RE: Moses led the Hebrew slaves to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread made without any ingredients. Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the Ten Commandments. He died before he ever reached Canada.
History: Gutenberg invented removable type and the Bible. Another important invention was the circulation of blood. Sir Walter Raleigh is a historical figure because he invented cigarettes and started smoking. And Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.
Music: Beethoven wrote music even though he was deaf. He was so deaf he write loud music. He took long walks in the forest even when everyone was calling for him. Beethoven expired in 1827 and later died for this.
Yes, students in St Andrews have demonstrated rather more knowledge, intelligence and power of expression, but all your exams leading here will have contained your own mistakes. Nobody needs to be perfect to be here.
And yet many do find themselves believing that they do need to be perfect to be here, both students and staff. Let me describe a sort of identikit student based on some of the people who have shared their difficulties with me.
They did well at school, always around the top of their class, though the last couple of years became more stressful. They began to finish their homework around midnight, focussing all their energies on getting the grades for a top University. They had less time for friends, for socialising, and sometimes even missed a meal because of working so hard.
Exams passed with high grades, they arrived in St Andrews and discovered classes full of people like them, 200 or so in a lecture. But somehow it seemed harder to succeed. Essay questions left too much room for interpretation – they felt they had to read every possible source before beginning an answer. Problems to solve never quite worked out perfectly, no matter how many hours were spent in the lab doing it again and again. Eventually, minutes before deadlines, they handed in the assignments, but deeply unsatisfied with their work. They began to feel unhappy with themselves: believing themselves useless at everything from making copper sulphate to making friends. They were no longer trying to learn, to grow in knowledge and insight: rather, they were driven by a deep fear of making mistakes convinced they had to be perfect.
Academia can lead to this kind of thinking. Paul Dirac, the brilliant 20th Century theoretical physicist, once said this of Crime and Punishment, the novel by Dostoevsky: It is nice but in one of the chapters the author made a mistake. He describes the sun as rising twice on the same day.
But of course, not every mistake matters. Crime and Punishment, a masterpiece, is good enough to accommodate the odd mistake.
According to James, all of us make many mistakes. We mess up. We make mistakes in our studies – we get things wrong. But we also make mistakes in everything else, which may not be marked out of 20, but which affects ourselves and others. We mess up in our relationships, in sex and in love. We mess up in our working lives, and in career decisions. We mess up in our bodies, with what we eat, we drink, the pills we pop, the stuff we smoke. (Thanks, Sir Walter Raleigh.) We mess up in our conversation with family, friends and colleagues – and in his letter, James goes on to focus on conversation above other mistakes.
The danger is to respond to our fallibility in all of these areas of life with perfectionism: doing the perfect action, saying the perfect thing, eating a perfect diet, having perfect sex, writing the perfect CV, securing the perfect internship, graduating with a perfect degree.
But if we try to be so perfect, we’ll never take any risks, never risk a relationship, risk a new recipe, never risk handing in that essay, finishing that degree, risk being different, risk being funny. Jane Austen once wrote to her niece, speaking of certain heroines in novels, that Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked. And in this, as in so many things, she showed wonderful sense.
There must be another way to live. And there is.
First, we have to acknowledge the truth that we make mistakes. Some of these are deeply significant, and we must accept responsibility for them, for their effects on ourselves and on others. When we mess up, we can seriously mess up our lives and the lives of others.
As James says, with relevance for a University, we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. That is true in fact, and I would argue is true in principle.
But we cannot rest there. We also need to accept that there is forgiveness for these mistakes, a forgiveness bigger than these mistakes, because we are more than the mistakes we make. We are loved, and that love does not depend on us getting things right.
For me, as a Christian, that forgiveness comes from God. Even when we forgive each other, or forgive ourselves, the source of that forgiveness, ultimately, is divine. James calls it wisdom from above.
Our first reading, from Psalm 116, explores similar questions. It is an ancient song of thanksgiving, hundreds of years older than James’ letter, but the human experience is much the same as ours. The psalmist is in a place of suffering, involving physical pain and mental anguish. The writer knows that wholeness and healing cannot be found alone, by him- or herself. And so the psalmist then prays to God for salvation, and the Lord saves. The psalmist has recognised their vulnerability, accepting their frailty and fallibility, then calls out to God for help, and finds strength, recovery and hope for the future.
And so we don’t need to be good enough to have faith – it is for us all. God is forgiving and gracious.
And we don’t need to be perfect to complete that lab report, that translation: the mistakes we make will lead us to a deeper understanding.
And we cannot be perfect in our life. We grow through trial and error, through risk and redemption, through messing up and making up.
Anthony de Mello retold the parable of the lost sheep in this way:
A sheep found a hole in the fence and crept through it. He wandered far and lost his way back.
Then he realized that he was being followed by a wolf. He ran and ran, but the wolf kept chasing him, until the shepherd came and rescued him and carried him lovingly back to the fold.
In spite of everyone’s urgings to the contrary, the shepherd refused to nail up the hole in the fence.
The hole in the fence will not be nailed up. God does not imprison us in perfection. So how should we live, as we begin a new semester and year in St Andrews? Well, let’s not replace one set of rules with another: it’s rule-bound thinking that can get us into the perfectionist mess in the first place.
Instead, let us turn again to James, that most realistic of Bible-writers. He compares the wisdom from above with earthly wisdom. Earthly wisdom is all about achievements, but is driven by envy and selfish ambition, and which leads to disorder and wickedness of every kind.
By contrast, the wisdom from above is all about character, being peaceable, gentle, merciful and fruitful. It is less about ticking the boxes of perfect actions; much more about letting goodness and kindness grow in us as the people we are. And if we grow in character in that way, we become a blessing to others, and society. v. 18: A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
James is right. All of us make many mistakes. But there is wisdom from above in God, who knows even better than we do the ways we mess up, but does not change in his love, forgiveness and acceptance of us; who encourages us to grow through the ways we go wrong and try again; who shares his goodness with us in our character. We will all mess up this year in St Andrews, some of us spectacularly. But I pray that all of us, in our mistakes, find forgiveness and growth. I pray that we all mess upwards.