by Jan Johnson
Have you been bothered by that verse: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)?
Many people are.
Some think it means we can or should drive ourselves with perfectionism. But perfectionism doesn’t lead to perfection—only to shame, as some of you have heard me say. Others just give up and decide transformation is for someone else. Still others think that Jesus said things that just don’t make sense.
What if “perfect” means “fully functional”?
The word for “perfect” there and elsewhere is telios, which means complete or mature. It’s the word Jesus used on the cross in “It is FINISHED” (looser translation: we did it!). Lately, Dallas Willard has taken to substituting “perfect” in these verses with “fully functional.” Be fully functional, as your heavenly Father is fully functional.
So what does fully functional look like?
The above verse is the summary statement from the “love your enemies” section of the Sermon on the Mount. So to be fully functional is to be kind instead of crabby, to help other people out instead of wondering what’s wrong with them. To love difficult people means I’m fully functional, not taking the time and emotional energy to be offended by them or to judge them in my mind.
What a relief!
For days I’ve been connecting dots among the “perfect” verses and it turns out others relate to loving others as well. For example, several of the “perfect” verses occur in James, one of which describes the fully functional law (1:25), which a few verses later he calls the royal law and quotes Jesus’ great commandment (and OT law) and to love others the way we love ourselves. (Don’t tell me you don’t love yourself; if you’ve managed to feed and dress yourself in the last few days you’ve loved—or done what’s best for—yourself.) To be fully functional is to love others as well as I treat myself.
Another dot: When Jesus talks to the rich young ruler who obeyed all the laws, Jesus advises him that if he would be fully functional (perfect), he would sell all he had and give it to the poor: radical love for others (Matt 19:21).
Full functionality (maturity and completion) then seems to relate to moving away from self-absorption and thinking more about what others are going through. When I resent what you say to me or I choose to ignore you (not loving you), I’m not functioning with all of myself. In fact, I begin to behave rather dysfunctionally: self-pity, know-it-all, apathetic. The heavenly Father is perfect in how God loves us fully. God invites me into that love and also invites me to ponder how I might love others a little more today than yesterday. Then I become a whole new me, one that is fully functional, able to stop making everything about me and willing to think about you with more generosity, mercy, and kindness.
With that in mind, Jesus’ invitation to be fully functional sounds like a really good idea.