During family holidays we do jigsaw puzzles. I like the easy ones, the ones that have pictures that don’t take forever to figure out. But the trend is toward the complex. Have you ever tired to do one of those three-dimensional puzzles? Or a puzzle that is a picture of a big blob of coffee beans? Everything looks the same. You are almost forced to take every single piece one at a time and try to fit it in.
I remember one year when we worked on a very complicated puzzle. I think it had pictures on both sides, so you really couldn’t tell which side of the piece you had in your hand. We struggled for days before we realized that a whole bunch of pieces were missing. We could never have finished the puzzle. We are handicapped right from the start.
That experience reminds me of our usual view of the mysterious will of God. How we agonize over the plan that God has for our lives! It’s like trying to piece together a three dimensional, multi-patterned, both sides jigsaw puzzle where the design is impossibly confusing. After a few years of working on it, we suddenly realize that some of the pieces are probably missing. So we spend a few more years pleading with God to show us the missing pieces. All the while we are ready to throw up our hands and quit. Life shouldn’t be this hard.
The truth is that we have confused the Greek idea of jigsaw puzzle perfection with the Hebrew idea of relationship direction. That confusion is pretty deep in our culture. After all, we are really Greco-Roman, not Semitic Hebrew. Unfortunately, the confusion leads to all sorts of anxiety, decision paralysis, guilt and passive apathy. We start to wonder if God isn’t giving us a puzzle without all the pieces, laughing to Himself as we torment ourselves trying to put it together. It’s time to break this kind of thinking. God is not a puzzle maker. He is the solution, not the problem.
So, how did we get into this state of mind? It all started with the Greek idea of perfection.
What do you think about when someone asks you what “perfect” means? You probably use words like, “complete”, “no mistakes”, “ideal”, “correct” or “totally right”. The Greek idea of perfection is a concept that is based in mathematics. Perfect means absolutely correct, nothing missing. A perfect score is a score that equals the highest possible achievement. A perfect play is a play that corresponds with the ideal. A perfect plan is the plan that covers every conceivable possibility and accounts for them all. Perfection is a relationship where the actual matches the ideal. It’s a statement that the facts are in line with the ideal forms.
Jesus says something about perfection in Matthew 5:48. “Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Suddenly this is a daunting task. It seems to imply that I must be like the ideal, God. My life must correspond to the life of God. Never any sin. Never a mistake. Not one thing out of order. No miscues or insufficiencies. Perfect. A match between the real and the ideal.
And I know that I just can’t do it. Not in a million years. So, I write it off as something only Jesus could do. It can’t be for me.
While that uncomfortable thought is rolling around in my mind, I encounter another Greek myth embedded in Christian thinking. “God has a wonderful plan for your life.”
Before you rise up in protest, take a very close look at the thought here. God has a plan. God has the one, perfect plan for you. It is that one correspondence between His ideal will for your life and the reality that you live. It is the perfect will of the Father. And, of course, since it is the perfect plan, it can only be one way. After all, you can’t have more than one perfect plan. We are stuck in the Greek perception that perfection is the correspondence between the real and the ideal. The perfect plan. The perfect mate. The perfect career or place or ministry. The one of a kind destiny. It’s the “God broke the mold” concept that rules our thinking about who we are.
So what happens to that perfect plan when we screw it up? Why, it’s gone, of course. Perfection destroyed. Paradise lost. We are left with God’s almost perfect plan. Then we mess that one up and we get the third best, then the fourth best, and on and on. If God only has a wonderful plan, all of us are now living out the umpteenth revised version. We blew the perfect plan long ago. Now we have to put the puzzle together with some of the pieces missing.
Hebrew to the rescue! Put aside that Greek notion and look at the real meaning behind the English translation. Matthew 5:48 is a quotation from Leviticus 11:44. The Hebrew word is qadash (holy). “Be holy for I am holy.” Ah, such thoughts still seem to demand perfection, until we investigate a little about the word qadash.
Jesus did not teach in Greek. He taught in Hebrew. And when he quoted the Old Testament, you can be assured that he had the Hebrew thought pattern in mind. Even though the New Testament writers translated what Jesus actually said to Greek, they did not intend us to rethink the Hebrew concepts into Greek categories. We made that mistake on our own.
