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22. Perfection, Spiritual Perception and Insight

Chapter 22

Perfection, Spiritual Perception and Insight

Trifles Make for Perfection

The Olympic games have to do with aiming for perfection, without which no one can hope to win a medal, much less a gold medal. Often the difference of a fraction of a second—a mere “trifle”—separates the medalists. Only one wins the gold, and it is often won by a very tiny margin. Yet it is often that extremely slight margin of excellence which makes the whole difference. The margin which secures the prize is the result of many years of arduous, exhausting and dedicated training. If athletes train hard to gain an earthly prize, why don’t Christians see that they need to do the same if they are to gain the eternal prize? What does the apostle have to say about this?

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that … I will not be disqualified for the prize. (1Cor.9.24-27, NIV)

Michelangelo was one who understood the importance of perfection. When one examines his sculptures, one is struck by a powerful realism that radiates forth. In Rome I once gazed at his statue of Moses, and there the force of Moses’ person­ality was conveyed in every facial detail, and in the posture of the body and arms.

Michelangelo was once working on one of his statues, and someone who was observing him noticed that for a whole month Michelangelo had been doing little more than polishing an arm here, or removing a bit of marble there. To this observer, these were trivialities and a waste of time. Michelangelo would spend a long time to chisel at one point, and then stand back for an overall look. Then he would chisel at another point, and then stand back again.

For a whole month he was occupied with polishing a little here, a little there, adding a line to accentuate the hair, or fine lines for the beard. These minor changes were barely noticeable except close up. The observer said to Michelangelo, “Aren’t you wasting your time? For the past month you have been doing nothing but adding a touch here and a touch there. Then you stand back and add another touch. These are trifles.”

Michelangelo, a genius who understood the importance of perfection, said in reply, “It is the trifles, as you call them, which make for perfection, and perfection is no trifle.” What excellent insight!

The difference between getting a gold medal or a silver medal is often a mere hair’s breadth or a fraction of a second. It is that tiny bit of superior­ity that makes for perfection. In driving a car, isn’t life and death sometimes a matter of a split-second in which one swerves away from danger? These split-second reactions are usually the result of long training and experience. Have we discerned the importance of “trifles”?

1. God is perfect, as is seen in all that He has created

Our God is a God of perfection. Take a close look at His handiwork in His creation. The other day I was admiring a moth that flew into our bath­room. I called for my wife Helen and said to her, “Look at this interesting moth!” I had never taken such a close look at a moth. Like most moths, this one was delta-winged, similar to the wings of supersonic aircraft. Long before man had ever conceived of delta-winged aircraft, there was the humble moth, outfitted with stream­lined aerodynamic features. Long before our physicists and engin­eers had ever sat down at their drawing boards, God had crafted a moth, aero­dynamically shaped and delta-winged.

I was so fascinated with the moth that I had quite forgotten that I had to get something from the bathroom. I said to Helen, “Look at the wings!” The tip of each delta wing had a dark edge which bordered an area of a lighter color which, in turn, contained intricate arch-shaped designs spread over the wing. One part­icular arch spanned the entire wing. All this complexity is found in a humble moth that no one bothers to notice.

When God creates beauty and perfection in a lowly moth, He takes into consideration fine details and delicate touches. Nothing is wishy-washy or half-hearted about God’s creation, as anyone who has peered through a microscope or a telescope would know. The perfection in all God’s designs is breathtaking in all its features.

Protruding from the moth’s head were two feather-like antennae, which branched out from both sides, forming what looked like a crown. Imagine! God has crowned the lowly moth with a diadem that befits its beautiful garments! I gazed at the exquisite design of the two plume-like extensions protruding majestically from its head.

I am filled with admiration for Michelangelo’s masterpieces, but even more so with the work of my God and King. You, O Lord, are pleased to crown a lowly moth!

Helen observed, “Look again at the wings! They look like a royal mantle that flows from the shoulders to the floor!” I took a closer look, and exclaimed, “You’re right. It’s like a royal robe!”

