Sensible shoes, newly purchased Harvard shirts, and the placebo shutter of a smartphone camera… I’ve become part of the photographable attraction for yet another tourist in Harvard Yard. A trip to class without stops to answer tourists’ questions or snap their photos is evidently somewhat of a rarity on our hallowed campus. For, in the eyes of the outside world, we are a landmark worth visiting, a scene worth preserving, a little bubble of perfection worth idolizing. Yet, from our own perspective, this campus is a harsh reality rather than an idealized vacation, and this walk is just another trip to a math class to which we will arrive late, yet again.
The desire to achieve perfection, to prove our own validity, is a natural human desire that shackles nearly every person to some extent. In an environment like Harvard, however, this desire can easily become an especially paralyzing need to perform with perfectionism. The public’s perception that we are a microcosm of ideal students, compounded with intracollege comparison between students presenting the most perfect aspects of themselves, exacerbates the pressure that driven students place upon themselves to a dangerous extent. This idea is not revolutionary; a Harvard education is accompanied by constant reminders that each of us deserves to be here, that each of us is good enough. But if this implies that school would not be worth attending if we were not good enough, what happens at the point that we truly are not good enough?
Alongside a desire for perfection, we are often intent upon controlling our own destiny and earning our own way into success. As such, Heaven is often regarded as a place of perfection into which we can, ourselves, earn our way if we live close enough to perfection. But the harsh reality of human nature acknowledged by the Bible is that it gravitates toward selfish indulgence. Despite many humans’ devoted pursuit of perfection, “all righteousness is as dirty rags,” and even he who “keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). Never once in history has a single person, barring Jesus himself, lived without sin. Conversely, our perfect God is unable to coexist with sin. There is simply no doubt that we, of our own capacity, will never be good enough to reside in the presence of God.
The radical miracle of the gospel, however, is that we will never have to be good enough to deserve the love of Christ in order to receive that love. The biblical emphasis of our inability to achieve perfection does not exclude us from a future with God but rather relieves us of the responsibility of earning that future through our own works. Our salvation is “not by works so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:9), but it is “by grace that we have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). Though Jesus extends his sacrifice to all people, the ultimate truth is not that we, in our own capacity, are enough but rather that, in light of grace, our own ability is simply irrelevant.
The Harvard student body thrives off of achievement; our extreme perfectionism functions under an assumption that any struggle we ever face will operate as a meritocracy we can overcome if we are simply less broken than everyone else. Many of us fully intend to change the whole world by way of sheer willpower. For world-class academics and athletes, impassioned movers and shakers, nothing could be more daunting than the thought of surrendering our goals to anyone else’s power, so the notion that our own works cannot ever earn salvation sounds devastating. And yet this truth is actually the ultimate relief; the moment that attaining perfection does not depend on our own works is the moment that attaining perfection is no longer an entirely futile endeavor.
This may, for a cynical thinker such as me, evoke the thought that we might as well not even try to do good, but this conclusion disregards the most vital aspects of the Bible, namely God’s boundless love. God’s love is often misinterpreted as conditional upon our own ability or intention to treat others perfectly. In actuality, however, it is God’s love that informs our own and not vice versa; when we dwell in and surrender to love, we naturally begin to exude that same love in everything we do. His love does not require but entirely compels that we act with others in mind, “lov[ing] because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Rather than eliminating responsibility entirely, the irrelevance of our own perfection simply shifts our responsibility to that of reflecting rather than initiating. Paul addresses this when he asks, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?”
It was the general consensus of the Christian world for many years that we had a responsibility to bring the kingdom of God to Earth in a literal sense- that we might solve sickness and sin ourselves in preparation for the returning of the King. But this approach was dependent on an implicit assumption, described by Carl Henry in The Uneasy Conscious of Modern Fundamentalism, that we, as humans, actually had the capacity to reach some version of perfection without God himself. This assumption was utterly shattered by the harsh realities of humanity exposed by the First World War. Consequently, the distinct humanitarian effort of the early 20th century church was largely abandoned by many denominations for several years.
Time, however, has begun to reconcile many to the belief characterizing Paul’s response, “Absolutely not!” (Romans 6:1). This response demonstrates a conviction that, regardless of our inability to impart perfection on this world, we have an opportunity to act in accordance with the perfect grace of God. It is with the same conviction that we acknowledge that we have been granted the great privilege and honor of reflecting God’s love to those around us. WWI precipitated a decline in the Church’s humanitarian efforts because it confronted Christians with their own idea that doing good in the name of God was only valuable if the evils of the world were entirely eliminated by their action, Yet further inspection of the Bible itself reveals that we are called to “do good and to share what [we] have” (Hebrews 13:16) regardless of how impactful we, in our limited human perspective, perceive these actions to be. As this idea was called to the attention of the Church by Biblical scholars and the need for continued humanitarian service was made clear to Christians by the ongoing brokenness of our world, the Church began to again engage heavily with the physical needs of this Earth. Not, this time around, because they believed they had the power to cure evil but rather, because they understood they had a responsibility to “carry one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Though perfection devoid of God is not only impossible but also irrelevant, our actions have the potential to be a direct picture of our perfect God for others to see.
A focus on this love ultimately leads us to discard our default focus on ourselves. We begin to forget about the concerns that plague those who are consistently fixated on their own perceived worth, which, in turn, assuages our personal desire to prove our own validity or ensure we receive our due accolades. As we learn to stop legalistically focusing on how much we are owed or how far we can push the limits, we mature into equipped lights of love. Consequently, I aim as a Harvard student not to attain my own perfection but to comprehend the true magnitude of my own shortcomings and the great expanse of God’s perfect grace, that I might reflect it toward others in all that I do. Though my math grade may suffer for it, I do not mind being stopped to answer questions or take pictures for those who exist outside of our academic bubble; I would much rather be an approachable reflection of the dynamic and interactive love of Christ than an unrelatable stroke in a painting of simulated and stale perfection.
Emma Kate Price is a first year at Harvard College.