It is possibly the most unfair question in any job interview: “Tell me, what are your weaknesses?” What a trap question! And, whatever you say, please don’t fall into the trite trap answer, “Well, I can be a perfectionist.” It sounds like such a good parry, a backhanded humble brag in response to an unfair question, perhaps the best way to say something good and bad about yourself at the same time. But if that’s all the inventiveness you’ve got, “Well, I can be a perfectionist” will probably cost you the job! The follow up will likely be an eyeroll and a need to explain how you are nitpicky over everything.
What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘perfect?’ For me, it conjures up thoughts and memories of the perfect movie moment (Avengers Endgame), the perfect concert (Rush in 2015), the perfect steak (a tomahawk slow-cooked to medium-rare), or the perfect sports ending (whenever my team wins the championship). You probably have similar things come to mind. These have no essential quality in common; yet they all are perfect because they represent a certain feeling that can only be described with the old Busch Beer slogan: “It can’t get any better than this.”
Do we aim to achieve that with our work? Many, of course, do the opposite; we “quiet quit” and don’t give our work nearly enough of ourselves. Yet others of us give our work everything, striving for it to be perfect – to reach the point where our projects cannot get any better. This begs the question: what does the Bible really say about perfection? And by extension, where does our work fit into this paradigm? Should we aim at perfect work? If so, what should we give to create it?
You probably have heard the Garden of Eden described as perfect. That seems to be where many good gospel presentations begin. Perhaps you also strive to work hard – even to do perfect work – emulating the call given to Adam to work in the garden. It is easy to read the slogan of “perfect” into Eden and by extension apply it to our vision for work, but this prompts a contrarian question: why would God create Adam with a purpose to work knowing that creation couldn’t get any better? If that had been the case, it would have been impossible for Adam to succeed at anything worth any real value. Likewise, it would be impossible for us to ever accomplish anything significant.
This means the garden must not have shared that slogan; it was good, even “very good,” but it was not in its final state, not perfect in the ultimate sense of the word.
In the Old Testament, two Hebrew words describe the concept of perfect – shalom and tamim. Though neither is used explicitly of the garden, each describes an aspect of it in creation. Shalom may already be familiar; it is peace, order, and wholeness. Isaiah 45:7 is especially helpful for defining shalom: “I form light and create darkness; I make shalom and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.” This verse gives two pairs of opposites to show God as the creator of all things. As light and darkness are opposite, so are shalom and calamity. Where calamity is hardship and disarray, shalom is peace and togetherness. Before the Fall, the garden was the epitome of shalom; it was whole and at peace, and Adam kept structure and order. It exemplified one important aspect of a biblical view of perfection.
Tamim may be a less familiar term. Tamim is sometimes translated as ‘perfect,’ but more specifically means ‘without blemish.’ Most frequently, it is used to describe right sacrifices; whenever animals without blemish are chosen for an offering, they are described as tamim. The people of God may not offer any random bull or ram; they are to select the one that is tamim, the one that has been thoroughly inspected and has nothing wrong with it. The garden surely was without blemish while Adam worked it, at least until he and Eve introduced sin into it! God calls his people to be tamim as well; he commands Abraham to be so in Genesis 17:1 as well as all of Israel in both Deuteronomy 18:13 and Joshua 24:14. Paul uses Greek translations of tamim to describe the church in Ephesians 1:4 and 5:27, Philippians 2:15, and Colossians 1:22. Christ has consecrated his church to be without blemish, as he also is without blemish. This is the type of perfection into which we are redeemed and which we are called to live out.
Each of these words illuminates the biblical concept of perfect. For something to be perfect, it must be both shalom and tamim. In one sense, both certainly apply to the garden. It was perfectly at peace, ordered, and whole, and it was without blemish. Yet, we must note that neither of these qualities strictly necessitates that its subject has reached its summit and can no longer improve. Nations at peace have great room to flourish. Likewise, your lawn might be flawless after a few days of really hard work in May, but that does not mean it can’t be made better by adding a flowerbed or even a pool. Both shalom and tamim allow for growth.
In the creation story of Genesis 1, God states again and again as he looks upon the world he has created that it is ‘good,’ and in 2:1 the text says, “That the heavens and the earth and all their host were completed.” We expect that what God has created and finished would be good. Then, in the unexpected statement of 2:18, God acknowledges that “it is not good for man to be alone.” It is not that man being on his own was a mistake or morally wrong. Creation is still good despite this; yet it is “not good” in a certain respect because it could be better. God intentionally created the earth and man in a state where improvement would be possible, even necessary.
