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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 much to do with striving for perfect­ion, without which no one can hope to win a medal, much less a gold medal. It is often the difference of a fraction of a second — a mere “trifle” — that separates the medalists. Only one person or team wins the gold medal, and often by a tiny mar­gin. Yet it is often that extremely thin margin of excellence that 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 Paul 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 knew the importance of perfection. When we look at his sculptures, we are 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.

When Michelangelo was working on one of his statues, someone had noticed that for a whole month that Michelangelo would do little more than polish an arm here, or remove a bit of marble there. To this observer, these were trivialities. Michelan­gelo would spend a long time to chisel at one point, then stand back for an overall look. Then he would chisel at another point, then stand back again.

For a whole month he was 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 up close. The person 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, “It is the trifles, as you call them, which make for per­fection, and perfection is no trifle.” What excellent insight!

The difference between a gold medal and a silver medal is often a hair’s breadth of a second. It is that tiny bit of superior­ity that makes for perfection. In a car crash, life versus death is often decided by a split second in swerving from danger.

God is perfect in His creation

Our God is a God of perfection. Look at His handiwork in 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 had 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 worked at their drawing boards, God had crafted a moth, aero­dynamically shaped and delta-winged.

I was so fascinated with the moth that I had forgotten to get something from the bathroom. I said to Helen, “Look at its 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 notices.

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 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.

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 King is amazing. Perfection is His standard, and He looks for excellence in you and in me. Do we think we can live a wishy-washy mediocre Christian life and that is good enough for God? Do we think 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 close 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 tiny little “trifles,” doesn’t it? What is a body but a composition 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 hardly utter 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?

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 picked up 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. People will think it’s your own pimple! A triviality? To you it’s not.

How far down the road will you get if your car tire has a pinhead hole so small that you cannot see it with the naked eye? Not 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, but suddenly that one word, like that speck, becomes very significant.

God is a God of perfection who doesn’t overlook tiny things. If that is so, 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 that God is a God of perfection — or of purity, which is an­other way of describing God’s character. “Everyone who has this hope fixed on him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1Jn.3:3).

The teaching of perfection helps us see our imperfection and total dependence on 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 see our need to rely totally on God’s grace. We will 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 continuing need for God’s grace.

The rejection of perfection is 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 living 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.

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 and more doctrine, as if 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 fight tooth and nail over it. This conflict is a sad result of the loss of the spiritual perception that comes from living in God’s light, in which we see things from His point of view. “In your light we see light” (Psalm 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 spiritual quality of our lives and fight each other 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, yet they never bother 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?

There is often something more sinister in these doctrin­al attacks than merely expressing disagreement. Fre­quently what is implied, or even stated, is that those with whom we disagree are “heretics” or at least leaning to the heretical. 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 about 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 be sure that He will direct us on the path of right doctrine.

May God save us from thinking that there is nothing wrong with our relationship with 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 carrying out 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 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, and merciful as He is merciful. Jesus is not concerned about some abstract theological notion of perfection but 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, for with­out practical perfection we will be “blind or short­sighted” (2Pet.1:9).

It is when we walk close to God that He will guide us into all truth (Jn.16:13; Ps.25:5), and lead us to 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 a pastor. I would sometimes read the job requirements, and the foremost 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 ads say nothing about spirituality or life qual­ity. Occasionally I am refreshed and encour­aged by the rare ad 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 doctrinal position and acad­emic qualifi­cations. This moves the focus from the practical to the intellect­ual, which is 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 contrast to contemporary practice, the stress in Scripture is not on dogma but on spiritual quality in appointing a pastor, overseer or church leader. In the list of qualifica­tions in 1Timothy 3:1-7, we see that this is what Paul, or ultimately God, looks for in the one who serves God and His church.

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

More surprising, he does not even mention doctrine! What then are the re­quirements? He outlines them 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 … (1Timothy 3:1f)

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 reason that all along he is assuming Timothy would choose a person with the right doctrines. This reasoning is uncon­vincing because, firstly, it is an argument from silence, and secondly, why did Paul not 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 indic­ate that he does not assume that Tim­othy will automatically choose a per­son by 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.

The spiritually perfect man discerns true doctrine

Does it mean that we swing to the other extreme and downplay the importance of doctrine? 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 the true from the 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. It is something that is confirmed by experience: 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 impaired. That is something you can verify for yourself. If you hold a grudge against someone in the church, you will notice that your spiritual thinking becomes 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.

In God’s wisdom, Paul does not need to tell Timothy about doc­trine. Choose a man whose heart is right with God and walks faithfully with Him, and you will have found a man with razor-sharp discern­ment of spiritual things (cf. Jn.7:17; 1Cor.2:15). But as soon as he sins or harbors sin in his heart, his spiritual discern­ment declines. If for a moment his commitment to God is less than perfect, his spiritual perception will start fading. That is an experiential fact.

Purity of heart needed for understanding God’s word

A pastor once asked me about something I had said to him, 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 a hostile or argumentative spirit. Despite a genuine effort to understand the issue, it became clear that he was confused about basic spiritual things.

It then occurred to me that the way to help him was not to present more Biblical evidence. I had already given him 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, yet this pastor 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?

Instead of presenting 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 in us towards our God and King which prevents us from seeing His truth.

The central and essential question is: Do I have a right heart attitude towards God? Only by facing up to this question honestly 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 in 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 another person, but to say to God, “Lord, are there hindrances in me?” Sometimes you can get help from another person, but usually the problem lies foremost in the heart. When we let God deal with the problem, we will discover that He enlightens us with His truth.

Spiritual vision for the pure (perfect) in heart

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 consider 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 help a little, but 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 will happen to our spirit­ual vision. Try it for yourself. What you could not see before will become clear before your eyes.

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 speaks of the “un­veiled face”. If our face is still veiled, 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 crucial question is whether the flesh is still 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 hinder us from experiencing the Lord. We won’t behold His glory until our hearts are purified and the veil is removed. It is removed only in Christ (2Cor.3:14) by God’s grace, not by our own strength or wisdom.

When that happens, what doctrines will still 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