Spiritual Discouragement and Spiritual Perfectionism by D.A. Carson

D.A. Cars0n tells the story of meeting people who are discouraged by their sense of failure:

More than ten years ago a gifted pastor I know told me that at the age of fifty or so he was contemplating leaving pastoral ministry. Perhaps he would serve as an administrator in some sort of Christian agency. When I probed, I discovered that his reasoning had little to do with typical burnout, still less with a secretly nurtured sin that was getting the best of him, and certainly not with any disillusionment with the gospel or with the primacy of the local church. His problem, rather, was that he set extraordinarily high standards for himself in sermon preparation. Each of his sermons was a hermeneutical and homiletical gem. Anyone who knows anything about preaching could imagine how much time this pastor devoted to sermon preparation. Yet as his ministry increased, as legitimate demands on his time multiplied, he found himself frustrated because he could not maintain the standards he had set himself. I told him that most of us would rather that he continue for twenty more years at eighty percent of his capacity than for six months at a hundred percent of his capacity.

He moves on to talk about the source of this unhappiness with himself.

Rather, this unhappiness, sometimes descending to despair, is the fruit of frustration that perfection is not achievable. Yet it springs not from generalized aspirations for utopia, but from biblical declarations of the power of the gospel placed alongside our own shortcomings. It springs from the conviction that, granted the power of the gospel, perfection ought to be a lot more attainable than it is.

It springs, in short, from panting after perfection; it is another kind of perfectionism. Immediately one must say that pursuit of perfection is at many levels a good thing, a needed thing, plausible evidence that the gospel is at work in our lives. Many is the mature Christian who is acutely aware of the ongoing struggle with sin, yet who avoids the disabling despair of the few. Indeed, it has often been noted that the godliest of Christians are characteristically most aware of their sin, yet equally aware of the limitless measure of God’s love for them in Christ Jesus. What is it, then, that makes the pursuit of God and of holiness the characteristic mark of many disciples yet so utterly debilitating for some intense and devout followers of Jesus?

What is the Biblical solution? First, to realize that the Bible presents stark contrasts of absolutes. AND to realize the Bible presents narratives of the failings of God’s people. The Bible presents both!

The Bible itself speaks to this issue in various ways, and some of those ways are cast as stark antitheses.

In apocalyptic literature, for example, there are faithful followers of Christ, and there are diabolical opponents. People wear either the mark of the beast or the sign of Christ; there is nothing in between. Similarly in wisdom literature: one follows Dame Folly or Lady Wisdom, but not both. That is why a wisdom psalm like Ps 1 casts the choice in absolute antithesis: either one does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, stand in the path of sinners, and sit in the seat of mockers, while delighting in the law of the Lord day and night and meditating on it, finding one’s life before God is like a well-watered fruit-bearing tree, or the wicked are simply “not so.” The Lord recognizes and owns one path, while the other perishes. There is nothing in between. The Lord Jesus can preach in many different styles, but included among them is wisdom polarity: reflect on the antitheses at the end of the Sermon on the Mount.

On the other hand, over against such antithetical presentations of holiness and sin, of faithfulness and unbelief, are the many narrative portions of the Bible where God’s people are depicted with all their inconsistencies, their times of spectacular faithfulness and their ugliest warts. Abraham the friend of God repeatedly tells half truths; Moses the meekest man loses his temper and consequently does not get into the promised land; David the man after God’s own heart commits adultery and murder; Peter the primus inter pares, the confessor of Caesarea Philippi and the preacher of Pentecost, acts and speaks with such little understanding that he earns a rebuke from Jesus and another from Paul. In such narratives there is no trace of the moral polarities of apocalyptic and of wisdom. There is instead an utterly frank depiction of the moral compromises that make up the lives of even the “heroes” of Scripture.

In short, the Bible itself includes genres and passages that foster absolutist thinking and others that warn us to recognize how flawed and inconsistent are even those we recognize as the fathers of the faithful. Certainly we need both species of biblical literature, and most Christians see a sign of God’s kindness in the Bible that provides us with both.

  • The narratives without the absolutes might seem to sanction moral indifference: “If even a man after God’s own heart like David can fall so disastrously, it cannot be too surprising if we lesser mortals tumble from time to time.”
  • The absolutes without the narratives might either generate despair (“Who can live up to the impossibly high standards of Ps 1?”) or produce self-righteous fools (“It’s a good thing the Bible has standards, and I have to say I thank God I am not as other people are.”).

We need the unflinching standards of the absolute polarities to keep us from moral flabbiness, and in this broken world, we need the candid realism of the narratives to keep us from both arrogance and despair. Most of us, I suspect, muddle along with a merely intuitive sense of how these twin biblical heritages ought to shape our lives.

Do you get what he is saying? The Bible presents both absolute standards and teaching. And the Bible includes narratives of God’s people failing. Depending on which you look at will influence how you look at holiness. Those given to discouragement at their imperfections need to look at the narratives. And of course at the cross.

The second factor is how we attach the cross of Christ to all this. The intensity of the struggle against sin easily generates boundless distortions when we do not return, again and again, to God’s love for us manifested in the cross. There alone is the hope we need, the cleansing we need, the grace we need. Any pursuit of perfection that is not awash in the grace of God displayed on a little hill outside Jerusalem is bound to trip us up.

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