The Problem With Perfection

Yesterday afternoon I sat on my deck and finished John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. A marvelous, sprawling epic. For me it ranks right up there with my all time favorite novel, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Great novels like East of Eden, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, A Tale of two Cities, Moby Dick, etc., are valuable for this simple reason: What masterpieces of literature have in common is their insight into human beings. An author can reveal the inner sanctum of a person; the author can tell us what a person is thinking and let us in on their deepest secrets — something which is nearly impossible to do in real life. If the author chooses to do so they can give us a “God’s eye view” of the world they have created with their writing. And the literary giants aren’t just great writers, they are also great perceivers. Steinbeck, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, Melville and the rest have helped me to understand the human soul far more than you might imagine.

And sometimes they stumble upon the utterly profound.

Near the end of East of Eden, the wise Chinese servant, Lee, says this to Aaron Trask’s girlfriend, Abra:

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good. Is that it?”

This stuck me as such a profound thought that I wrote this in my moleskin:

When you don’t have to be perfect, you can begin to be good.
Adapted from East of Eden, pg. 583; 8/26/07 5:31 p.m.


To be perfect.

What a marvelous idea.

There’s only one problem…

We’re not.

And when imperfect people seriously aspire to perfection the results can be disastrous.

People who find themselves in a culture where perfection is expected are forced to pretend.

Perfectionism produces pretension.

To live in a world of pretense is to live outside of reality.

There’s another word for this: Insanity.

Ultimately, when we try to be perfect we find it impossible to be good.

The pretense of perfection leads people to be legalistic, judgmental, proud, duplicitous, depressed and generally screwed up from the cognitive dissonance of an expectation that is cruelly contradicted by reality.

“Perfect” people cannot be good.

Sadly, it’s almost exclusively the religious who have any serious aspiration for perfection. Religious perfectionism is the worst because God has been invoked.

In both the 18th and 19th centuries there were “Christian Perfection” movements (led most notably by John Wesley and Charles Finney). Christian Perfectionism is a doctrine that asserts that it is possible for a Christian to attain “moral perfection” — a state where they no longer sin.

Well, howdy, doody.

I’m all for not sinning. But…

To claim to have reached a state of sinless perfection?

(Which of course people in these movements did or what would be the point?)

To claim to have “gone on to perfection by a sanctifying work of grace” (that was the expression) must put a lot of pressure on you.

Yep, I haven’t sinned in seventeen years…and I can’t tell you how proud I am of it.

No, when you’re perfect, you can’t be good.

I have to tell you I’m not really interested in spending any time at all with a perfect person. I’m sure they would annoy the heck out me. Unless they really are perfect. Which would make them…

Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Today Christian Perfection as a doctrine per se has gone out of vogue, but too often it remains the unstated expectation within a zealous Christian culture.

When this is the case, people can’t face their sin or deal with their sin or overcome their sin — they simply must not have sin.

Which is a tall order.

And which means their sin must be kept a secret.

Instead of confess your sins to one another, it’s don’t ask, don’t tell.

But if you can’t confess your sin, face your sin, deal with your sin, overcome your sin…you can’t be good.

Perfect people can’t be good.

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. (James 5:16)

Someone might want to remind me that Jesus did say, “Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

A bit of exegesis:

First of all the Greek word telios has more to do with completeness or full development than with flawlessness.

Secondly, the context in which Jesus says this has to do with love; specifically loving our enemies. Jesus is urging us to become a fully developed human beings so that we relate to everyone else, even our enemies, on the basis of love.

And so we are on the journey to maturity. And we are determined to press on. But along the way we will stumble from time to time because we’re not…


But when you don’t have to be perfect you can begin to be good.

If we say we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and refusing to accept the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. My dear children, I am writing this to you so that you will not sin. But if you do sin, there is someone to plead for you before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who pleases God completely. (1 John 1:8-2:1)

So, East of Eden was good. It dealt a lot with the greatest concept in human drama: Redemption.

And redemption only happens by grace.


That’s the greatest!

The kids would say, grace is the bomb.

Or perhaps we should say, grace is the balm.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on this Monday evening.

Imperfectly Yours,



The song I’m sticking in my head as I type:


She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

It’s a name for a girl
It’s also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything

Grace, she’s got the walk
Not on a ramp or on chalk
She’s got the time to talk
She travels outside of karma
She travels outside of karma
When she goes to work
You can hear her strings
Grace finds beauty in everything

Grace, she carries a world on her hips
No champagne flute for her lips
No twirls or skips between her fingertips
She carries a pearl in perfect condition

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace makes beauty out of ugly things