HOW PERFECT SHOULD I BE?
A Sermon by Rev Derek P. Elphick
Preached in Boynton Beach, Florida
March 25, 1997
Perfection is defined in the dictionary as “the state, quality, or condition of being perfect.” In light of this definition, what do you consider to be perfect in your life? In a way this is a trick question. Who would want to claim complete perfection in any area of his life? An architect tries to come up with a brilliant design, a composer tries to create his masterpiece, and an artist tries to craft the perfect work of art, but they never achieve complete perfection, only something close to it. Most people would agree that working toward perfection, and participating in the process itself, is much more satisfying and rewarding than arriving at the finished product (see DP 178:1). As finite human beings we are capable of viewing only one part of life’s puzzle at a time, and perhaps it was this realization which prompted that wonderful line to pass between Emerson and Thoreau: “And what has become clearer to you since we last met?”
The desire for perfection comes from the Lord because His laws are perfect (see Psalm 19:7), His way is perfect (see 2 Sam. 22:31), and His works are perfect (see Deut. 32:4). And since the Lord is the only perfect Person, the desire to imitate that perfection can come only from Him. The Lord wishes to share the desire for perfection with everyone, and that is why He says in the Gospel of Matthew, “You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”(Matt. 5:48). In the Greek, the word for perfect is telios, which means whole or complete. The Lord wants our efforts to be whole and complete (see AC 6138). He does not expect perfect “results” from us, ever, and that is because only His works can be called perfect. Also, as one teaching in the New Church says, no point in time “ever exists when anyone is regenerate enough to be able to say, Now I am perfect'” (AC 894).
The desire for perfection is born in us at an early age. I look at my four-year-old son who has recently taken an interest in copying out the letters of the alphabet. He is not content with his letters unless they end up looking as good as the letters printed in his book. He will go through great pains to make sure that what he writes is exactly the same as what is in the book. If it’s anything less, it gets thrown out and he starts again. Why does he do this? He does it because he wants things to be orderly and right. Now, any adult who looks at his work will see that it’s far from perfect, and yet the adult can separate the effort from the product. We know the product is not perfect, and yet we praise the effort as being perfect.
We are told that few people actually realize that life in this world serves simply as an introduction for perfecting one’s life to eternity (see AC 9334:3). In fact, most of us need to be reminded that “a person can never be perfected” (AC 3200), and in the next life will be “perfected all the time” (AC 894). The concept makes sense and yet we have difficulty accepting it. There’s a part of us that wants to arrive at a final destination some day and simply stop. It’s true that good people in this world will go to heaven and “arrive” at their particular society, but they don’t stop. The angels never think of themselves as having “arrived” at anything, and object to this kind of labeling, getting “quite indignant if anyone attributes to them any wisdom or intelligence” (AC 4295). Life to them is a work in progress. The angels of heaven go through changes of state as we do, and in their “evening state” “love what is their own” (HH 158; cf. 155). If it weren’t for these changes of state, including the selfish ones, the angels, as well as ourselves, could never be perfected (see AC 935:2).
Do you remember at the beginning of the book Conjugial Love the visit to the Golden Age? There we are introduced to an angel couple from the highest heaven. The husband was asked if he was able to look upon any other woman than his wife. Notice what he said:
I can, but because my wife is united to my soul, the two of us look together, and then not a trace of lust can enter. For when I look at other men’s wives, I look at them through the eyes of my wife, who is the only one I am in love with. And because she as my wife can perceive all my inclinations, she acts as an intermediary and directs my thoughts, taking away anything discordant and at the same time inspiring a coldness and horror toward anything unchaste (CL 75:6).
The angel husband admitted that he wasn’t perfect. He was in love with one woman, his wife, and not a trace of lust for other women could enter their relationship. But he also hinted at the fact that there are times when “discordant” thoughts enter his mind. These thoughts obviously couldn’t damage the special union they had, but it indicates that there were still many things for him to work on in his marriage.
Now, by saying these things I don’t mean to suggest that there’s little difference between ourselves and angels, or that the angels haven’t really accomplished very much in their lifetime. The angels of heaven are good people. They don’t do bad things; we sometimes do (see AE 304a; AC 10134:4; HH 592). They don’t experience selfish states to the same degree, or for the same duration, as we do (see HH 158; AC 9334-9336). This is because angels, while on earth, made the repeated commitment in thought and deed to be led by the Lord. Now they enjoy the blessings of that life in heaven, but they’re not perfect. The teachings of the New Church say, ” . . . an unlimited number of states of evil and falsity exist with everyone” (AC 894). People on earth, as well as the angels in heaven, have self-interest lurking in their background, which is an “unavoidable” fact of life (AE 867:2). As a result, there’s no point in time in which anyone can say, “Now I am perfect.”
Even though we know we can’t be perfect, that doesn’t stop us from thinking we should be perfect! Where does that message come from? Do women get that message from movies and fashion ads featuring the “perfect” actresses and models which they can’t hope to match? Do men get it from relentless pressure to sell more, to earn more, and from a society that considers those that come in second best the losers? The organizers of the National Spelling Bee every year at the finals have to provide a “comfort room” where children who have spelled hundreds of words perfectly can go to cry, throw things and be comforted by their parents when they finally make a mistake. Yes, there certainly are societal pressures which demand complete perfection, but the cause is much deeper.
