What a corny title, isn’t it? And yet it is one of the truest phrases I can use to describe myself – an imperfect Christian. But what does that even mean? Christianity is plagued with all sorts of identities and challenges and sometimes resistance, that ultimately calling yourself an imperfect Christian, is from the outset, recognizing that you are an imperfect person.
On the one hand, Christians ought to seek perfection. That is a direct request from Jesus who says, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” On the other hand, in my Catholic upbringing, the fact that we are all sinners, the Proverbs quote, “the just man sins seven times a day,” and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation, was and is always emphasized. I suppose I was lucky in that respect; my upbringing kept from thinking that I am “holy enough.” Oh that word, holy. It’s said with either a lot of apprehension or a lot of contempt in everyday conversation. It’s a word many Christians would rather keep in-group, almost as much as that other word. You know the one – sin.
Sin, for all intents and purposes, is an offense against God. And in many traditions, therefore, also an offense against other fellow human beings. It comes in many shapes and sizes; it’s active, it’s passive, it’s overt, it’s covert, and if one’s conscience is formed in a particular way, and if one is indeed an imperfect Christian, it is always troubling. I am a sinner, and I have no qualms about admitting that. I feel more comfortable around other people who do too; I feel uncomfortable when one claims otherwise.
Of course that is not all I am. Even within this imperfect Christian identity of mine, I believe that I still do some good things; some godly things. And I find that recognizing that I am not just a sinner is as important as recognizing that I am. You see, I think people forget that we all have multidimensionality to whoever we are, in any and all of our identities. But most of all I think the Christian identity is always a multidimensional one when we consider all the theologies.
The reality is the Jesus who said, “love thy enemy,” is the same one who said, “I came not to bring peace but to bring a sword.” The same Man who said, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone,” is also the Man who took out a whip to flog people who were selling in the temple. This is to tell me that Jesus, who I believe is perfect, is ultimately a multidimensional person, who both forgave sinners, demanded difficult love and sacrifice, and yet embodied righteous anger, and an unfailing steadfastness to the Truth.
If Christianity is to mean anything at all, it means to love Jesus in all His faces. We love the Jesus that was hung on the cross, and we love the Jesus that wears the crown. And somehow, amidst the imperfections of one’s life, you find a way to reconcile your sinfulness with your godliness. Somehow, you find a way to live in an identity, in a body, in a soul, that is always struggling between good and evil, of which the answers are not always as clear as day and night. It requires reflection, prudence, and humility, and above all, an attitude that ultimately one is a mere creature who cannot claim to completely know the mind of God.
Of the many things I ask of God, forgiveness is always somewhere hovering at the top. Or at least, I try to remember this. What else can you do when you’re imperfect? So perhaps not only do I need forgiveness from God but from my fellow human beings who must put up with my imperfections, who sometimes love me deeply in spite of them. And in the end, must I not do the same to them?
Now love is a complicated matter when you are a Christian because just as God loves all but does not deem all things one does “worth loving.” In the same way, I think one can love all or at least try to, – even one’s self – while recognizing the need to change, the need to not be so comfortable with one’s imperfections. My favorite phrase on love that I heard at a conference once was, “Love without truth is abandonment, truth without love is cruelty.”
The truth is the Gospel – the good news – the reason we believe in Jesus, the truth that Jesus came to bring, is a difficult one. And if you consider one’s imperfections, it almost seems impossible to reach. Yet I believe as I have been told, that the good news is always good, even when it is difficult. One of my favorite phrases of St. Augustine is, “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.” Sometimes I think our imperfections get in the way of this. But mostly, I think our lack of recognition of the complexity of Christianity and Jesus himself, makes us get in our own way.
It would do us good then, to remember the words of another saint, St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “The Gospel should always be preached, if necessary by words.” And somehow, in our imperfections, I think we can still find a way to do good, to say and do what is right, and to live rightly. Knowing that virtue is always somewhere in the middle, the big questions don’t have easy answers, and humility is necessary in faith, but so is courage. And love – difficult, complicated love – for our fellow human beings above all, can perhaps offer at least some retribution, for all our imperfections.