The primary cause of mental illness, Karl Menninger said, is the inability of people to forgive themselves for being imperfect.
Those words came from Frank Griswold, the former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, preaching at Saint Luke’s this morning.
He was speaking of St. Paul, who sought famously to perfect himself through a rigorous keeping of the law. “As to righteousness under the law,” Paul writes in Philippians, [I am] “blameless.”
The only problem was, this “blameless” man had some problem, some imperfection he couldn’t root out of himself. He called it his “thorn in the flesh.” As a perfectionist, it was driving him crazy. He had already exhausted his own powers of discipline, self-criticism and hard work. All he could do, finally, was to implore God to take it away. Three times, Paul says, he pleaded with God (2 Corinthians 12:8). I imagine he thought, Maybe God will work a miracle—make me perfect, and then at last I can rest, I can be happy.
Instead, the answer came back, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” God does actually work a miracle, it is simply different than the one we had hoped for. Though we have prayed fervently to be freed from our brokenness and imperfection, God gives us the grace to forgive ourselves—in Menninger’s words—for being imperfect.
The goal of life is not to be perfect, but to be whole, to welcome and embrace all that we are, our shining traits and our unfortunate ones, our great gifts and our considerable liabilities. Once we have given it all to God, we are granted the grace to let it be, all right, just as it is (can’t type those words without thinking of that old gospel hymn, “Just as I am”).
Then the power that is “made perfect in weakness” awakens within us, making us both humble and powerful, able to love and forgive the imperfection in others.