The Pitfall of 'Perfectionist' Biographies
Our wise Lord has chosen to send his great gospel to the world through ordinary human messengers. It might at first seem that it is inconsistent to join such heavenly treasure to such an earthy agent. However, it is most fitting because, when the gospel powerfully transforms a sinner who hears it, it will be evident to everyone that that power of conversion flows from the God of truth and not from the human messenger. It is this that Paul had in mind when he said,
We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.2 Corinthians 4:7
Missionaries are rather ordinary human beings, whose lack of special glory enhances the gospel so that it shines with brilliance and God receives the glory.
This world is too fascinated with human heroes and human excellence. Christians, too, have this fault of placing human servants of God on pedestals. This situation is not helped by the sin of biography. Reading some of the stories of missionaries of the past gives us an impression of great men, men of another order than we are. They are flawless in character and awesome in spirituality and giants in energy and discipline. Sometimes our eyes are so dazzled by such wonderful people that there is scarcely any ability to see the brightness of the gospel. We know why these missionaries succeeded. They were golden or silver vessels.
Our Bible does tell the stories of the servants of God used in the past but not as our biographies do. There was Moses, the meekest man on the face of the earth. Yet Moses falls to the level of an earthen vessel when aggressive self-interest in him asserts itself over God's people and keeps him from the promised land. Even Paul, who wrote our text, was opposed by a group of leaders who professed to be somewhat more noble and perfect than the apostle. Paul's frailties in personality and spirituality were under discussion in Corinth as he wrote the above words.
Certainly a missionary or a gospel minister worthy of the name will have high ideals of truth, morality and service. However, the man of ideals is not the ideal man. Striving to be perfect is not the same as having complete sanctification. Aiming at New Testament standards for our church is not to be equated with achieving those goals. Near the end of his illustrious career as a missionary, Paul said,
Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after. Philippians 3:12
He pursued high ideals but never reached them in this life.
There are two opposite evils which flow from unrealistic idealism. At one side is the danger of impatience with accomplishing ideals or imagining they have been achieved. Unable to live with the tension of seeing their ideals unreached, some turn aside to fanaticism and call it by another name. Earnest hearts longing for true revival, but unable to live with its failure to appear, fall into charismatic enthusiasm and call it 'revival'. Individuals zealous to be holy cannot endure the imperfections of their own character and adopt some sad and deceitful schemes of 'sinless perfection', some one-step into complete sanctification. When preachers imagine themselves to be a new Whitefield or a modern Elijah, they are but a step away from madness. People are put in mental institutions for such things. When churches think they have arrived at biblical ideals, there is a corporate madness.
At the opposite end of the scale are poor Christians who see clearly the reality of their remaining sins and character weaknesses. When they read the perfectionist biographies raving over supermen of the faith, they conclude that there can be no place for themselves in the service of God. They will not offer themselves for missionary service. Men of clay, earthen vessels, are called to bear the gospel so that results are attributed by all to God and not to great heroes. Perhaps some ordinary young person who reads these words should prayerfully ask if God is not calling you to carry the gospel to some part of the world.
It is a sin in the people to want ideal leaders and missionaries. Your trust should be in the Lord. Your praise should be given to the Almighty. It is a sin in leaders and missionaries to pretend perfection before the people. Hero worship shuts our eyes to reality. It drives some to write glowing but unrealistic prayer letters. It drives some to madness and others to discouragement at the same time. All that scripture calls for is earthen vessels, holding high ideals but not embodying them ... yet.