The Beauty of the Imperfect
J. R. Miller
Most of us fret over our faults and failures. Our imperfections discourage us. Our defeats ofttimes break our spirit and cause us to give up. But this is not true living. When we look at it in the right way, we see that the experiences which have been so disheartening to us, really contain in them elements of hope and encouragement.
There is beauty in imperfection. Perhaps we have not thought of it—but the imperfect in a godly life—is really the perfect in an incomplete state. It is a stage of progress, a phase of development. It is the picture—before the artist has finished it. It is beautiful, therefore, in its time and place.
A blossom is beautiful, although compared with the ripe, luscious fruit, whose prophecy it carries in its heart—it seems very imperfect. The young shoot is graceful in its form and wins admiration, although it is but the beginning of the great tree which by and by it will become. A child—is not a man. How feeble is infancy! Its powers are undeveloped, its faculties are untrained—it is yet without wisdom, without skill, without strength, without ability to do anything valiant or noble. It is a very imperfect man. Yet who blames a child for its incompleteness, its immaturity, its imperfectness? There is beauty in its imperfection.
We are all children of greater or lesser growth. Our lives are incomplete, undeveloped. But if we are living as we should, there is real moral beauty in our imperfectness. It is a natural and necessary process, in the unfolding of the perfect.
A child's work in school may be very faulty, and yet be beautiful and full of encouragement and hope, because it shows faithful endeavor and worth improvement.
A writing teacher praises his scholars, as he inspects the page they have written. He tells them, or certain of them, that they have done excellently. You look at their work, however, and you find it very faulty indeed, the writing stiff and irregular, the letters crudely formed, and you cannot understand why the teacher should speak so approvingly of the scholars' work. Yet he sees real beauty in it because, when compared with yesterday's page, it shows marked improvement.
So it is in all learning. The child actually walked three steps alone today—and the mother is delighted with her baby's achievement. These were its first steps. A little girl sits at the piano and plays through the simplest exercise with only a few mistakes, and all the family are enthusiastic in their praise of the performance. As music it was most meager and faulty. If the older sister, after ten years of music lessons and practice, were able to play no better than the child has done—there would have been disappointment, and no commendation. The imperfect playing was beautiful because, belonging in the early stages of the child's learning—it gave evidence of faithful study and practice.
A mother found her boy trying to draw. Very crude were the attempts—but to her quick eye and eager heart, the figures were beautiful. They had in them the prophecies of the child's future, and the mother stooped and kissed him in her gladness, praising his work. Compared with the artist's masterpiece when the boy had reached his prime—these rough sketches had no loveliness whatever. But they were beautiful in their time, as the boy's first efforts.
The same is true of all faithful efforts to learn how to live. We may follow Christ very imperfectly, stumbling at every step, realizing but in the smallest measure, the qualities of ideal discipleship; yet if we are doing our best, and are continually striving toward whatsoever things are lovely—our efforts and attainments are beautiful in the eye of the Master, and pleasing to him.
In the New Testament, a distinction is made between perfection and blamelessness. We are to be presented faultless at the end, before the presence of the divine glory—but even here, with all our imperfection, we are exhorted to live so as to be unblamable. That is, we are to do our best, living sincerely and unreprovably. Then as Christ looks upon us—he is pleased. He notes many faults, and our best work is full of mistakes—but he sees beauty in all the imperfection, because we are striving to please him—and are reaching toward perfection.
There is a home of wealth and splendor in which the most sacred and precious household treasure, is a piece of puckered sewing. A little child one day picked up the mother's work—some simple thing she had been making and had laid down—and after a half hour's quiet, brought it to the mother and gave it to her, saying, "Mamma, I's been helping you, 'cause I love you so." The stitches were long, and the sewing was drawn and puckered. But the mother saw only beauty in it all, for it told of the child's love and eagerness to help her and please her. That night the little one sickened, and in a few hours was dead! No wonder the mother calls that little piece of puckered sewing, one of her rarest treasures. Nothing that the most skillful hands have wrought, nothing of greatest value among all her household possessions, means to her half so much as that piece of spoiled stitching by her child.