(1) Perfection is Composed of “Trivialities”

My God and my King is amazing. Perfection is His standard, and He looks for excellence in you and in me. Do we really think we can live a wishy-washy, mediocre Christian life and that would be good enough for God? Do we suppose that God is uncon­cerned about the way we live from day to day? Does He turn a blind eye to the so-called “trifles”—to our inconsiderate word, our arrogant gesture, our haughty glance, our self-centered action, our unclean thought? If you think God is unconcerned about these things, take a closer look at a moth. Examine a seashell or a blade of grass or a humble flower, and ponder carefully: On the day when you and I stand in God’s presence, will He overlook the trifles?

Life depends on “trifles,” tiny little things, doesn’t it? What is a body but something composed of tiny cells? Is not every material object made up of atoms and molecules? Doesn’t a whole lifetime consist of the seconds that tick away, sixty per minute? One can barely articulate a word within the space of a second. Yet the seconds add up to a lifetime.

Nothing is trivial to God. Is an atom or a second trivial? What constitutes a triviality? How would you define it?

(2) How a Triviality Can Spoil a Good Thing

The Lord Jesus is so concerned about details that he says you will have to give an account for every careless word you say (Mt.12.36). He cares about every word that comes out of our mouths. It shows the extent of his concern about so-called trivialities. How many careless words have we spoken? We may have a lot of trivial words to account for at the Judgment, and the consequences will not be trivial.

Have you ever collected your photographs from a photo shop only to be horrified by a tiny speck that appears on your beautiful cheek? It’s only a tiny speck, but because it happened to land on your cheek, it has ruined a picture of your beautiful self. Dear me, people will think it’s a pimple! A triviality? To you it’s not. Now you want to go back to the store for a refund.

How far along the road will you get if your car tire had a pinhead-sized hole, so small that you cannot see it with the naked eye? The fact is that you would not get very far.

It takes one inappropriate word to spoil a con­versation, doesn’t it? The discussion is proceeding nicely when suddenly the atmos­phere is soured by one wrong word. It’s just a triviality, isn’t it? But suddenly that one word, like that speck, becomes very significant.

God is a God of perfection who doesn’t overlook little things. If that is the case, what will happen to those who commit major sins which are not trivial by any standard?

The first reason, then, for paying close attention to the Biblical teaching of perfection is the fact that God is a God of perfection, or of purity—another way in which God’s character is described. “Everyone who has this hope fixed on him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1Jo.3.3).

2. The teaching of perfection helps us see our imperfection and our total dependence upon God’s grace

There is a second reason for the importance of this teaching: It makes us profoundly conscious of our imperfection or impurity. When we see our imperfection and realize that God will take note of every flaw and stain, what will be our response? We will realize that we need to rely totally on God’s grace.

Hence we cling to God every moment and de­pend on His grace to forgive us our imperfect­ions, to make us perfect in heart, and to see us through to the end. From start to finish, it is all of grace. The teaching of perfection makes us utterly aware of our permanent need for God’s grace.

The rejection of perfection is tanta­mount to a rejection of grace, for if God is unconcerned about perfection, then grace would not be needed to sustain us moment by moment, and we could go on without it. But when we realize that we serve a most holy and perfect God, we acknowledge that we cannot live for one moment without grace.

3. The Overstress on Doctrine and the Failure to Live According to Biblical Teaching

A third reason for stressing perfection is that we Christians tend to stress doctrine, doctrine and more doctrine, as though God is more concerned about our theology than our spiritual quality or heart attitude. God is por­trayed as a master theologian or heavenly Doctor of Divinity who is chiefly concerned about our theology. The church is so preoccupied with doctrine that Christians literally fight tooth and nail over it. This kind of conflict is a sad result of the distortion or loss of the spiritual perception that comes from living in His light in which we see things from His point of view, just as it is written, “In your light we see light” (Ps.36.9). When people insist on seeing things from their own human point of view, conflict will be inevitable.

