What does the perfect Christian life look like? When asked the question by a friend, Gregory of Nyssa said it looked like perpetual progress toward God, a thought stemming from Christ’s statement that Christians are to be perfect like God is perfect.
This is tricky business. Perfection is easy if we’re talking about the length of a yard or the number ten, things that have attainable, comprehensible limits. But what if there is no spatial or conceptual boundary? Exactly how long is virtue, anyway? How heavy is goodness?
The problem is that there’s no limit to God’s perfection. Pursuing it is an unending proposition for fallible, finite creatures such as us. But we should lean into the labor nonetheless. After all, said Gregory,
even if men of understanding were not able to attain to everything, by attaining even a part they could yet gain a great deal. . . . [L]et us make progress within the realm of what we seek. For the perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness (The Life of Moses 1.9-10).
Gregory looked to Paul for his inspiration, “that divine Apostle” who “ever running the course of virtue, never ceased straining toward those things that are still to come” (1.5). Indeed Paul writes about having not yet “attained,” having not yet been “perfected.”
Not that the deficit gets him down or slows him up:
[B]ut I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
The trick, said Gregory, is not stopping. When we stop pressing, stop progressing, that’s when we get into trouble. “Just as the end of life is the beginning of death, so also stopping in the race of virtue marks the beginning of the race of evil,” he said (1.6).
Maximus the Confessor warned about the same thing. He spoke about “travel[ing] in a holy way of life the road of virtues, a road that in no way admits of any stalling on the part of those who walk in it.” According to Maximus, “the immobility of virtue is the beginning of vice” (Ad Thalassium 17). If you’re not moving forward, in other words, you’re sliding back.
Yes, we rest is in Christ’s work and distrust the merits of own efforts. But Christ enables us to pursue him, chase down holiness, run after all that he offers, perpetually progress toward perfection.
It’s not that we do not already have the grace of God. That’s the wrong picture. It’s that there’s more, always more, eternally more grace. We cannot exhaust the flow; we can only push further into its endless streams.
Take stock: At the end of the week, how are you progressing?