The evil spirits from hell encourage us to expect perfection and then knock us down when we don’t achieve it (see AC 5386). It’s one of their favorite tactics. They will trick us into thinking that we should get perfect results from others. How many times have we expected other people to treat us in just the right way, in ways we want, and when they don’t accomplish this impossible task, or match up to our expectations, we feel disappointed, hurt or angry? The hells will also trick us into thinking we can get quick and easy results during regeneration (see DP 278). How many times have you expected or wanted your spiritual landscape to be cleared and trimmed in a moment? Expecting a weed-free environment is totally understandable; it just doesn’t work that way. “If you want to be perfect,” the Lord said to the rich young ruler, “go, sell what you have and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21). To “sell what you have” is to continue taking those small steps that leave our selfishness behind and put the Lord in front (see AE 934). Those seemingly insignificant steps, the ones that receive little fanfare or attention, accomplish more than we can possibly imagine!
To expect perfect results from ourselves, or from someone else, not only is unrealistic, but it can also harm our usefulness and sense of purpose. Several years ago, a minister in our church did a very important study on some misconceptions about marriage in the New Church (see New Church Life, July-November 1992). One misconception he talked about was a common New Church idea that a husband and wife will become “one” person. This idea is based upon Conjugial Love 42, which speaks of married couples appearing like one angel from a distance (although it should be pointed out that they became two distinct individuals when they came closer). The writer then refers his reader to another passage which says that no couple ever become conjoined into one, but are rather adjoined so as to be near and close to each other according to their love (see CL 158). He then makes this observation:
If partners are to become one, then they should also want and like the same things and think and feel alike most or all of the time. The unrealistic expectation of total togetherness has caused an enormous degree of doubt and guilt in New Church couples, particularly to wives who are often sensitive to the state of the marriage more than husbands (NCL, Rev. Mark Carlson, 1992, pp. 302-304).
To expect our married partner (or anyone else for that matter) to think and feel exactly as we think and feel is an unrealistic expectation. Total togetherness might seem like the “perfect relationship,” and yet, by definition, it must also mean that partners should not express disagreement over any issue if they really are “one” in their thoughts and affections. Sharing and honoring our differences in honest, open communication is the life-blood for any working relationship.
Our desire for perfection will never die. It cannot die. We may get discouraged or upset by the messy results or loose ends we find on our spiritual landscape. Our personal achievements may not always end up looking very pretty, or perfect, but that doesn’t matter to the Lord. We need to realize that life is not some kind of test in which one mistake wipes out all our previous efforts (see TCR 523). Remember, the Lord creates an angel out of all the sincere efforts a person makes in his or her entire adult life.
When the Lord called on His disciples to be perfect, He was speaking about what lay within their grasp. So many of the things we would like to be perfect are beyond our grasp, and as we have seen, it’s part of our human nature to pine after illusionary goals. We need to let go of the mistaken idea that our spiritual landscape can be cleared in a moment. We need to let go of the mistaken idea that the perfect marriage, or perfect relationship, is the one in which we become carbon copies of each other. To “be perfect” in the Lord’s eyes is to tackle the seemingly small, unimportant matters in our life (see AE 979:2; cf. AC 9336; AE 650:59; Life 97; Charity 41). It means changing one area of our life at a time (see TCR 530; CL 529). The results may not appear very dramatic or look very complete, but the effort will be perfect in what it achieves. The angels in heaven take these steps every day and gain the greatest satisfaction in making them because they know it’s the most perfect thing a person can do, in this life and in the life to come. Amen.
Lessons: Matt. 19:16-22; HH 158; AC 894
Heaven and Hell
158. I have been taught from heaven why there are such changes of state there. The angels said that there are many reasons first, the delight of life and of heaven, which they have from love and wisdom from the Lord, would gradually lose its value if they were in it continually, as happens with those that are in allurements and pleasures without variety. A second reason is that angels, as well as men, have what is their own (proprium), which is loving self; and all that are in heaven are withheld from what is their own, and so far as they are withheld from it by the Lord are in love and wisdom; but so far as they are not withheld, they are in the love of self; and because everyone loves what is his own and is drawn by it, they have changes of state or successive alternations. A third reason is that they are in this way perfected, for they thus become accustomed to being held in love to the Lord and withheld from love of self; also that by alternations between delight and lack of delight the perception and sense of good becomes more exquisite. The angels added that their changes of state are not caused by the Lord, since the Lord as a sun is unceasingly flowing in with heat and light, that is, with love and wisdom; but the cause is in themselves, in that they love what is their own, and this continually leads them away. This was illustrated by comparison with the sun of the world, that the cause of the changes of state of heat and cold and of light and shade, year by year and day by day, is not in that sun, since it stands unchanged, but the cause is in the earth.
894. . . . there is no definite period of time within which man’s regeneration is completed, so that he can say, “I am now perfect”; for there are illimitable states of evil and falsity with every man, not only simple states but also states in many ways compounded, which must be so far shaken off as no longer to appear, as said above. In some states the man may be said to be more perfect, but in very many others not so. Those who have been regenerated in the life of the body and have lived in faith in the Lord and in charity toward the neighbor are continually being perfected in the other life.