Christians often hear assurances that “God doesn’t expect us to be perfect.” Of course, we must repent and humbly confess our failures. But the Bible says that God “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:10-14)
But Jesus makes a statement that seems to contradict this comforting psalm. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). How can anyone hope to comply with this impossibly high standard?
The context clarifies the meaning of these difficult words. In the last paragraph of Matthew 5, the Lord is urging his disciples to love their enemies and pray for them. He says that even dishonest tax collectors love those who love them, and even pagans give their brothers a friendly greeting. In other words, almost everyone is capable of reciprocating love.
But the heavenly Father embodies a much higher standard of love. He gives sunshine and rain to the evil and the good. And so, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” is a challenge to show compassion to others – even when they don’t deserve it. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus says, “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45). Worded somewhat differently, a parallel scripture in the Sermon on the Plain supports this explanation. Jesus says that God “is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36).