When the Perfect Becomes the Enemy of the Good

A friend shared a story with me about shopping for a birthday present for his wife. He wasn’t sure what to buy for her. She dropped some subtle hints a few weeks before her birthday that failed to bring much clarity. Then she dropped some not so subtle hints and he ended up getting her something she liked. However, she subsequently indicated that she wasn’t altogether happy with her birthday because she had to connect the dots for him.

If he was really sensitive to her needs and paying attention to her life, she said, she wouldn’t have to provide clues for him. He responded in frustration by saying that he’s not a mind reader and that she was expecting too much. Because I was privy to the history and dynamics of their rocky marriage, and knew that she had more issues than a magazine stand, I said to him, “It sounds like the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

The roots of these unrealistic expectations go back to the early chapters of Genesis and can be better understood by consulting a biblical anthropology. We were created in Eden; we were created for heaven; the Preacher (Qoheleth) in Ecclesiastes says that “He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity in men’s mind [emphasis mine], yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccles. 3:11). C.S. Lewis cogently sums up the human condition:

The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.” A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

In their quiet, honest moments, people have a “something’s missing” feeling and a longing for heaven or something like the perfection of Eden. Life can feel like living in a motel room, and, despite the cable TV, free Continental breakfast, and comfortable queen-sized bed, it’s not home. How we respond to this longing will greatly influence not only the health of our relationships but also the vitality of our society.

When Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden and placed east of Eden, God “stationed cherubim and the fiery revolving sword, to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24b). The cherubim and the flaming sword provide a silent and symbolic witness for our original parents and for the generations to come that we can’t return to Edenic perfection. We live in a fallen world: we must, in many cases, accept life on its terms—as it is, and not how we want it to be.

Perhaps, in a perfect world, my friend could’ve read his wife’s mind and gotten the ideal gift for her, but, east of Eden, in this post-Genesis 3 existence, he’s probably going to need a little help. Over the years I’ve noticed that her efforts to circumvent the cherubim and the sword of justice and re-enter the Garden with a demanding spirit have, not surprisingly, had deleterious consequences for their marriage. Their marriage would work just great if her husband was God. He’s not and people make lousy gods.

It’s tempting, even for orthodox Christians, to try to arrange their lives in such a way that will eradicate the “something’s missing” feeling. They believe that if they can just get the right marriage, the right sex life, the right kids, the right career, the right friends, the right church, the right hobbies etc., they can make the sense that they were created for a different world go away. It won’t. This makes me think of some “up-and-outers” I’ve known over the years who’ve had the American Dream fulfilled in every imaginable way and are still left singing the old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?”

As a former pastor and campus minister, I couldn’t help but notice that young Christians who are new to the faith are sometimes cosseted in a cocoon of grace. They’re fifty dollars short on their rent payment and the money shows up out of the blue. Their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and a professional car mechanic, who just happens to be in the same isolated area, stops by five minutes later, provides a temporary fix, and helps them get on their way to the nearest town to a reputable mechanic he recommends.

Life, for them, seems to be all tailwinds and no headwinds. A romantic idealism begins to fill their callow minds with visions of white picket fences, storybook endings, and balmy breezes. Circumventing the cherubim and the sword of justice seems possible, even plausible, before reality sets in and brings an end to “crayon Christianity.”

The transition begins to take place from life being perceived as an experience where “all my dreams come true” to what philosopher of religion John Hick calls a “soul-making world,” where proud, selfish, and vain people are made Christ-like by being broken, as Thornton Wilder writes, on the wheels of life. The gold is refined by fire.

As someone who spent many years in evangelical and evangelical-charismatic circles, I still retain the belief, consistent with the teaching of the Magisterium, that the supernatural workings of God in our lives did not end with the Acts of the Apostles (A.D. 62). How can I deny this when I saw my 18-month-old daughter’s significantly crooked feet miraculously straighten out virtually overnight? The skeptical podiatrist had to admit that he had never seen anything like it. The corrective shoes we had bought from him were no longer necessary and were displayed after the healing in our local church to the rejoicing of all the members.

However, I have met people, who embrace a strain of hyper-Pentecostalism that asserts that if we have enough faith, we would see signs and wonders every day or perhaps on a weekly basis. The Acts of the Apostles would be lived out now in the early twenty-first century. It’s certainly true that the supernatural working power of God was more frequent in the Acts of the Apostles than it is in the Church today, but the narrative took place over a period of thirty years not thirty days or even thirty months. This fact should give people more realistic expectations about signs and wonders and provide a more balanced theology.

This hyper-Pentecostalism is what theologians call an over-realized eschatology. This is a fancy way of saying that people think they can get around the cherubim and the sword of justice and consistently experience heaven now in the realm of the supernatural. The same people who embrace this theology often also believe in the Rapture and some form of the “prosperity gospel.”

The constellation of these three beliefs makes sense, because, if God is going to permit you to circumvent the cherubim and the sword of justice, he’s probably not going to allow you to go through the tribulation or suffer material want. Funny how such a theology never became popular in a country like Poland where years of oppression by foreign powers precluded such foolishness. Many years of peace and prosperity can sometimes provide fertile soil for an over-realized eschatology; deception can grow in a series of unbroken successes.

What do we do with our longing for heaven and the “something’s missing” feeling? Repentance (Greek: metanoia) means to “change one’s mind and heart.” It means that instead of directing this desire to the things of this world with a demanding spirit that is trying to eradicate the “something’s missing” feeling, that longing is transformed into Hope for our heavenly homeland where every hunger will be satisfied.

This is why the apostle Paul commands us to set our affections on the heavens (Col. 3:1). Think of it as life-long deferred gratification that we can endure by the theological virtue of Hope and the sustenance we receive from the four major sources of happiness in this life: friends, family, work, and faith.

We then can eschew the demanding spirit and imitate the Christ of the Passion who came with an agenda to serve not be served. We also can make our peace with the cherubim and the sword of justice. In some spiritual sense I feel like the cherubim must know me by my first name: I have much “scar tissue” from many skirmishes with them in the past. Western civilization also has much “scar tissue” vis-a-vis political, economic, and social issues because of “utopian overreach,” and the nature of those wounds will be taken up in a forthcoming essay.

Editor’s note: Above is a detail from “Eve Overcome by Remorse” painted by Anna Massey Lea Merritt in 1885.

Jonathan B. Coe

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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