This may seem odd at first, but upon further reflection, it makes a lot of sense. God is infinite, and his creation is very finite. We believe in a God who is an eternal being of infinite magnitude and glory, a being who transcends space and time because he created those things. The finitude of creation vastly pales in conceptual space in comparison to God’s infinitude. Even so, we believe that God created the heavens and earth to reflect his glory, and specifically he created mankind to do so by representing his character in the role of image-bearer. Since we are finite and have this purpose, growth should be expected. The finite creation can only reflect the infinite creator more and more as time goes on, even if a final state is never reached. We are limited by the time and space we have, but there is continual opportunity for development with each passing day. How can the finite properly reflect the infinite without having eternity to grow?
To this end, we see Adam was tasked with maintaining, protecting, and expanding the garden. This is the task God explicitly gave Adam when he placed him “in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it” in Genesis 2:15. In many ways, this is also the core message of the call to “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis 1:28. Expansion was always in view when mankind was created. We must never view the garden as having been in its final state; it was both corruptible and left in our hands with much to do.
We see this readily demonstrated in our desires. We want more because we were made to pursue growth. These could be referred to as “escalating desires.” This plays out in good ways – as we celebrate good achievements, we find that we often want to transcend those and elevate to new, higher achievements. We question how we can make the next date better than the last. We ask the same question about the family vacation, the personal record-breaking workout, the work project, and the financial investment.
This is also true in wicked desires, addictions. As the addict descends into more and more need for a fix, the same substance is not enough anymore. Either a different substance or more of the same is necessary. Nobody sets out hoping to become a meth-addict; it is the product of escalating desires. Addiction is a prime example of how sin has tainted our nature through the Fall, because it is the result of a good, God-given pattern being skewed toward darkness. We are made to need more and more because we are finite beings made to reflect an infinite God of whom there is always more for us to enjoy. So it is with all of creation; we are meant to be fruitful and multiply it to continue to glorify him more each and every day.
All these things considered, a truly biblical definition for ‘perfect’ is “whole and without blemish, yet it can only get better.” This encompasses the vision of both shalom and tamim while recognizing our finitude relative to God’s infinitude. It also presents a much better story than “it can’t get any better than this.” It presents us a story in which we can participate, a story with an opportunity and reason for our work. Our best days are not yet behind us.
To that end, perfect work needs to embrace all these principles, starting on a basic level with both shalom and tamim. As God called the Israelites to pursue the shalom of Babylon while in exile in Jeremiah 29:6, so we are also called to pursue shalom for our world in our respective careers. At the same time, we are called to always put forth our best work, without blemish, as if we are working for the Lord and not for men (Col. 3:23). When Paul calls the Romans to present themselves as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), he refers to the way they go about their everyday lives, their actions. Given that tamim is the Old Testament standard for a sacrifice, surely Paul has this in mind for the way we act and work if we are called to be constantly presenting ourselves as living sacrifices. Work needs to seek peace and wholeness while being without blemish.
Additionally, perfect work sets the stage for better, future work. We should view our work as continuing to develop the world in such a way that we could enjoy not only the current state of things, but also prepare for the next stage of development, similar to Adam’s call for expansion in the garden. In our fallen world, we unfortunately often only see a skewed version of this reality.
In this world, then, we are typically unable to fully enjoy the benefits of our work, so our work primarily benefits people who come after us. The preacher of Ecclesiastes wrote of this painful phenomenon in Ecclesiastes 2:18-21:
I hated all my toil in which I toiled under the sun, which I must leave for the man after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or foolish? Yet he will have dominion over all my toil in which I toiled and acted wisely under the sun. This also is fleeting. So I turned about to make my heart despair on account of all the toil which I toiled under the sun, for a man who has toiled in wisdom and knowledge and skill must give his reward over to a man who has not toiled for it. This also is fleeting and a great evil.
In other words, the product of the Fall is that we often never see what our work ultimately becomes. We only see the fleeting moment in time that we have the privilege to be a part of. Someone else will enjoy more of our work than we ever did. We can choose to despair in that (like the author of Ecclesiastes), or we can choose to celebrate and delight in the fact that we were given something and have opportunities to make it better.
When we think about this, we are reminded that our work is never truly final. How often have you finished a work project that will never be touched again because there was no way to make it better? I’d wager the answer is never. As companies buy buildings, they renovate and buy new ones. The new building you currently renovate will not be the final resting place for this business. It will change and evolve. The patient you successfully treat will likely be back with a different ailment. The student you teach will go out into the world and test your teaching through experience, and in doing so will continue learning. The legal case you are working will set or maintain a precedent and have ramifications for everyone involved that extend far beyond your line of sight. Even for Adam, he was meant to continue building upon what he had made on and on through eternity. In this sense, perfect work should set the stage for future work that is even better.
This reverses our expectations. Perhaps we think the goal of hard work is to produce masterpieces, to produce things that last forever, or to produce things that are final achievements and conquests. In truth, we should spend less time focusing on masterpieces and more time focusing on just doing a good job and making things better for the next person who comes along. His masterpiece will be better than mine anyway. Naturally, this draws to mind countless pieces of art that are considered irreplicable masterpieces. Those do exist – but I would argue that art inspires creativity, and that creativity will eventually lead to a work that is better. Perhaps we have not seen it yet. No place is this progression of influence seen more clearly than in music. So many artists have multiple influences they cultivate and bring together to produce their own unique sound. In some ways it is new; in other ways it shows the truth that there is nothing new under the sun. New and great things are often the product of past successes.
