Faith Matters: Don’t let the imperfect be the enemy of spiritual good
February 26, 2009
There is an old saying in politics that the perfect, or the ideal, is the enemy of the good. The idea is that insisting upon a perfect piece of legislation, one ends up with nothing, when an imperfect law would have done considerable good.
So, to take a purely hypothetical example, to insist upon a stimulus bill with absolutely no waste and no “pork,” would surely lead to no bill at all when most observers agree that we need some sort of legislative action to address the problem in this “hypothetical example.”
Spiritually, this can happen, too. If one focuses too much on the examples of saints like St. Francis one may be tempted to conclude that since we can never approach this level of saintliness, there is no use in our even trying. So we “bail out” of any attempt at the spiritual disciplines rather than to risk coming up embarrassingly short. Perhaps this is why I always like it when we can see that even the saints had their failings.
Within his own lifetime, St. Francis lost control of his own Franciscan order because of his intolerance of the spiritual failings of others. Mother Teresa, we now know, suffered doubts about her own faith in God. Not to mention that she was also apparently a control freak. Seeing that even the saints have their failings and imperfections may encourage us to be tolerant of our own and yet continue to strive for greater faithfulness, greater service, greater holiness.
But in our spiritual lives, I bet that we are less likely to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, as we are to allow the deeply imperfect to be the enemy. Consider, for example, the case of someone in denial about a drinking problem. What is the typical answer of a problem drinker when someone suggests that they have a problem? Typically, it is to deny that he or she is an alcoholic. And this denial is sincere, because people have in their minds an image of an alcoholic as someone in the gutter with a bottle of wine in a paper sack, or of someone who can’t get up in the morning to go to work and so loses a job, or of someone who is violent and ugly when drunk, and so on and so on.
Problem drinkers, most of them, know that they do not fit that image. And so the image of an alcoholic as someone who is completely dysfunctional allows the person who has a problem with drinking to deny the existence of the problem. In reality, anyone whose drinking stands in the way of their living lives as fully and as productively and as lovingly as they can has a drinking problem.
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The deeply imperfect can be the enemy of the good, as much as the perfect is, and spiritually it is more tempting because we find it easier to compare ourselves to the deeply imperfect than to the saintly ideal.
And one needn’t have a serious problem in one’s life to allow the imperfect to become the enemy of the good. To see this, consider the response that most of us have when we hear a preacher’s cry to “repent.” I suggest that we generally react defensively and deny that we have any need of repentance. No, it’s all those sinners out there, and of course our image of the sinner is of someone with much worse character flaws or moral imperfections than we have. In effect, we are allowing our concept of a sinner as someone deeply morally flawed ” someone with a dissolute lifestyle or a nasty personality ” to stand in the way of our own understanding of how we might grow into deeper relationship with God and with others. We are more like the problem drinker in denial that we want to believe.
We are in need of repentance if we live in an imperfect spiritual condition, if we could yet grow closer to God and more loving of other persons. And since this is true of all of us, we all stand in need of repentance. Not a repentance of breast-beating, or of insisting that we are nastier than we are, or even of a once and for all renunciation of sin. But a repentance that is more a way of living, an attitude toward life that acknowledges that the well-led life is a continual process of spiritual and moral growth.
One that does not allow the spiritually imperfect to be the enemy of the spiritual good.
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