Doctrine is certainly important. But if we think we can overlook the importance of the spiritual quality of our lives and fight each other viciously over doctrine, something must be ser­iously wrong with us. There are times when we must take a firm stand for the truth, but that does not absolve us from behaving in a Christ-like manner in every situation.

Some Christians go so far as to slander others, speaking all sorts of evil of those they regard as doctrinal opponents, often never even bothering to check the facts to ascertain whether their allegations contain so much as a grain of truth. Can such people be defenders of the truth? Or do they suppose that the end justifies the means?

Moreover, there is often something more sinister in these doctrinal attacks than merely expressing disagreement. Fre­quently what is implied, or even stated, is that the person or persons with whom we disagree are “heretics” or at least leaning to the heretical. Needless to say, the one who considers himself qualified to pass this kind of judgment regards himself as the representative of pure orthodox doctrine. Since he is convinced of his own rightness, any question concerning his own humility or conceitedness would scarcely cross his mind.

That is the tragic outcome when the stress is placed on doctrine rather than life quality. The evil one has deceived the church into thinking that God’s primary concern is with right doctrine rather than right living. When we put right our relationship with God, which will be seen in right living, we can then be sure that He will direct us in the path of right doctrine.

May God also save us from our jumping quickly to the conceited conclusion that there is nothing wrong with our relationship to God, and therefore nothing wrong with the way we live our Christian lives. If we are self-deceived about this, we would feel wholly justified in our doctrinal attacks on others who do not share our doctrinal convictions. Didn’t the Lord Jesus caution against this kind of blind arro­gance when he instructed his disciples to first see the log in their own eye before passing judgment on the speck in someone else’s (Mt.7.3)?

Purity or perfection is important in Scripture because it has to do with life. When the Lord Jesus instructs us to be like the Father (Mt.5.48), he is not formulating a theology of perfection but commanding us to be new persons who live a certain quality of life, namely, to be perfect as God is perfect, holy as He is holy, merciful as He is merciful, and pure as He is pure. Jesus is not concerned about some abstract theological notion of perfection but about a practical perfection that is seen in daily living. If we don’t grasp the practical importance of perfection, sooner or later we will end up fighting over dogma, dam­aging the church, and disgracing God, because without practical perfection we will become “blind or short­sighted” (2Pet.1.9).

It is when we learn to walk close to God that He will guide us into all truth (Jo.16.13; Ps.25.5), He will lead us into right doctrine. But if we don’t walk with Him, our discernment of the truth will be blurred. How then can we distinguish between true and false doctrine? We live in a time when false doctrines abound, which is why it is all the more urgent that we live in His light so as to be able to distinguish the true from the false.

Right doctrine is for right living. For those who don’t live in righteous­ness, of what use to him is right doctrine except to bring greater condemnation upon him at the Judgment?

Pastors Chosen According to Academic Qualifications

I receive many publications, together with re­quests for donations, from various Christian organizations and theological seminaries. Some of the publi­cations contain advertisements from churches look­ing for pastors. I would sometimes read the job requirements, and the foremost criterion is, of course, your academic qualifications. It is the undisputed number one requirement. Next in line is your doc­trinal position. Further down the list are things such as your age and marital status. There is a general preference for married people, and for people between the ages of 30 and 45. Those below 30 are too young and inexperienced, and those over 45 will soon be “over the hill”.

In general the advertisements say nothing about spirituality or life quality. Occasionally I am refreshed and encour­aged by the rare advertisement which says, “We are looking for a spiritual and godly man.” It makes me keen to visit this church and to meet the people there.

Generally, the stress is on denominational position and acad­emic qualifications. This shifts the focus from the practical to the intell­ectual. The lack of emphasis on spiritual life quality is extremely dangerous for the future of the church. An unspiritual church leader cannot build up a spiritually strong and healthy church. In this case, the outlook for the church will be extremely bleak.

