Monday, June 6, 2011

A Perfect Mess

“Each time He said,
 “My grace is all you need. 
My power works best in weakness.” 
So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, 
so that the power of Christ can work through me.”

 II Corinthians 12:9 (NLT)

I am a former Wannabe-Perfectionist.

So much water has gone under the bridge (over the dam?) since those days, it’s almost hard for me to remember what it was like. But it lasted for a good long time. Until it was beat out of me with a large stick.

Part of it was a kind of creative ADHD hyper-focus on details.

But it was fueled by the times.

The Eighties were years of extreme excess. Bigger was Better.

Hair was BIG. Houses were BIG. Shoulder pads were BIG. Go look at some of your own family pictures from the era. What were we (culturally) thinking?

Tastes were almost Rococo in their opulence. We watched shows like Dallas (1978-1991) and Dynasty (1981-1989) that depicted lives of lavish luxury. (Those people were absolutely miserable, but at least they looked good while they were doing it.)

My friends and I read too many magazines. Southern women who were into design (we called it “decorating” back then) poured over Veranda and Southern Accents like they were addendums to the Bible. Clothes-hounds studied Vogue and Bazaar. We accessorized to the inth degree. We read Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal at the doctor’s office, searching for more information about how to live a perfect life in every way, so that we could be perfectly happy.

Some of us bought into it (I did), whether we realized it or not. (We didn’t.)

We tried very hard to construct perfect lives. We wanted to look good. We wanted our kids to look good, our houses to look good, our gardens to look good, our careers to look good. We wanted to be perfect parents. We enrolled our kids in every activity imaginable, so that they could be perfect, too. We subconsciously strove to be the best we could be at everything, from our jobs to our social lives. We wanted to have the best dinner parties and baby showers. Children’s birthday parties could become competitions to see which mother was the most creative. Holidays became excuses for perfectionistic excess. If we made something, it had to be a picture-perfect creation. A perfect cake… perfect needlepoint pillow… perfect picture… perfect golf game… perfect flower arrangement… perfect whatever. The Me-Decade engendered a competitive spirit, from the corporate business world to the home. A “Keeping-Up-With-The-Jones’ ” mentality.

Of course, these are wild exagger-generalizations. Not everybody was like that then. But this is the common stereotype of Baby Boomer yuppies in the period of their late-twenties-through-thirties. I reference the ‘80’s because that was the period when a spirit of perfectionism was most active in my life. When I still had the energy to try. But even then, I was only a Wannabe. No matter how hard I tried, something always went wrong. I was famous for my dinner party disasters and my decorating mishaps. When I worked, I was always running late, papers flying in every direction. My perfect outfit was usually marred by a big juicy stain on the chest or a run in my stockings. (Btw, when did the Fashion Police out-law good old flaw-disguising sheer stockings?)

(Us, trying to be perfect, circa 1992. Sorry I couldn't find a vintage '80's one... wrong coast.
It would have been even worse.)
The curse of perfectionism is certainly not limited to any one generation, however. My mother passed down an unhealthy dose to me, which I then transmitted to my children. (They mostly rebelled.) The culture today is just as deadly as it was then, if not more so. In addition to the media of my young adulthood, there is now a plethora of gorgeous design and fashion blogs, websites, and shows to stir up a perfectionist spirit. But today the emphasis is even more on having perfect, ageless bodies…  to the point of obsession. A collapsed cake or a disastrous dinner party probably wouldn’t have killed anybody. But anorexia does.

What are we doing here?

Of all the ways in which a spirit of perfectionism can manifest itself, nowhere is it more deadly than when it is translated into our spiritual lives. It causes us to be the opposite of what we’re called to be: Fakes instead of authentic creatures. Liars instead of truth-tellers. Hypocrites instead of honest men and women created in the image of our Father, in whom there are no “shifting shadows.” The One who is the Truth.

Certainly not in every church, but in many churches, it’s way too much about appearances. In the one place where we should have the most freedom to be our authentic, flawed selves, we too often try to maintain the Perfect Christian façade.

We wonder, “What would people think if they knew how I really am? What I’ve done? Where I’ve been? What I think about?

Too many Christians carry the Perfection Bondage as a heavy weight to be borne alone, remaining unyoked to the One who makes every burden light.

Assuming we’re ‘supposed to be’ perfectly loving, giving, and forgiving.

Perfectly, gloriously, victorious over every trial and temptation.

Perfectly joyful and contented.

