Weekly Edgework #73 - November 21, 2005

Make No Mistake

Though we all agree that to err is human, each of us individually believes that he or she is the exception. What’s good enough for you isn’t good enough for me. Make a mistake? Not on my watch! (The Art of Imperfection, by Véronique Vienne, p. 13)

Can you imagine a world in which it would simply be taken for granted that we all make mistakes? A world in which no one would be annoyed or upset when others fail to do the right thing every time? A world in which you would take your own mistakes in stride, pick up the pieces and move on. How civilized, even utopian, would be our existence if we stopped condemning others and ourselves for making mistakes.

Dream on. The reality is that we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy fuming and fussing about the mistakes we make. It is always easiest, of course, to see the mistakes others make and to rehearse endless commentaries about how their failures make life miserable for everyone else. But most of us are no less gracious on ourselves. When we fail to meet our own expectations we berate ourselves, sometimes profanely so, for having made a mistake.

Now I am not idealizing mistakes, making them a virtue to be pursued. Indeed, there is something dysfunctional, even sick, about a person who perpetually makes mistakes “on purpose.” However, aside from simply being part of the human condition, there are redeeming possibilities related to making mistakes. How else could we learn? The best teacher in life is your own mistake. Especially if the consequences are unpleasant – like a smarting thumb when you hit it with a hammer – we can become quite creative in avoiding a similar mistake in the future. But guess what, you can always tell a seasoned carpenter in a crowd by the black and blue spot on his thumbnail. In spite of our attempts to learn from our mistakes, we will continue to make them.

So we would all do well to get off our high horses of perfectionism and learn to live with our own mistakes and those of others. From my observations, it seems to me that some non-Christians find this easier to do than some Christians. That is so because those who take their faith seriously often live under a moralistic cloud of what they consider to be a biblical call to perfection. For such persons, maturity is defined as the absence – or near absence – of mistakes.

Perhaps no other biblical passage has contributed to the notion of the attainability of perfection as much as has Matthew 5:48. You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. There it is, clear and simple! To be a mature disciple of Christ is to be perfect. Taken at face value, this verse has created some deadly theological contortions.

One is the idea that the call to perfection was given simply to drive us to despair. Because we know intuitively that perfection in this life is impossible, we simply cling to the promise that we are perfect “in Christ.” So because we live in this state of “sinless perfection” in heavenly places, we are exempt from living faithfully on the ground. Some have even gone so far as to declare the Sermon on the Mount irrelevant for contemporary Christians. In the absence of applicable moral guidelines, such Christians are pretty much free to shape their lives by the common sense values of their society. If they fail to live up to biblical values, that is no big deal because “Christ has got you covered.” In this frame of reference, making mistakes has no redeemable value because you are already “perfect.”

On the other end of the spectrum, of course, are those who spend their entire lives attempting to gain literal perfection on the ground, as the Good Book says. Such Christians are afraid of mistakes because their presence demonstrates to themselves and others that they have failed to attain the prize. They are, according to David Seamands, caught in a performance trap. In his book, Freedom from the Performance Trap, he asserts that far from demonstrating a superior spirituality, such Christians are usually attempting to shore up a low self-image caused by disgrace of one kind or another in their experience. Some move against people with a need to feel superior. Others move toward people with an excessive need for approval. And still others move away from people with a need to demonstrate their independence. In all cases, mistakes are a big deal because they unmask the truth about their broken and distorted lives.

I think such interpretations are misguided and harmful, both personally and for the community. To my mind this is another example of the inability of moderns to catch the nuances lost in translations of the biblical text. We read our contemporary, technical notions into words like perfect, distorting their intended meaning in the context in which they are used. A careful analysis of this text will show that it is not a blanket mandate of perfection. It basically challenges us to be “indiscriminate” or “limitless” in our love as God is, even toward our enemies. Taken out of context and read through modern glasses we have turned this text either into an excuse to ignore biblical values in our lifestyle, or an impossible yoke by means of which we live out our personal psychoses.

It is understandable then, that many non-Christians who don’t carry this baggage around with them are much more easy-going about mistakes. If Christians could somehow bypass the theological contortions that have developed because of a misreading of certain biblical texts, they might also be more free to accept the inevitability of mistakes and use them as launching pads for growth. As it is, we must often look outside the Christian community for evidence of grace and gracefulness in the presence of mistakes we all make. It should not be so.