In sharp contrast to contemporary practice, the stress in Scripture is not on dogma but on spiritual quality, when it comes to appointing a pastor, overseer or church leader. Looking at the list of qualifica­tions in 1Timothy 3.1-7 we see right away that this is what the Apostle or, rather, God Himself looks for in the one who serves Him and His church.

We modern-day Christians would have expected Paul to instruct Timothy, “First check out the candidate’s academic qualifi­cations.” Most advertisements for a pastor stipulate at least a college or university degree. But the apostle Paul, who was himself im­mensely learned, does not even mention, much less stress, the candi­date’s academic training or qualifications.

Even more surprising, Paul does not even mention doctrine! What then does he say about re­quirements? He outlines the qualifi­cations as follows:

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he de­sires to do. An over­seer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontent­ious, free from the love of money… (1Tim.3.1ff)

The candidate’s spiritual qualities, his character and conduct, are of foremost concern. Remarkably, though Paul touches on the ability to teach (v.2) and thus to communicate, he never mentions doctrine.

The same spiritual and practical concerns govern the selection of deacons in the next section, 1Timothy 3.8-13.

We might argue that Paul doesn’t mention doctrine for the simple reason that all along he is assuming Timothy would choose a person with the right doctrines. But this line of reasoning is unconvincing because, firstly, it is an argument from silence, and secondly, why did Paul not likewise assume that Timothy would look for spiritual quality without having to be told to do so? Paul’s detailed instructions about looking for spiritual qualities clearly indicate that Paul does not auto­matically assume that Tim­othy will choose a person according to his spiritual qualities. If Paul does not assume the one, what makes us think that he assumes the other?

It is an undeniable fact that in the selection of church leaders, the candidate’s spiritual quality is of supreme importance to the Apostle, and this is seen in the way it is singularly emphasized by him.

4. The Spiritually Mature (Perfect) Man Discerns True Doctrine

Does it mean, then, that we swing to the other extreme and downplay the importance of doctrine? No, not at all; doctrine is certainly important.

Why then does Scripture stress spiritual quality above all else? The reason is not hard to understand: Only when our heart is perfect or pure with God will we be able to discern doctrine, and to tell what is true and what is false, good from evil. If our heart is not right with God, we won’t be able to under­stand the spiritual content of His word. That is something which experience confirms: A person who is out of tune with God can still read the Bible, but he won’t be able to understand its spiritual message. If we go out and commit sin, and then try to read the Bible, we will discover that God’s word does not enter our hearts, and no longer speaks to us. Sin closes our hearts and blinds our eyes. If our heart is not perfect before God, we will be unable to discern the truth. Purity of heart, along with righteous living, ensures that the Spirit of God will reveal to us what is true and what is false.

If you hold a grudge against a brother or sister, your ability to discern doctrine will be seriously impaired. That is something that you can verify for yourself. If you hold a grudge against someone in the church, you will notice that your spiritual thinking is unfocused. The moment your heart is not perfect before God, as soon as it becomes impure, you will lose your capacity to tell truth from false­hood.

That is why, in the Lord’s wisdom, Paul does not need to tell Timothy about doctrine. Choose a man whose heart is right with God, and who walks with Him faithfully, and you will have found a man with a razor-sharp discernment of spiritual things (cf. Jo.7.17; 1Cor.2.15).

But the moment he sins or harbors sin in his heart, his spiritual discernment vanishes. If for a moment his commitment to God is less than perfect or pure, his spiritual perception will start fading. That is an experiential fact.

Purity of Heart Essential for Understanding God’s Word

A pastor once asked me about something I had said, namely, that the Bible nowhere teaches that God’s image in Adam was lost at the Fall. I soon realized that a certain kind of theology had been so drummed into this pastor (as was the case with me when I first came to God) that it prevented him from understanding God’s Word on this matter. The problem was not an unwillingness to see the truth, nor was it a hostile or argumentative spirit. Despite a genuine effort to understand the issue, it became clear that he was confused about quite basic spiritual things.

