about this again this morning, as I was watching my little two-and-a-half year-old, Camden, and my eight-month old Acadia. And I was even more startled with this poignant and sobering question: do I suppose that I am no longer a self-centered, silly, ignorant brat? Has anything really changed?
Two nights ago, I was at Prayer Meeting. We are currently studying the book of Romans. We've been in the book for about a month now and we just got through the first chapter. We have had many interesting and insightful conversations. Some how, we got to talking about the "p" word the other night - perfection, a word that causes many people to break out in a cold sweat or hives. As John Wesley said, "There is scarce any expression in Holy Writ which has given more offence than this. The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them. And whosoever preaches perfection (as the phrase is,) that is, asserts that it is attainable in this life, runs great hazard of being accounted by them worse than a heathen man or a publican."
In our discussion, though, my mind turned to what Paul writes about it in Philippians. "Not that I have already attained or am already perfected," he declares, "but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me" (3:12). Very clearly, Paul indicates that he has not reached that lofty goal of perfection. But he was still aiming for it and pressing on.
But a few verses later, Paul takes an interesting twist that is not fully appreciated when we simply read it in English. In verse 15 he admonishes the Philippians, "Therefore, let us, as many as are mature, have this mind . . . " The word for "mature" is the adjectival form of the verb "perfect" (adj., teleios; verb, teleio) in verse 12. Thus, Paul says, "Not that I have already attained or am already perfected . . . . [but] let us, as many as are perfect . . . "
So there is a sense in which, according to Paul, we are already perfect and yet not yet perfect. (As an aside, it is important to recognize that, according to Paul, arriving at perfection is a passive experience on our part. This is evident, even by reading the English. The verb in Greek is in the passive form in v. 12, meaning another Agent is performing the perfecting work and we are simply receiving it. Thus, it is not about us, trying harder to be good or become perfect. It's about "consenting" for Christ to do the work. See also Phil 1:6 and Christ's Object Lessons, p. 159). This only makes sense when we approach concepts relating to soteriology (salvation) from a "process" point of view and it helps us recognize that, for Paul, perfection is just as much a journey as it is a destination.
Recognizing this tension keeps us out of two ditches: it keeps us out of the one ditch that says we need to reach "absolute perfection" before Christ can come (often defined from a human perspective and relating to behavior modification) and the other ditch that says we will never arrive at the place where we will learn to always say "yes" to God and leave our lives of sin behind (which often leads to complacency in the Christian walk).
Paul's passage in Philippians relates to my reflections on the past because it tells me that, so long as I am continuing to grow and move toward the goal, God considers me to be "perfect." Yet I cannot feel satisfied and complacent in where I am because God, does, indeed, want me to eventually arrive at the place - completely by His grace - where I learn to say "yes" to Him all the time and I can be trusted with eternity, ultimately vindicating His character before the universe.
Of course, it does get tricky when one starts measuring "growth." By what standard does one measure growth? What is the fruit that one should inspect to see if there has been growth? Should I be watching less TV than I did ten years ago; eating healthier; going to be earlier? Or are the areas that I need to inspect more in the relational arena - ie., am I more patient, forgiving, loving, initiating? Or do I need to simply worry more about my social conscience - ie., my interaction with the poor, underprivileged, and hurting?
Or is there a place to inspect all these areas?
These are questions that cannot be answered now. But one last thing: whatever the case, I do know that we need God to do the inspecting because we do not even know our own hearts. Thus, one of the safest prayers we can ever utter is, along with David, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).