Years ago I was part of a prayer group that met each week at my church. The meeting was listed in the local newspaper, so occasionally we would get newcomers. Often they would have a story to tell. One evening we welcomed a heavy-set woman who said she had died and gone to heaven. She told us she had checked into a hospital for a routine procedure and had gone into cardiac arrest on the operating table. She was eventually revived. However, she recalled leaving her body and watching the doctors frantically working to save her. Then she traveled through a dark tunnel toward a celestial light and found Jesus waiting for her at the other end. Standing in his presence, she reported that she was at least 30 pounds lighter. "That was the best part of the whole trip," she said brightly.
This story raises an interesting question. If we are truly made in God's image, as it says in Scripture, why does it seem we have to resort to such extreme measures to shed excess pounds? It's not just that we tend to put on weight, but nothing we do seems to keep it off for very long. If God is perfect, why aren't we? Why do we drink, smoke, cuss and cheat? Why do we knowingly inflict such pain on ourselves and on one another? The ready answer is that we are sinful creatures and have screwed everything up. It's hard to quarrel with that, on the face of it. But it does raise another question. If we all fall short of the glory of God, as St. Paul put it, does that point to some basic failure in design -- or were we designed to fail?
A rich young man in one of the gospel stories asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. He tells Jesus he has been careful to obey all the commandments and wonders, "What do I still lack?" Jesus sizes him up and replies that if he wants to achieve spiritual perfection, he must sell all that he has and give it to the poor. The young man is not prepared to do that and goes away disappointed. Jesus' disciples are astonished. The young man has seemingly done everything right yet still doesn't measure up. "Who then can be saved?" they ask incredulously. Jesus' answer is telling: "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
It turns out the young man asked the wrong question. He assumed he lacked something and needed to strive for perfection. Jesus saw that the only thing he really needed was to fail. The young man wrongly believed he would be conformed to God's image if he achieved perfection, but he was actually trying to conform to some idealized image of himself. Failure is the route by which we discover our humanity. And it is only by fully embracing our humanity, however flawed it may be, that we can realize our true nature as children of God.