We want perfection

Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Jesus announced good news to the world – and that good news was that “the Kingdom of God is near”. This is one of a series of posts about ways in which our society is longing for the Kingdom of God, although it doesn’t realise it yet. My hope is that they will provide a basis for conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours – and perhaps a gentle provocation to some readers who do not follow Jesus, too. You can see the original post, with links to others in the series, here.

What is the most offensive part of the Gospel to a Western audience? If you’d asked me ten years ago, I’d have been pretty confident that it was the idea of sin – that there was an absolute standard out there with the authority to judge our actions. However, this is shifting – my wife Caroline first noticed this a few years back on an Alpha course, when someone expressed utter disgust at the idea of God forgiving people who had done “really bad things”. Increasingly, society’s issue with Christianity is not simply around the existence of sin, but around the moral validity of forgiveness.

Earlier this week, I read an article reflecting on the #metoo campaign and analysing the apologies (or non-apologies) of the various perpetrators1https://www.in-mind.org/article/sorry-not-sorry-apologies-and-denials-in-the-metoo-movement. It concluded: “Can perpetrators of #MeToo-abuse be forgiven and return to society? At present, the answer to these questions is still unclear … whether such behaviour can be forgiven is uncertain. Indeed, research suggests that some crimes may never be forgiven.”

The question is further complicated by the passage of time – should someone be held to account for something they said thirty years ago? Should someone be judged by today’s standards for what they did under historic social norms?2This article provides some interesting food for thought on the subject: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Virginia_political_crisis However, the answer is coming back increasingly clearly – the passage of time is not a get-out, and different historic norms of attitude and behaviour do not offer a valid excuse.

The fact is this: society today demands perfection. This is not only on major moral issues such as sexual abuse and racism – the national debate over Brexit led not only to division between factions, but also to unprecedented levels of personal attacks on people for their association with one camp or another. Student unions have no-platformed people because historically they shared a platform with someone with conservative social opinions. My intent is not to agree or disagree with these attitudes, but simply to highlight a significant shift – whereas before Christians needed to make a case for why all sin should be punishable (the classic morality scale from Hitler to Mother Theresa, asking where the “good enough for heaven” line should be), nowadays that conversation is changing. Instead, the question is, “can people truly be forgiven?”

So what, then, do we do with the truth which we all know deep down and which most try to conceal – the truth that we have all said, done and thought things which would cause many to reject us if they knew? It strikes me that most people in a perfection-demanding society escape censure simply by keeping their heads down and avoiding scrutiny: wind up under scrutiny, and sooner or later you’ll do something or someone will unearth something you did which renders you guilty. This fragile state of affairs – flying under the radar – must surely lead to a high level of inner conflict. Paul described the inability to live up to even our own standards in strong, bitter words:

For what I want to do, I do not do – and what I hate, I do … For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Romans 7

Our society is right – in part, at least. Perfection is the standard, and the passage of time does not wash away guilt. As might be expected, society’s standards of right and wrong do not always line up with God’s standards as revealed in the Scriptures, but the concept stands. Our desire for perfection is a good desire, but combined with a forlorn hope of human self-improvement, it inevitably ends up in a bitter and accusing form: seeing the faults in others and demanding change, while hiding away our own sins. This has been the case ever since the first sin, in which Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake in the garden of Eden, the last place where humans knew perfection. The good news of the Kingdom of God is that there is a genuine, solid hope for perfection ahead: not only a perfect environment, but also perfected humans to inhabit it.

As the pressure increases not only to live faultlessly, but also to have lived faultlessly, there is an opportunity to explain the Good News to people: “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”3C.S. Lewis discussed the validity of God forgiving sins of one human against another in this excellent clip from Mere Christianity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxzuh5Xx5G4&t=582

Have you had a recent conversation with a friend, relative or colleague in which you discussed the failings of a public figure? If so, did you take the easy path of simply agreeing, or did you draw attention to the truth that we all fall short of the mark? And have you ever had a conversation about what is needed for someone to be forgiven? Why not think through how you might explain in conversation the conflict between our desire for perfection and our inability to be perfect ourselves, as well as how you would explain God’s solution.