A New Year’s Look at Perfectionism

There are many topics I am excited to explore and write about this year. In fact, they’ve started to stack up in the storage closet of my mind. I was pondering which of them to choose for my first blog post of 2019, and Holy Spirit took me in another direction. I shall not resist.

The past year held many blessed opportunities, as well as some significant tests and struggles. Most of my battles were internal. I came in full contact with my aversion for messiness, disorder, confusion, unfinished things, wasted time, effort, and resources. I recognized that I have reached a stage of life where I greatly desire order, peace, and efficiency. Sadly, life often doesn’t conform to my desires. Life insists on being messy.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong or sinful in craving orderly conditions for life; this can even be substantiated with Scripture. The problem comes when the lack of them interferes with my fellowship with God and my awareness of him becomes obscured.

There’s a name for this—idolatry. The very high standards I set for myself can become an idol when the line between high standards and perfectionism become blurry. And I have come to believe that perfectionism is a form of idolatry.

I don’t expect others to be perfect. My profession for many years has been about being calmly present with people whose lives and relationships are a mess. I don’t feel the need to judge them or assess them according to the standard I maintain for myself. I have a well-developed capacity for empathy, acceptance and compassion toward those whose lives have run into the ditch.

What has become clearer to me recently though, is that I’m less accepting and compassionate toward myself when I encounter lack of control over my own thoughts, relationships, and circumstances. I’ve stumbled onto the uncomfortable truth that there are times when I am not as well put together spiritually, emotionally, or mentally as I thought I was. I am very far from perfect. Imagine that!

So, believing that in all things, “Scripture comes to life,” I look to this enduring source of life and wisdom to understand my dilemma.

Jesus told his disciples, “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Huh? What could he possibly have meant by this? Every good Bible student knows that when we come across something difficult to understand, we need to consider the context of the verse as well as what the author intended to convey in the original language.

Jesus spoke these words as part of his Sermon on the Mount. This sermon contains the core message of his entire gospel. It redefines blessedness, righteousness, mercy, discipleship, and the reality of God’s kingdom on the earth “as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). In closer context, Jesus had been talking about forgiveness, specifically forgiving those who don’t deserve forgiveness. Seen in this light, he seems to be saying that when we extend this radical forgiveness in obedience to him, we are walking in perfect alignment with the Father, because this is what the Father does for each of us. Ironically, we display godly perfection when we forgive others—and I daresay ourselves–for not being perfect!

There are over 40 occurrences of the word “perfect” in the Old and New Testaments. Most translators have chosen the English word “perfect” in these occurrences, but some other variants are “blameless,” “complete,” and “mature.” Scripture is quite clear on the point that only God and his word are perfect in the way that we usually use the word (see Ps. 18:30; 19:7). The path of the Christ-follower is to recognize this, and still reach toward the ideals of blamelessness, spiritual wholeness, and mature discipleship. We are to steadily move from the real, where we live, to the ideal, where God lives.

The Apostle Paul admitted that despite his wholehearted effort to “really know Christ and the mighty power that raised him from the dead,” he had not attained perfection. He wrote, “But I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be” (Phil. 3:10, 12, NLT). Paul rebuked the Galatian believers for trying to become perfect solely through their own human efforts (Gal. 3:3). This same man came to understand through his own struggle that God’s power is made perfect in our human weakness. Here’s more irony—we are strengthened when we recognize our own weakness in his sight. Then the perfect strength of God—the dunamis–can flow to us and through us.

Maybe the best antidote to perfectionism is to reframe each day’s goals and purposes not in terms of our standards of performance or completion, but in terms of progress only.  To ask, “Am I moving toward him?” “Is my heart being cleansed, formed, perfected by the only one who has the power to perfect me?”  “Is my heart following hard after his example of holiness?”

This is what I’m thinking about today, at Starbucks. Imperfect me and my Perfect Jesus. Determined to enjoy the journey with him.

Happy New Year, my imperfect fellow-travelers. I love you!

dart pin in the middle of dartboard

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