“Holy” (qadash) is a word that is used to describe what is set aside for God’s purposes. To be holy is to be sanctified, separated, sacred for God’s use. Anything could become holy by being designated for God. Hebrew never required that something first become perfect. In Hebrew, it is not correspondence to the facts that matters. It is dedication completely to God.
Look at the freedom that this brings. My work can be entirely dedicated to God. I can go to the job everyday with serving Him in mind. I don’t have to leave the marketplace and join a convent or become a minister. Dedication to God happens everywhere.
My human relationships can equally be set aside for Him. I am not trapped into the “one perfect mate” syndrome. There are many possible mates for me. The question is not “Which one is the right one, God?” The question is “Am I willing to set aside everything about this relationship to His purposes?”
The lifestyle I adopt is also captured under the banner of separation. Can I live the way I do now and dedicate it all to Him or do I need to make changes so that I honor Him in all that I do? Being holy is putting God first, ahead of everything and everyone, and living in constant submission to divine separation. God is not asking for flawless perfection. He is asking for unwavering devotion. [But unwavering devotion had this funny consequence: I strain toward obedient perfection because I want to please Him].
To see the power in breaking this Greek puzzle, we need to look at 1 Kings 2:3. David is about to die. He instructs Solomon in the most important thoughts about life. He says, “Keep the charge of the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His ordinances, and His testimonies, according to what is written in the Law of Moses, that you may succeed in all that you do and wherever you turn.”
Did you catch that last phrase? “That you may succeed in all that you do and wherever you turn.” God is interested in the relationship of separation. He promises to bless you no matter what you do and no matter where you go as long as the relationship of separation is actively in place. There is no perfect plan! There is only holy separation. God doesn’t say, “Now work out the puzzle of life so that you do only what I want you to do and you go only where I want you to go. I have a hidden secret destiny and geography for you and it’s up to you to put the pieces together perfectly.” No! God says, “Do what you want to do. Go where you want to go. Be yourself. Let the way that I made you give you the design and the destination of life. Just be sure to set it all apart for Me.”
Now the fearful among us will rise up and shout, “Oh, no. This can’t be. Look at the risk that is involved in thinking like this. What about all those things that God wants you to do? What about His design for you? How can we just go off and do whatever we want and expect that God will bless it?” This is, of course, a real concern if you think that you can keep the charge of God, obey all His ordinances and decrees, live by His commandments and still do whatever you want to do. Remember that the concept of freedom is found within the confines of holiness. The reason that there is no risk about not fulfilling God’s desires for your life is simple: holiness separates us from any life except the character of life that glorifies Him. The reason that we throw up our hands in fear over such freedom is that we know all too well how easily we subvert true separation for God. The risk is not that God will not direct and use all that we do. The risk is that we will use this freedom as an excuse to do what is not separated for Him.
Holiness is incredibly powerful freedom to do what you desire because what you desire is to be separated to God’s service. Freedom is not license. It is the opportunity to choose whom you will serve. Separation to God creates the freedom to stop trying to find the perfect Greek alignment. Separation to God allows you to explore, invent, plan, design, create, discover and enjoy everything under His banner. This is the incredible secret of grace.
Holiness does not require the correct alignment of all the pieces or the complete match between some ideal and my real experience. Holiness requires that I deliberately set aside everything I am for Him. My thoughts, my decisions, my work, my home, my school, my driving, my career moves, my writing, my talking. God says, “Do what you want to do but dedicate it all to Me.” The plan is an open-ended adventure of living in His world with the freedom to explore it all as a fully dedicated servant of the King.
Suddenly I see a different image in the jigsaw puzzle of life. I see that the goal is not the perfectly completed puzzle but the wonder and joy and excitement of putting the pieces in place. It doesn’t matter if I start at the edges or in the middle or even a little bit of both. What matters is the thrill of discovery as one piece locks into another. What matters is the hunt for the next piece, the victory of finding its place and the empowerment to look again. It’s the adventure not the completion. Holiness is that piece-by-piece decision to honor Him each time I find a fit even if I can’t see the finished product. Life is not about perfection. It’s about perspective, progress and pursuit.
Under the specter of “perfect”, I am doomed to frustration and failure.
But under the banner of “holy”, I live free.