For Lent I am giving up the God who demands moral perfection.
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matt 5:48 KJV)
I can’t count how many sermons I heard on this passage as I was growing up evangelical. This became biblical justification for the demand for moral perfection and of my constant striving and falling short. This moral perfection interpretation bore in me the corrupt fruit of scrupulosity, obsessive guilt about moral issues. It was worsened by a basic misunderstanding of what sin is and, closely connected, a warped image of God. And it led to embracing theories of substitutionary atonement from which I am still recovering.
I remember when I first heard of Martin Luther spending hours in the confessional, sometimes up to six hours at a time, hoping no sin would remain unconfessed. Even though my scrupulosity did not reach these extremes, I, too was unsettled by the potential consequences of not confessing every last sin.
If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me. (Psalm 66:18 KJV)
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (I John 1:9 KJV)
So many “ifs”. How could I be sure? Did I confess well enough? Was my confession complete enough? Or sincere enough? Was my unconfessed sin the cause of unanswered prayer? Will I be left behind? My whole spiritual life became morbidly self-referential. That level of anxiety was years ago, but uncertainty remained for many years, guilt and shame being obstinate companions along the way.
I came across a book a few years ago by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection, that taught me trying to be perfect is the most tragic human mistake. I learned I had to quit playing God and begin to accept, even embrace, my human limitations. I learned that any genuine spirituality involves how to live with imperfection, that it is only within our very imperfections that we find the peace and serenity God offers. Rumi writes, the wound is the place where the light enters. God comes through the wound. Leonard reminds us it’s the crack that lets the light in. God is closer to sinners than to saints.
God in heaven holds each person by a string. When you sin, you cut the string. Then God ties it up again making a knot – thereby bringing you a little closer to God. Again and again your sins cut the string – and with each further knot God keeps drawing you closer and closer. (Kurtz and Ketcham, p.29)
I like this story. It seems scandalous but isn’t grace scandalous in its essence? Most of the stories in scripture are about flawed people, Abraham, Jacob, David, Mary Magdalene, Peter. These are my heroes. I can’t relate to perfect people.
News of Jean Vanier this week left me angry and grieving. Rightly so. When I took time to consider my own moral flaws and imperfections, I found compassion replacing judgment. The risk I feel in this is to lose sight of the victims. Can I hold the absolute need for justice to be done alongside compassion? I’m still wondering.
For Lent I am giving up the God who demands moral perfection. How about you?
Wm. Paul Young event in Calgary April 18, Lies we Believe About God
Being With Our Sorrow – Saturday March 28, 2020, St Lawrence Anglican, Calgary
Facilitators: Helen Barry and Pearl Nieuwenhuis
Brad Jersak opens us to A More Christlike Way