If we’re not perfect, we can yet be perfecting

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 7, 2000

"No one’s perfect!" slides around like a bead of mercury on waxed glass.

Monday, August 07, 2000

"No one’s perfect!" slides around like a bead of mercury on waxed glass. No one could disagree, yet some people throw it around as a gem of profound philosophy or, more common, a convenient weapon. No one claims to be perfect, but there are those who constantly challenge with the expression. It is sometimes supposed to be reassuring, but it often falls as a cheap excuse for irresponsibility. A cop out. The fact that no one is perfect should encourage us to work toward perfection, or be perfecting ourselves, but it must never be used as slogan that excuses people for not trying.

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When someone errs, commits an offense, or sins, it is silly to assert "No one’s perfect!" Of course they are not in the absolute sense, but that makes no sense. What a frustrating thing it is to hear someone excuse himself or herself for doing wrong by pleading, "No one’s perfect!" It is no better to indulge another person’s irresponsibility or even offense by arguing, "No one’s perfect!"

The word "perfect" means "lacking nothing essential to the whole, complete of its nature or kind." It is a semantic mistake to think of the word as an absolute. An absolute word admits of no comparative degree, because it either is or it is not. Adjectives like "good," "better," and "best" express the ordinary, comparative, and superlative degrees respectively. There can be only one "best" in any given class.

Not so "perfect." For a long time it has been used in a relative sense. That is to say, there are in fact degrees of perfection. We have no better demonstration of this than the U.S. Constitution, which speaks of "a more perfect union." The authors meant: This union is all fallible humans can expect a union of people to be; it’s the best anyone can do.

When the expression is bantered about concerning the morality of behavior, I am deeply concerned because it is especially important to understand it in this regard. If no one is perfect in the absolute sense, we still need to know in what sense one can be perfect or perfecting?

What would human perfection be? What would a perfect human being be like? Would he be like Adam, i.e., sinless? But Adam eventually sinned and, so, was not morally perfect. Like Adam before he sinned, then? No, not then either. Among other considerations, Adam was socially incomplete. After he had created Adam, God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help suitable for him" (Genesis 2:18, tr). Then God completed his creation of human beings and made Eve, a help and compliment to Adam. Now human kind was "perfect" in the sense of complete, i.e., both sexes now created and living together to compliment each other.

For God to create a being yet higher than animals and so reflect yet more the glory of God, not only did God make us in his image but he gave us volition, choice. Humans had the option of eating of the tree of life and live as authentic humans or of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and fall from the condition of moral innocence. It is when a person chooses to do good and to be good, that the person pleases God. It is in the choosing to live rightly that humans complete ourselves. The fact of the matter is that humans are God’s self-completing creation.

We cannot expect ourselves or others to be perfect in the absolute sense. But it is the opportunity of moral beings to be perfecting or growing toward completeness. Continually to be relying on the impossibility of absolute perfection as an excuse from relative perfection is to aim at the least possible rather than the most achievable. It is to say I’m all right as long as there is someone worse. It is one thing to be patient with struggles to grow and another to be indulgent of failure.

Imperfection is a problem to be overcome, not a goal to achieve. No one is perfect, but we have no obligation to prove it.

Wallace Alcorn’s column appears on Mondays