In practical terms, this means our work needs to be future-focused. We must recognize that our work today will have a direct impact on the future, because future work is contingent on the work of today. In our fast-paced culture, it is very easy to get lost in the moment and in the specific project at hand. However, the call to be finite while reflecting the infinite is a call to grow and develop and to set the stage for future growth and development.
What does this look like practically? One of the best things we can do is to work in such a way that it makes our job easier for the person who has our role after us. Fulfill your responsibilities and find ways to make those responsibilities take less time and easier to maintain. If you can leverage this, then you can set up the person who follows you to perform your same role at a higher level and take on additional responsibilities.
I am a software engineer for a large public university. I spend most of my days developing systems to make essential university operations like freshman orientation and academic advising run more efficiently. Prior to this, I worked at a medical software company, where I worked on a large 20-year-old legacy application. In my field, it is obvious when someone has passion for the product and is a future-minded thinker, and it is even more obvious when these are lacking! I often come across old code that is confusing nonsense – what we might call “spaghetti code” because it goes all over the places and has no clear start or end, just like a bowl of spaghetti, code whose author has unfortunately followed the mantra, “If it makes it through the compiler, it’s good code.” No, it’s not. My most frustrating moments at work are usually when I’m asked to go understand a module, and I find poorly written code that takes hours to figure out what it does. When I see this code, I know the author was merely writing to get the job done and giving no thought toward the future at all. Often, this is our default mindset – just get the job done and never think about the future.
I consciously try my best to avoid working that way. My goal is to take the extra effort to make sure my work is easily understood. As I write code, the question I’m constantly asking myself is, “Will the person who has my job in 10 years be able to understand my work within a couple of minutes?” If the answer is no, then I need to rework what I’ve done. If the answer is yes, then I have built a foundation for future improvements. Whenever I have the opportunity to make something that can be reused later, I seek to do so. Because of this, I may spend longer than expected on some projects, but I’m always saving future time, even if not my own future time. I’m leveraging my present on behalf of the future. And if you ask my boss, he prefers it this way. I don’t miss deadlines, but I am dedicated to writing future-focused code.
This can be a tough pill to swallow, that we must reorient our present work toward elevating future work. It requires the humility to say I can never be the best at my work – because I want the next person to be better than I ever could. I used to work in college ministry, and I felt this tension on campus every day; all I wanted was for students to be better students and humans than I had been at their life stage. Such a mindset brought the painful realization that there were many areas in which I could have – no, should have – been much better.
I had the privilege of starting a ministry and leading several mission trips. The goal of these things was never for them to only last while I was physically there; but rather that someone else would pick up the torch and improve upon the foundation I had laid. Still, the desire to set up the future success of others is often inhibited by our own pride. I want to be the best at everything I do. I want everything I produce to be in a pinnacle state. However, achieving this aspiration, as if it were even possible to do so, would mean that I would deprive someone else of the opportunity to enjoy my work and make it better for their own future generations.
All careers have a role within this call. For some, it may be obvious: teachers and parents set the stage for the future by raising up the next generation, who will in turn inherit the future that the rest of us prepare. Some roles, like maintenance positions, may be less obvious, yet these too are essential. The nature of the Fall is that creation works against us instead of with us (Gen 3:17), which means there must be a constant paring back of creation to create flourishing. I used to do all my yard maintenance on my own. This summer, I hired someone to handle that for me. He might not know it, but he has given me an additional 2 – 3 hours a week that I can use to focus on writing or other work. He is enabling me to do things I would otherwise be unable to do. That work must come out of someone’s time. I love that there is someone with the passion and dedication to do that work.
As Christians, we are called to look forward to our future home in the new heavens and the new earth. While we currently live in a world where we simultaneously lament and celebrate leaving our work for the person after us, we look forward to new work in the new earth where creation works alongside us in constant partnership. In this new world, we will not experience death, nor will we leave our work behind for the person who follows us. Our work will be at peace and totally without blemish. In this reality, we will be able to constantly see the product of our work as we build subsequent foundations for future work.
Are we living in light of this reality now? Does my vision for my work extend toward making the future a better place as we build good foundations upon foundations? By all means, work without blemish as best you can, strive to promote shalom and tamim, and leave your work better than you found it, prepared for the next person to take it even “further up and further in.”
 Joshua 24:14a: “Now fear the LORD and serve him in tamim and truth.” Many English translations opt for translating tamim as ‘sincerity’ or combine it and the word for ‘truth’ into one word. The point in this verse is that God’s people are to be blameless in the sense that they do not serve other gods and are completely dedicated to serving God alone.