Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Perfectionist Paul

Paul is a difficult character. He is difficult to understand, and even more difficult to relate to. However, one way of understanding Paul may be to think in psychological terms. Paul behaves like a child of perfectionist parents, only in his case, it is not his relationship with his earthly parents, but God the father.

A child of perfectionist parents learns that nothing short of perfection is good enough. Paul was a perfectionist; he was proud of it: "If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless" (Phil. 3.4-6). Would anyone but a perfectionist call himself "blameless?"

At some point, Paul learned what all children of perfectionist parents learn: Paul was not perfect, not really. If love must be earned, then no accomplishment is ever good enough to earn it. Paul wrote, in Hebrews 7.11, that perfection was not attainable through the priesthood, and in Hebrews 9.9, that gifts and sacrifices "cannot perfect the conscience." Paul's endless striving after perfection did not earn him peace, or salvation, or his heavenly father's love.

Paul found in Jesus Christ what he could not find in himself: A way off the treadmill of perfection. For Paul, Jesus was the perfect sacrifice that Paul could not offer. Jesus, Paul wrote, "by a single offering . . . has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified" (Heb. 10.14). Because we cannot do it for ourselves, Jesus does it for us.

Love is not earned. Whatever has to be earned is not love, not really. Love is freely given. Whatever is not freely given is not love, not really. This is true of earthly parents, and it is true of our father who art in heaven. Christians believe in an infinite wellspring of love, free to all who wish to partake.

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