Made Perfect in Brokenness
BY AMY CROUCH
American universities aren’t exactly known as hotbeds of good mental health and realistic self-expectations, and Cornell is no exception. Every student at Cornell seems to be haunted by a desire for perfection: you need a flawless GPA, the perfect summer internship, an air-tight plan for the next twenty years. No scars or cracks are allowed in your perfect façade.
But while this desire is everywhere, I don’t know anyone who lives up to it. When we look in the mirror, we don’t see perfect people living perfect lives. We’re conglomerations of countless different factors – our lives have been shaped by joy and sorrow and fear and courage and anger and love. Is it possible for us to be perfect when we’re scratched and scarred by all the good and the bad?
As a Christian, my answer to that question is no – at least, not by ourselves. Christians have, well, a not-very-optimistic view of human nature. We believe that humans are profoundly, inherently imperfect. The biblical prophet Jeremiah put it this way: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can stand it?”1 This imperfection is what we usually call Sin.
Our culture tends to frown at the word “sin” – it sounds like a judgy condemnation of individual actions. But the Biblical concept of sin is much deeper. It claims that human nature, which ought to be in harmony with our loving and perfect God, has been fundamentally shattered. We’re not just a bit rough around the edges; we’re actually incapable of fulfilling our purpose to love our God and our neighbors. Think of a ceramic bowl thrown to the ground. Not only is it no longer perfect and beautiful, it’s not even functional – because it’s broken, it can’t do what it was made to do.
So if Christianity is so pessimistic about human nature, is perfection even part of the picture? Can Christians – can anyone – hope for perfection?
The Christian tradition answers with an emphatic “Yes!” Christians believe that God is at work in our lives, molding us into His image and enabling us to perfectly steward the gifts He has given us. Jesus’s brother, James, writes, “Let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete.”2 Jesus himself says: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”3
Now wait a minute. Doesn’t this sound like Cornellian perfectionism? “Become perfect and be totally complete!”
Well, maybe in English. Our word “perfect” is simplistic: “free from any imperfection or defect of quality; that cannot be improved upon; flawless, faultless.”4 In contrast, the word usually translated as “perfect” in the New Testament, teleios, doesn’t mean “flawless.” Actually, it comes from the word telos, which means “goal,” “purpose,” or “task” – so teleios really means “to have reached one’s goal, to have fulfilled one’s purpose.”5 And the word translated “complete,” holokleroi, is a compound word meaning “whole (holo) in every part (kleros).”6 This concept of perfection is miles away from flawlessness.
So what does it mean for God to be making us perfect, guiding us toward our given purpose and uniting our divided selves? Well, as a mere human, I can’t give you a full answer. But I can give you an art history metaphor, and I would say that God’s work in our lives looks a lot like a Japanese ceramic mending technique called kintsugi.
This technique, which began around the seventeenth century, involves a potter piecing together broken shards of pottery with lacquer made from precious metals.7 The resulting piece is whole and complete, yet visibly scarred. These pots are not “perfect” by Cornellian standards; they’re asymmetrical and prominently cracked. But note two things about them. First, they’re whole – the pieces are put back together and restored to a whole. And second, despite their scars, they can still fulfill their telos, their purpose: once mended, they’re lovely and practical bowls that can actually hold tea. Despite visible cracks, these bowls are both teleioi and holokleroi.
I think this is what a faithful Christian view of perfection might look like. In this life, our flaws will never be erased; indeed, we would be foolish to pretend they don’t exist. But if we entrust ourselves to God, we are invited into a process of repairing. We’re sure to crack, but He will heal us with golden lacquer every time.
And guess what? It’s not just about you or me. God’s plan of reparation is much bigger than making isolated human beings more fulfilled. Christians believe that God’s ultimate plan is to heal the world of the disease of sin. He will bring the sundered halves of the universe together, and Heaven and Earth will meet (see Revelation 21). In the Psalmist’s beautiful phrase, righteousness and peace will kiss each other.8 The scars of our shattered cosmos will be transformed into loveliness.
When, thanks to the grace of God, we become truly teleioi at the end of days, we may not be free of scars. But we will shine brighter than the purest gold.
FEATURED ART BY HANNAH DORPFELD:
As it necessarily breaks , 2017
Acrylic ink on paper
5 in x 7 in
Inspired by the Japanese art form, Kintsugi, and Richard Rohr, “I came to see that my striving so hard to keep the world from cracking actually kept me from being present and loving as it necessarily cracks.” This piece is a reminder that we can embrace the brokenness we see in the world because God holds it all together and through the display of Christ, He is redeeming brokenness. It is even more beautiful for it.
1 Jeremiah 17:10 ESV
2 James 1:4 ESV
3 Matthew 5:48 ESV
4 “perfect, adj., n., and adv.”. OED Online. March 2019. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/140704
5 Thayer and Smith. “Teleios”. “The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon“. 1999.
6 Thayer and Smith. “Holokleros”. “The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon”. 1999.
7 Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, and Germany) Museum für Lackkunst (Münster. Flickwerk: the Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics. Münster: Museum für Lackkunst, 2008.
8 Psalm 85:10 ESV