May not this be something like the way in which God looks at his children's humblest efforts to do things for him? We are well aware how faulty even the best Christian work done in this world must seem to our Master—how full of unwisdom, of unbeauty, how foolish much of it, how mixed with self and vanity, how untactful, how indiscreet, how without prayer and love, how ignorant, how ungentle. But he does not chide us for it, does not blame us for doing so imperfectly, the sacred things he gives us to do. No doubt many of our poor blunders, our most faulty pieces of work, are held among our Master's most sacred, most cherished treasures in heaven!
Then he uses our blundering efforts, if only love and faith are in them, to bless others, to do good, to build up his kingdom. Christ is saving the world today, not through faultless work of perfect angels—but through the poor, ignorant, flawed, ofttimes very tactless, foolish work of disciples who love him and want to help him!
Take another phase of the same truth. We usually think of defeat as dishonorable. Sometimes it is. It is dishonorable when it comes through cowardice or lack of effort. We ought to train ourselves to be overcomers. But when one has bravely done his best and after all, has gone down in the struggle, there is no disgrace in his failure.
A twofold battle is going on whenever a man is fighting with hard conditions or adverse circumstances, and it is possible for him to fail in one and be victorious in the other. Too often a man succeeds in his battle with the world—at the cost of truth and right. That is defeat indeed, over whose dishonor heaven grieves. But when a man fails in his struggle with circumstances, and yet comes out with his virtue untarnished, he is a conqueror indeed and his victory gives joy to the heart of Christ! Such failure as this is, in heaven's sight, glorious success and no dishonoring of the life!
Defeat is the school in which most of us have to be trained. In all kinds of work, men learn by making mistakes. The successful business man did not begin with success. He learned by experience and the experience was very costly. The true science of living—is not to make no mistakes—but not to repeat one's mistakes. Defeat when one has done one's best, and when one takes a lesson from his defeat, is not something to be ashamed of—but something to be glad for, since it sets one's feet on a little higher plane. Defeat which makes us wiser and better—is a blessing to us.
An old man said that in reviewing his life he discovered to his great surprise, that the best things in his character and in his career, were the fruits of what he regarded as his failures and follies. These defeats had wrought in him new wisdom, and had led to repenting and renewals of faith in God, and had thus proved sources of richest blessing and good. Probably the same is true in greater or less degree, of every life. We owe more to our defeats, with the humbling of the old nature, the cleansing of motive and affection, and the deepening of trust in God—than we owe to the prouder experiences which we call our successes.
When we begin to recall the names of the men who have most influenced the world for good, we discover that many of them at least seemed to be defeated men and their life a failure.
"God forbid that I should flee away from them!" said Judas Maccabaeus, when with only eight hundred faithful men he was urged to retreat before the Syrian army of twenty thousand. "If our time has come, let us die manfully for our brethren, and let us not stain our honor."
"Sore was the battle," writes the historian, "Judas and his eight hundred were not driven from the field—but lay dead on it."
That seemed a defeat—but there was no dishonor in it. It ranks indeed among the world's noblest achievements. In no recorded victory, is there greater glory. The eight hundred died for freedom, and the untold blessings came to the nation and to the world from their work that day. Their defeat was but a mode of victory.
It would be easy to fill pages with the names of individuals who have gone down in defeat—but who in their very failure have started influences which have enriched the world.
In the center of this great host, is Jesus Christ. The story of his blessed life, is a story of failure and defeat, according to the world's estimate. But did the cross leave a blot on his name? Is it not the very glory of his life—that he died thus in the darkness that day? Was his career a failure? Christianity is the answer. He is the Captain also and leader of a great host who like him have been defeated and have failed—but have made the world richer by their sacrifice. Let no one speak of such defeats—as blots on fair names; rather they are adornings of glory. In all such failure, there is divine beauty.
There is another application of the same truth. Earthly life is full of pain and sorrow. God had one Son without sin; but he has none without suffering; for Christ was the prince of sufferers. The world regards adversity and sorrow of every kind, as misfortune. It would never call a man blessed or happy, whose life is full of trial and tears. But the gospel turns a new light, the light from heaven, upon earthly life, and in this wonderful light—affliction and sorrow appear beautiful.
One of our Lord's beatitudes is for the troubled life, "Blessed or happy are those who mourn." In the light of Christ's gospel, it is not a blessing to be without trial. Rather it is a token of God's love, when we are called to endure chastening. In this darkest of all blots on life, as men would regard it—there is beauty.