Those of us who have lived on the earth for many circuits around the sun can declare that we have been through times of significant tests and struggles. Some of the battles are external and circumstantial, and others are internal.
The past year held many wonderful opportunities for me, as well as some physical and emotional challenges. 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 recognize, for better or worse, 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.
It is not necessarily a problem to desire order, peace, and efficiency. This can even be substantiated by Scripture. But when life doesn’t conform to our desire and becomes messy in spite of our best efforts, we can lose our serenity and enter dangerous spiritual waters.
Our imperfections and the imperfections of our world are facts we must accept. When we deny these facts, it will undoubtedly interfere with our fellowship with God. Our awareness of him becomes obscured by self-obsession.
There’s a name for this—idolatry. The very high standards we set for ourselves can become an idol when the line between high personal standards and perfectionism becomes blurry. I have come to believe that when this happens, perfectionism becomes a form of idolatry.
I’ll own this for myself first. I don’t necessarily expect others to be perfect. In my role as a therapist for many years, it has been important for me to be calmly present and without judgment toward people whose lives and relationships are a mess. I don’t feel a need to assess them or their choices 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.
When it comes to people personally close to me whose actions and lifestyles directly affect me, I am more tempted to judge, criticize, and attempt to control. This comes naturally to me as the child of an alcoholic family system who throughout life has tried to bring order out of chaos. It is something I am actively working on with the help of the 12 Steps and an incredible sponsor who helps me process and work through these issues.
What has become most clear to me though, is that I can be pretty hard on myself when I encounter a lack of control over my 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.
Let’s explore some of the manifestations of perfectionism any of us might experience at some point, and then see how Scripture comes to life for us on this important topic.
Speaking first from my experience in the clinical realm, perfectionism manifests in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s behaviors like obsessive cleaning of the home that makes sufferers and their families anxious and miserable. Or it might be an eating disorder triggered by the perceived need to meet a perfect standard of beauty.
Sometimes it is just a constant anxiety and worry that we may have missed something important, and life could spin out of orbit because we can’t exert complete control over our circumstances, finances, or relationships. We might be co-dependent, living with someone else’s addiction and trying to maintain a false picture of perfect family life for the outside world to see.
All of these examples come with a lot of pain, frustration, and misery.
Jesus told his disciples, “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). 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 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 when we forgive ourselves–for not being perfect!
There are over 40 occurrences of the word “perfect” in the Old and New Testaments. Most translators choose the English word “perfect” in these occurrences, but some other variants are “blameless,” “complete,” and “mature.” Scripture states clearly that only God and his word are perfect in the way that we usually use the word (see Ps. 18:30; 19:7). 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). We, all of us, are works in progress.
Paul rebuked the Galatian believers for trying to perfect themselves solely through human efforts (Gal. 3:3). This man understood through his own struggle with sin 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. As they say in 12-Step groups, “Progress, not perfection.”
It would be more helpful to ask not whether we’ve achieved our own standard in our daily walk, but whether we are steadily moving toward God and the standards he sets for us. We may further ask if our hearts are being cleansed, formed, and perfected by the only one who does have the power to perfect us, as he defines it.
Do our hearts follow hard after him, like David’s? If so, as we increase in holiness, we walk in his grace and forgiveness and can set aside our own strivings to be perfect.
He loves us, his imperfect people who will in the end be made perfect!
This is what I’m thinking about today at the coffee shop. Imperfect me and my Perfect Jesus. Determined to enjoy the journey with him.
Happy New Year, my imperfect fellow travelers. I love you!