How to Be a Saint without Being Perfect

Have you ever noticed that funerals and celebrations of life often paint a portrait of perfection, almost saintlike? Here's a different way of thinking about sainthood.

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I’ve attended several funerals in the past six months. After one, and then another, I noticed a common thread. Often (though, gladly, not always), those who have passed from an earthly existence to a heavenly one are presented as flawless in the living of their lives. They seem to be suddenly saints.

As we hear the stories of their lives, we learn that the punchlines of their jokes were all well-timed as were their:

  • discipline of children, appropriate
  • devoutness, unquestionable
  • family/community/passions/work, balanced
  • cooking, delicious
  • dress, fashionable
  • business decisions, sound
  • thoughts, pure

You get the idea.

Different Definitions of Saints

Let me insert here that a common understanding of saints is that they’re people of patience and perfection. Generally, though, the biblical definition differs from the common perception of sainthood. More specifically, depending on the tradition, saints are an elite group who receive prayer and adoration or they’re Jesus followers who love God and are made perfect by Jesus, not their own thoughts or actions.

Here’s how they’re described in Romans 8:26-28 (World English Bible):

In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weaknesses, for we don’t know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which can’t be uttered. He who searches the hearts knows what is on the Spirit’s mind, because he makes intercession for the saints according to God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.

Not just in Romans but throughout the bible, there are references to saints as regular people who are now called Christians. Confusion may occur when we don’t stop to distinguish one from the other. As for me, I’d like the real and the remembered person that I am to reflect the type of saint who needs and receives intercession.

Reasons for Discrepancies Between the Real and the Remembered Person

Interestingly, portraits of perfection that I observed also went noticed by a couple of my fellow funeral attendees. We loved the dearly departed. But the portraits painted were misaligned with our experiences.

One of the reasons for these discrepancies, I think, is that our interactions were limited to certain environments. We didn’t and couldn’t know everything about these persons, their family lives, their work lives, their volunteer lives, their grocery-shopping lives, their recreational lives, their vacation lives. In fact, an unexpected and delightful benefit of going to a funeral is learning about a person and his (or her) past, and how their stories shaped how they lived and loved.

In addition, upon further reflection, I realize that it doesn’t make sense to discuss inadequacies, dredge up grudges, dig up wrongheaded thinking at a celebration of life. It’s unfair to bash or denigrate the departed as they have no way of defending themselves, explaining their actions, setting the record straight, or sharing the rest of the story in which they may have sought and received forgiveness.

Even more, it’s perfectly reasonable for each of us to want the best of us to be remembered, not our worst moments. In my case, I don’t want the preacher to recall just my times of ungratefulness and uncertainty, despair and darkness, frustration and fear.

Thoughts on Being Remembered as a Saint, But Not a Perfect One

Nevertheless, I don’t want those who are gathered together honoring and remembering me to wish they had known this model of perfection, the me that’s being recalled. Just as I’m hoping my life will reflect honesty, I hope my celebration of life will also reflect honesty. I want those who knew me among my friends and family to understand and embrace that a well-lived and well-loved life can involve mistakes and failures that don’t define us.

There’s no way I can be perfect, just as Paul described in Romans 7:19-25 (World English Bible)

For the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice. But if what I don’t desire, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the law, that, to me, while I desire to do good, evil is present. For I delight in God’s law after the inward man, but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord! So then with the mind, I myself serve God’s law, but with the flesh, the sin’s law.

How I hope to be portrayed is with a picture, not of perfection, but of being rescued and redeemed by Jesus into a life of bold and unconditional love.

What about you? How would you like to be remembered?

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