It then occurred to me that the way to help him was not to present more Scriptural evidence. I had already presented him with lots of incon­trovertible evidence to show that both the Old and the New Testaments explicitly state that the image of God in man is still intact. But this pastor still could not grasp the Biblical teaching because it was so different from the doctrine he had been brought up on, namely, that the image of God in man had been destroyed. This is also what I had been taught as a young Christian, so I can understand his situation. But could there be something else in his life besides doctrine that was preventing him from understanding the Scriptures?

So instead of trying to present more evidence, I asked him, “Dear brother, how is your heart before God? How is your commitment to Him? Let’s get back to the basics, and leave aside the question of doctrine for now. Could we talk about our relationship with the Lord?”

This way we can help each other in love, not by condemning or criticizing, but by seeing whether there is any wrong attitude of heart in us towards our God and King which prevents us from seeing His truth.

That is why the one fundamental and essential question is: Do I have a right attitude of heart towards God? Only by facing up to this question truthfully can our hearts, by God’s grace and power, be made pure before Him. Then our eyes will see the truth, and no sin will obscure our spiritual sight.

We help those who oppose the truth, not by crushing them through hostile debate but by reaching out to them in love. We begin with the one thing that God is concerned about: the heart. In God’s kindness, if our hearts are right before Him, He will remove such blindness as still remains in us which prevents us from seeing some aspect of the truth. How wonderful it is to help each other. But first we must let God deal with our hearts.

If you approach the word of God but cannot understand it, the right thing to do is not to run to a commentary or to another person, but to say to the Lord, “Lord, are there hindrances in me?” Sometimes you can get help from another person, but usually the problem lies first and foremost in the heart. When we let God deal with the problem, we will discover that He enlightens with His truth.

5. The Pure (Perfect) in Heart will have Spiritual Vision

May God work powerfully in us and grant us spiritual vision. Many have said to me, “I don’t see the preciousness of Christ. I don’t echo with great Christians such as Paul who considered everything as loss in order to gain Christ.” As Philippians 3.15 tells us, Paul’s attitude is one of perfection: “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude.” This attitude, as the context tells us, is that of pursuing Christ and regarding everything as loss in order to gain him.

Who can do this but the one who sees the beauty and preciousness of Christ? If we read a Bible passage like Philippians 3 and don’t understand it, the problem lies not in a failure to know Greek or some other technical information, but in the failure to capture Paul’s vision of the priceless value of Christ. Do we solve this problem by listening to a homily about the beauty and perfection of Christ, in order that some fire may be kindled in our hearts? That may not help, for if your heart is not right with God, all this would be sweet-sounding talk, like music that floats past the ear without speaking to the heart.

But when, by God’s grace, our hearts are puri­fied and we enter into a right relationship with Him, something significant will happen to our spiritual vision. Try it for yourself. What you could not see before will begin to become clear before your eyes.

For example, you might find it hard to under­stand Paul’s statement, “But we all with unveiled face behold the glory of the Lord” (2Cor.3.18). You scratch your head and say, “But I don’t behold the Lord’s glory.” Here Paul mentions the “un­veiled face”. If our face is still veiled, then obviously we won’t be able to see the glory of the Lord.

This veil, as we saw in an earlier chapter, is the flesh. The vital question is whether the flesh is having a grip on our hearts. The thicker the veil, the more we will live “according to the flesh” and the more it will obscure the Lord’s glory from our sight. How can the fire of God be kindled in our hearts if we don’t see His glory? Nothing will be kindled until we begin to see spiritual things as Paul did.

If we allow the veil of the flesh to remain on our faces, it will prevent us from experiencing the Lord. We won’t behold the Lord’s glory until our hearts are purified, and the veil is removed. It is removed only in Christ (2Cor.3.14), by God’s grace, and not by our own strength, wisdom or skill. Then we will see God’s glory and be transformed by it.

When that happens, what doctrines will confuse us? Scripture stresses, first and foremost, what we are. When that is sorted out, the question of doctrine will be sorted out as well.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5.8).


(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church