Desmond Tutu, who for years suffered under the oppression of Apartheid, critiques modern culture in his book, God Has a Dream:
[Western] culture places a high premium on success, based as it seems to be on unbridled, cutthroat competitiveness. You must succeed. It matters little in what you succeed as long as you succeed. The unforgivable sin is to fail. Consequently, it is the survival of the fittest and devil take the hindmost…
We find that stomach ulcers become a status symbol…
We infect our children with this virus early in life. We don’t just want them to pass their exams at school and do well at sport, we expect them to wipe the floor with the opposition as it were. We make them believe that we cherish them only if they do well, or behave well.*
In our personal life, this "You're either first or your last" kind of attitude takes the form of perfectionism. Perfectionism is the thought that the only way to be significant in the world is to be perfect, flawless, to stand out. We think, especially in evangelical circles, that such perfectionism is a way towards being like God. And yet, far from making us look more like God, perfectionism makes us look a lot more like that first couple who attempted on their own efforts to be like God. The very nature of perfectionism flirts idolatry. It is the assertion that I, in my own power, can be perfect. I can do it without help, without cooperation, without others. I can be the greatest. Perfectionism creates isolation. If I’m the greatest, you are not. If I’m the greatest, I can’t even let you be a part of the process because you’ll mess it up, after all, you’re not the greatest.
Grace, however, draws us together. Grace recognizes that doing something together is more important than doing it “perfectly.” For in God’s eyes, “Doing it right” has much more to do with doing it together than anything else. I believe, that when Jesus commands us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, he means, be perfect in love. Perfect love learns how to include others even when others will make a mess of things.
Just think of Jesus and the disciples. Jesus didn’t go it alone even though he was the only one who could do it perfectly. No, he involved these goofballs every step of the way. If Jesus had wanted a perfect ministry, he wouldn’t have chosen the disciples as his sidekicks. To make this point, Jesus once pulled a child from the crowd. Children in Jesus’ day were insignificant. They were pushed aside. They were left out. Children in every age are, by their very natures, imperfect, mistake prone, and mess inducing. Children, before they are ruined by their parents, are every perfectionist’s nightmare. And yet, with an imperfect child pulled close to his side, the perfect Son of God said to all who would hear, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest” (Luke 9:48).
Did you get that? Jesus is putting to death once and for all the idea that we need to be perfectionists in order to be acceptable to him. This kid with snot smeared across his face, dirt under his fingernails, prone to interrupting his elders, this imperfect kid, had perfect access to the Son of God because of God’s perfect grace. The truth is, so do you. We find ourselves closest to the kingdom not when we close in on perfectionism, but when we take up the very messy task of perfect love.
* Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 31-32.