We cannot be perfect at anything. What a frustrating reality! But oh so true. We try- we hold up some kind of standard, and try to live up to it- but we can't. We can't even do the same imperfect thing the same way twice. The term “better” refers to a progression towards an ultimate good. To say that we can become better, is to admit that there is a good towards which we are aiming. How is it that we even have a notion of this if there is not something greater than the imperfection we see in ourselves and the created universe? Plato indeed realized something great in his theory of the forms. There must be something more real than we can see. Why else do we desire what we cannot see, and long for something barely imagined? True, some people try to live in a way that defies all laws of order or a higher good. Abstract art is one visual and tangible manifestation of this sensibility. In a way it is a reaction against the unpredictability and imperfection of life- the inability for humanity to achieve what we innately desire: peace and perfection. “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” (Hebrews 10:1 - emphasis added) Paul was surely familiar with the ideas of Socrates and Plato, and he identified the true nature of the shadow, and the identity of the Reality, who is Christ Jesus. In light of the exclusive, elusive nature of perfection, people, especially in our present age, have thought to rebel against it. We pretend we don't want to be perfect; we even pretend to celebrate being “real”, but in reality, we all want to be better than we are. Our problem is that we try to become better people on our own terms and in our own strength. A good analogy of the human condition is that of a hamster on a rodent wheel. We have grand, vague visions of the goal we are running towards, but we end up exhausted and futile. As Jesus said in Mark 10:18, “No one is good- except God alone”. We have no hope of becoming better in any true or lasting way.
God's Word illuminates this problem. By looking at Genesis, we see that Adam's original sin brought sin and death into the lives of all his descendants. This fall from perfection, from being “good” as God originally declared his creation, is inherent in each of us. Our birthright is death. There is a great rift between us and God, but all our striving, all our running, all our effort to build a bridge using the resources of a fallen nature, leads to nothing but destruction in the deadly chasm. We can see the law that we must follow- but we are incapable of meeting its demands because we are enslaved to the law of sin and death. We are desperately in need of salvation! God is the only one who could offer that salvation, and in his mercy, at just the right time, he sent his son to redeem the lost and to offer a way to God- the Author of the perfection that we marred. “The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:16-17) By His gift, and the sacrifice of His perfect life, our lives are redeemed! The law that we saw dimly and tried to attain, can become our heart as the life of Christ is transfused into us. Christ, “by one sacrifice [...] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10:14)
Just trying to conform ourselves to what culture dictates as desirable, or to the moral requirements of a religion, will not turn us into better people. This dilemma is illustrated eloquently by Paul in Romans 7:18-19: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” The sacrifice of Christ is all-sufficient. He is our rest, and our Sabbath. The cross he bore must also become ours so that we are resurrected into a new life and purpose. We are no longer captive to futility. And yet, we are still in this world, and we are yet imperfect. Paul in Romans 12:2 exhorts believers with the following words: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Our minds can be renewed in Christ and his Word. His life transforms us to truly desire to be sanctified, to become purer reflections of Christ. Through His divine perfection, we are empowered to live a holy life- not through our own effort, but by His grace alone. This is how we become better people- not by good deeds, but by becoming a more transparent vessel of Immanuel. “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” (Romans 8:9) Through him, we can grow toward the image of what is better. All our efforts to become better on our own strength will only make our failures seem worse. Diminution of self and surrender to Christ is the only way to become a better person.