Many of us Christians have been conditioned to believe that Jesus must have been perfect. But where does this belief come from? Well, it originates from the confession that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. This confession goes back at least as far as the Chalcedonian Creed of 451 CE, of which it was a central component. While I have no wish to argue with the conclusions of that creed, I do want to challenge the resulting widespread notion that Jesus must therefore have been perfect. Or rather, I want to challenge quite what we mean when we say Jesus was perfect.
The logic is as simple as can be: Jesus was both fully God and fully man; if Jesus was fully God, that must mean he was perfect, right?
The first and biggest problem with this idea is that perfection is an entirely subjective quality. I could play you one of my favourite songs and tell you, “This song is just perfect”. But you might, for whatever reason, find the song awful, in which case you’d be hard pressed to acknowledge its supposed perfection. Since there’s no universally acknowledged standard of perfection on which we can all agree, we’re generally forced to accept that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. And everyone is mostly fine with this.
Except when it comes to Jesus. When it comes to Jesus, we all have to agree that he was perfect. No ifs, no buts.
But… what do we mean when we say Jesus was perfect? The usual answer to this question is that Jesus never sinned. Well, okay then… but what do we mean by sin? Different people might put forward different answers to this question, with equal levels of passion and conviction. However, much as we may wish it did, the Bible offers us no straightforward, uniform definition of what exactly “sin” is.
So… if Jesus was perfect and never sinned, does that mean, for example, that he never disobeyed his parents? Does it mean he never kept them awake at night by refusing to go to sleep?
Or does it mean that Jesus never spoke a word in anger? Does it mean that, if Jesus hit his thumb with a hammer while working in Joseph’s carpentry shop, he never said anything more salty than “Praise the Lord, silly me!”?
Or perhaps Jesus’ supposed perfection means he never contravened any law… yet the Gospels recount that he happily contravened a number of widely accepted and religiously mandated sabbath restrictions.
So, to reiterate, the first problem with insisting that Jesus was perfect is that no one can agree on what it means to be perfect.
But there’s another potentially more serious problem with the notion of Jesus’ perfection, and it’s this: a perfect Jesus could not have been a human Jesus.
If we wish to affirm that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, we should at least stop to consider in passing what we mean by “God” and “man”. Much ink has been spilled on the “God” side of this equation, but what about the “man” part?
In order to protect the “Jesus was perfect” notion, what we’ve often done with the idea of Jesus being fully human is reduce the “human” part to its biological definition: a member of the species homo sapiens. Two arms, two legs, a torso, a head; ingestion of food and drink and excretion of waste matter (though we’d rather not think of Jesus having to do that, thank you very much).
But such a definition surely undersells what it is to be human. Does not the fact of being human necessarily encompass the ability to experience and feel pain and joy, despair and hope, failure and success? Pain, despair and failure may not be “perfect” by any clinical definition, but most would agree that they are certainly part and parcel of the human experience.
Ergo, we are left with two options.
The first option is that Jesus was indeed morally, physically and spiritually perfect. If this is so, then he was surely the only person ever to meet such criteria. While that idea might inspire us to fall down in worship, awestruck by his unattainable superiority, it also places him well beyond our reach as any kind of model we could hope to emulate. Which, considering that Jesus went around telling people “Follow me”, is kind of a problem.
The second option, then, is that Jesus was indeed truly human, and that it necessarily follows that he was not perfect in any clinical, abstract sense. Perhaps he was sometimes truculent, tired and irritable; perhaps he sometimes forgot something he’d promised to do; perhaps he sometimes had a short fuse. Would these things make him less perfect… or would they just make him more fully human?
If, as I fervently believe, Jesus was indeed fully human, and thus did not conform to our grandiose notions of perfection, we need to reconsider what, in actuality, we mean when we say he was perfect. Could it be that Jesus was perfect in his compassion? Could it be that he was perfect in his ability to be fully present with the victim and the suffering child? Could it be that he was perfect in his embodiment of the Father’s absolute forgiveness and non-violence? And, finally, could it be that he was perfect in his willingness to pour out his own life for the sake of those he loved?
Could it be that, in making the perfect Jesus into a paragon of moral virtue, we have in fact completely blinded ourselves to his true perfection? I’ll leave you to think about that.
[ Image: midiman ]