“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48
The ringing doorbell surprised us as we were guests at a vacation home and there was a horrific blizzard howling outside. “Who could it be?” we wondered and opened the door to be greeted by a local postal worker covered in snow bowing in apology. Through his shivering explanation, we learned that the local post office had mistakenly overcharged us 30 yen (23¢) for a letter we mailed the day before. He asked us to accept their sincere apology for the error and dutifully handed over the money with additional bows. Thoroughly impressed, but slightly amused, we assured the conscientious civil servant that all was forgiven and that we were satisfied with the outcome. He then bowed several more times, before turning to trudge back to the post office in knee-deep snow. That little snapshot from our past serves to capture the Japanese value of getting it right.
Perhaps this tendency is best summed up in the Japanese word “kaizen” (改善), which combines the two concepts of “change” (kai) and “good” (zen). Taken together, the equivalent translation comes out as “change for the better,” or “continuous improvement.” The application of kaizen then becomes an ongoing attempt to eliminate defects in a product or to improve a process with the ultimate goal to achieve better results. This requires an extreme attention to details, which can easily morph into a form of perfectionism in a ceaseless attempt to get it right. This approach can be seen on many levels within Japan, such as in the areas of food preparation, manufacturing, athletics, Japanese arts and transportation. Toyota has actually adopted the concept of kaizen as one of its core values, where all its employees are encouraged to constantly look for ways to improve their operations and products, which accounts for the company’s sterling reputation.
The extra effort it takes to build dependable cars, produce aesthetic masterpieces, achieve athletic success, or attain scholastic recognition is a highly commendable trait that generally produces good results. This is the primary reason why we personally purchase Japanese made vehicles. We want quality and dependability in a car that a commitment to kaizen principles is more likely to produce.
While such a lofty standard is understandably desired for inanimate objects and procedures, it is totally unrealistic when applied to human beings, including myself. Perfection is a worthy goal to aim for, but it remains forever out of reach no matter how hard we strive to attain it. Jesus taught His followers a new standard in His famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where He set the bar of God’s righteousness or perfection much higher than they previously imagined. This standard is what we are challenged to aim for, but no amount of commitment to kaizen can possibly take us there. We cannot “be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt.5:48), but there is One who was “once made perfect, and became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). That is Jesus. Because of Jesus’ perfect goodness (zen), we can be eternally changed (kai) and that is a kaizen work that only God can achieve, not through our efforts, but by His grace.