Becoming Perfect

I came across an interesting passage today — or rather, it’s an extremely popular, well-loved passage, but I saw something that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s from Psalm 32 and it reads as follows:

1 Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.
3 When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD” — and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
6 Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him.

Holy Grail MonksI like this passage because when we confess our sins — especially in church — we usually allow a sombre mood to descend, perhaps the mood equivalent of those farcical monks on Monty Python’s Holy Grail marching to their dirge and hitting themselves with boards. Of course, shame and regret are appropriate responses, but they’re not appropriate enough. They certainly can’t be the whole story. This Psalm correctly captures the idea that being forgiven is actually a blessing and a great privilege. Joy and praise belong with confession as much as self-reflection and sorrow.

The thing that I hadn’t noticed before was in verse 6. Perhaps I’m making too much of it, but I was struck by the description of the praying person as ‘godly’. It is striking because we would be comfortable using the name ‘godly’ for someone who doesn’t sin. Here it is the person who does sin, but runs to God for restoration. In other words, godliness is not here a statement about someone’s ethical uprightness, but their relational stance. I suppose that’s why the Pharisees always got it in the neck from Jesus: they made every effort to be not in need of forgiveness, but therefore failed ever to approach God for forgiveness, refuge or relationship of any other kind. They would do anything to be within the law, but they were never godly by the standards of this Psalm, because they never put themselves in the appropriate relationship of reliance upon God.

Flipping to Philippians
I was also prompted to think of another verse that is similarly strange, this time from Philippians 3. For this one I’ll have to leave the NIV behind and use a more woodenly literal translation:

12 It is not that I already received or already have been made perfect, but I pursue if also I may apprehend that for which I was apprehended by Christ Jesus.
13 Brothers, I do not consider myself to have apprehended; but one thing, forgetting what is behind, and straining forward to things ahead,
14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus.
15 Therefore, as many as are perfect, let us think this way; but if any are differently minded, this also God will reveal to you.

The surprise in this passage is the identity of those that Paul calls ‘perfect’ in v15. The ‘perfect’ (i.e. those who are acceptable to God) are those who recognise that they have not received or attained perfection. Paul says that we were apprehended for perfection, but this life can hold nothing more than the pursuit, not the attainment of it. Seeing as fulness, completion and perfection can only be ours if we’re given them as a ‘prize’ from above (i.e. at the resurrection), then neither those who think that they have reached the goal nor those who refuse to pursue it are on the path any longer. The latter have obviously drifted off after worthless things, and the former have attained nothing but Pharisaic self-righteousness, the complete antithesis of being apprehended by Christ.

So both these passages seem to me to be saying that the attainment of godliness and perfection has everything to do with clinging to the one who can grace us with those things, and nothing to do with our ethical excellence.

Wiser than Wisdom

Our church has a number of study groups that meet to discuss the Bible, and this year it has been our dubious pleasure to study the wisdom books. [I say ‘dubious’, because although I love the wisdom literature a great deal, it’s remarkably difficult material to dissect and digest (to make a disgusting mix of metaphors) in weekly studies. It’s easy enough to discuss something that has a storyline or that makes an argument, but what does one do with pages and pages of pithy one-liners?]

In our studies, I have been reminded of an aspect of wisdom literature that should surprise us, but doesn’t. In fact it usually passes unnoticed. I’m referring to passages in these books that seem extremely obvious, or even silly. We tend to gloss over these sections exactly because they seem too obvious to bother dwelling upon. We should be surprised by them, however, because if the great minds of history have seen fit to preserve something for posterity under the category of ‘wisdom’, we should find it strange if such content is banal. This should alert us to the likelihood that we’ve not properly understood what the sages were on about and that we need to stop and think, rather than skipping on to something else.

The best example of this comes from the NT book of James:

But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. (James 3:14-15)

Nothing would seem more obvious than to say that ‘bitter envy’ and ‘selfish ambition’ are not characteristics that have descended to us from heaven. We would call these attributes vices, not virtues. Duh, James. Move on. Yet the fact that James has said this clearly means that there are circumstances in which we might think that these attributes are good. Or perhaps what James calls ‘envy’ we would dress up under a more pious-sounding name? Either way, unlocking the power of this passage depends on you stopping and figuring out how these things could ever be confused with divine wisdom.

Some similar examples emerged from our most recent study, in which we examined the first 10 chapters of Proverbs. In these chapters, there are repeated warnings against violent robbery and adultery.  There are plenty of observations in these passages that are evidently wise and less than obvious. For example, the idea in both themes that these practices are self-destructive — that violent plots amount to lying in wait for one’s own blood — is uncommonly insightful. Nevertheless, our studies of these texts tended not to rise above the obvious moralisms that murder and adultery are both bad and we shouldn’t do them. This conclusion sadly robs these texts of their bite.

The Wisdom behind the Obvious
Both these themes are accompanied by the assumption that the sinner’s appeal is enticing (‘My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them.’ Proverbs 1:10), but the form of their invitation is clumsy and ridiculous. Immediately following Proverbs 1:10, the violent man says:

Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for someone’s blood, let’s waylay some harmless soul; let’s swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder…

The adulteress says ludicrous things too, such as that she is ready for sex because she’s fulfilled her religious duties:

“I have fellowship offerings at home; today I fulfilled my vows. So I came out to meet you; I looked for you and have found you! … Come, let’s drink deep of love till morning; let’s enjoy ourselves with love! (Proverbs 7:14-18)

In other words, the sage has laid bare the stupidity of sinful enticements by putting them in crass terms. He does point out, however, that the adulterous woman is a successful hunter (‘Many are the victims she has brought down; her slain are a mighty throng,’) which means that her clearly foolish offer surprisingly finds many takers!

If such clumsy enticements seem so obviously avoidable to us, why then do so many fall prey to them? Because the writer is exposing them for what they really are; the actual enticements are not so indelicate. The real-life  invitations to join in self-destructive evils seem like wisdom to us, not the obvious foolishness of their Proverbial forms. When we pay attention to this, it becomes easier to see what the sage is trying to do and how he can powerfully expose our own foolishness.

So for Christians now, most of us can steer well clear of adultery and agree with the moralisms against it, yet many of us fall prey far too often to the more discreet, justifiable enticements to sexual sin that are so readily available on the internet for example. Following this path can seem harmless or even (by some ways of reckoning) wise — certainly enough of us demonstrate its ‘wise’ appeal by straying down that road — and yet it has the power to ruin careers (most of all in the pastorate, which is not immune from these follies) and indeed marriages. What’s more, if Proverbs is to be believed, feeding on such things has the power to eat at one’s own self too.

I’m not sure how many subtle ways exist by which the appeal to violence can slip through our defences and make itself appear wise. I suppose enough Christians have trampled upon the poor on their climb to wealth, or exploited their employees, or been involved in conflict and indeed murder, all of which demonstrates that the temptation frequently finds a willing home.

One way or another, when a passage secures our immediate, obvious agreement that its contents are wise, it’s probably waiting for us to wonder why it needs to tell us at all, and to dig a little deeper. It doesn’t take too much reflection upon the warnings against enticement to violence and sex to realise that our verbal condemnation of those acts is often not entirely matched by our actions.