-John Wesley, Sermon 40, “Christian Perfection”
“Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect.”
-Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
A problem: I believe in the biblical, ancient view that salvation involves a radical transformation of character by the power of the Holy Spirit, a process named theosis by some and sanctification by others. I also count myself a fan of sociologist and author Brené Brown. This is particularly problematic because Wesleyan Christians (Methodists, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, etc.) believe that sanctification can be “entire,” or, as Wesley himself put it, that Christian Perfection is not only attainable in this life but is God’s will for all people. But if Brown is correct that “perfectionism” is not not only a bad idea, but an addictive attitude that is immensely harmful, what do we do with the cherished Christian teaching that our goal and calling is to become like God?
Of course I realize that Dr. Brown’s research is secular in nature, and that her books are usually found in the section of the bookstore labelled “self-improvement” – a genre into which far too many preachers thoughtlessly venture. I do believe, however, that it behooves those of us in the Wesleyan (and broader Christian) family to assess her work in light of our most sacred teachings, not just because of her popularity, but because Christians committed to authentic community and spiritual vitality cannot ignore either the classic teachings about holiness or Brown’s research into shame, vulnerability, and perfectionism. Wesley himself was a voracious reader of the latest science of his day, and I believe he would appreciate the effort to bring Christian teaching into conversation with cutting-edge research.
An ancient Eastern dictum states the Biblical case succinctly: “God became human so that humans could become God.” Many Christians today focus so much on justification (forgiveness, pardon), that sanctification is an afterthought at best. But full-orbed Christian thinkers do otherwise, including prominent evangelicals such as C.S. Lewis:
“The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command….The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.” (Mere Christianity)
To be sure, this is a noble ideal, a beautiful picture of what full salvation can look like. But what do we do with this if we’ve read Brown or (along with millions of others) watched one of her TED Talks? She is blunt about trying to be perfect. “Where perfectionism exists,” says Professor Brown, “shame is always lurking.”
Wesley holds the answer. Sanctification, even the language of entire sanctification or perfection, is too biblical to simply let go of it. Were the Church only to promote doctrines which were immediately accessible and palatable to anyone and everyone, we would soon be left with a banal non-starter like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or worse, instead of the faith once and for all delivered. As Wesley says,
“We may not, therefore, lay these expressions aside, seeing they are the words of God, and not of man. But we may and ought to explain the meaning of them…”
Wesley goes on to do just that in Sermon 40. Christian Perfection is not a kind of angelic or gnostic state, free from error or temptation. For Wesley, it is a perfection in love, in which our tempers, our habits of heart are fully conformed to God. “Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations,” says Wesley. He adds, “Indeed, it is only another term for holiness.” And what Christian would say we should not strive for holiness?
Likewise, while Brown rejections “perfectionism,” this does not mean she rejects a holistic vision of betterment. She clarifies the difference thus:
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame….”
“Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports)….we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused – what will they think?”
So for Brown, there is a drive for improvement that is healthy, but short of “perfectionism.” For Wesley, similarly, Christian perfection is not a mistake-free state that seeks to guard against disappointing others. We would say that Christian perfection is other-focused, not on other people but on the One who is Wholly Other. Viewed within the larger framework of Wesley’s teaching on grace, we can also add that this focus on God is not in search of approval (for prevenient grace already means God has reached out to us in love and compassion). Sanctification viewed as Wesley intended and, I believe, in a manner that Brown would recognize as healthy is about striving to respond to God’s perfect, amazing, radical love in kind.
To conclude, Christian perfection or entire sanctification, thus rightly ordered, ought not to drive the perfectionism from which Brené Brown rightly seeks us to steer. A church which teaches and prays for theosis is doing nothing more or less than equipping God’s people to be what God has declared them already in Christ: saints. Event the most sanctified among us will not be “perfect,” at least in the usual sense of the term. But they will have hearts renewed after the Image of God, restored to the Love they were made to receive and to share. As Charles Wesley envisioned it, this is a beautiful vision of
A heart in every thought renewed
and full of love divine,
perfect and right and pure and good,
a copy, Lord, of thine.
Source: Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center: Hazelden 2010), 55-57.