The dichotomy between what’s on the inside and what’s on the outside causes insecurity and a feeling of unworthiness. Self-hatred. We beat ourselves up… perfectly well.

I know I am not alone in this struggle. In the aftermath of the “Wounds” post, I received some amazing emails. I can’t tell you how much your words of encouragement have meant to me. I especially appreciated those of you who dared to share a little of your own stories with me. They have inspired the topic of this post, something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time.

One precious lady shared,

“I also always seemed to wrestle with the disparity between how the ideal Christian life was portrayed, and the reality of living in this world as we know it, as a Christ-follower.”

Another admitted,

“I am a perfectionist who is not perfect and you remind me often that nothing is perfect including our relationship with Christ.  You have taught me that He does not require perfection, only faith!”

These words, and others like them, give me great hope.

The desire for perfection is not a bad thing: it is innate. We were designed to live in a perpetual state of perfection. But we will not find it here.

There may be perfect moments… the birth of a child… the first realization of true love…

But, like all things here, they are not lasting. The whole earth is “subject to frustration.”

Because there is no such thing as perfection on earth, its pursuit is an endlessly exhausting entrapment.

In her wise little book, Being Perfect, Anna Quindlen writes,

“… When the president of Duke University commissioned a study on the status of women at the school, the results, released in 2003, were astonishing. Female undergraduates talked of a culture at the college of “effortless perfection,” in which they were expected to be attractive, well-dressed, in great shape, and academically able.

I was mesmerized by that phrase: effortless perfection. Obviously it is an oxymoron. Even the illusion of perfection requires an enormous amount of work. I can tell you that by the end of a day of trying to be perfect I was always as exhausted as if I’d done the whole thing at a fast clip in running shoes. There’s some muscle group around your shoulders that seizes up during the perfection dance and doesn’t let go until you are asleep, or alone. Or maybe it never really lets go at all.”

In one’s walk of faith, the fatigue that accompanies The Perfection Trap leads to spiritual enertia and discouragement. This is a very crippling thing for God’s kingdom.

Far too many believers lurk on the periphery, afraid to take a step of faith into Christian service of any kind because they don’t think they’re ‘good enough’ yet.

“Oh, no, I could never teach a Bible Study… pray out-loud… go on a mission trip… speak about my faith openly…

because I’m not good enough. I’m not ready. I’m still trying to get my act together. I’ve got major sin in my life. I’m not far enough along in my spiritual journey.”

In other words, NOT PERFECT.

Here is yet another thing I’ve learned the hard way:


As I stated on the WHO AM I? page at the top, there’s one thing I’m really, really good at.

One area in which I’m perfect, actually.

I am a perfect mess.

And (as we say in the South) a half.

An absolutely perfect mess and a half.

I was always bargaining with God, telling Him that after I finally got my act together once and for all… when I wasn’t such a mess… He might use me for something. I might not be just a waste of skin after all.

But I think He got tired of waiting around.

The Kingdom of God is comprised of imperfect people who are perfectly loved.

Loved absolutely perfectly.

As if we, ourselves, our messy little selves, were perfect already.

as we will be, when we see Him face to face.

So let’s lay that baggage down

and enter the Rest.


“Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.” (I John 3:2)

“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)

“For the law never made anything perfect. But now we have confidence in a better hope, through which we draw near to God.” (Hebrews 7:19-20)

“…For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. And the Holy Spirit also testifies that this is so.” (Hebrews 10:14)


Amy said...

And once again, you wrote something I needed to hear, an anxiety that has been plaguing me. I have learned so much about God's grace just in the past three months than in my whole entire life, and I am overwhelmed by it, and at the same time, I still try to be perfect. I want to look like someone who knows God's grace and lives accordingly, yet I struggle with many anxieties about my life and family and etc. that are so hard for me to show. It makes me feel like such a hypocrite.

Laurel said...

This is right on. We sell ourselves and each other so very short when we project perfection. I don't have the energy to shoot for that, haven't for years, and I can't tell you how many people have told me after XYZ discussion at church, pre-school, a birthday party, whatever:

I am so glad you said that! I thought I was the only one.

Usually more than one person.

I might be the only one who admits it, but yes, I have yelled at my kids for no good reason. I told them I was sorry later, why I shouldn't have done it, and that I would work on not doing it again. The laundry is heaped on the nicest chair I have, waiting to be folded. I forgot to pack lunch for the princess. I registered late for the next school year. I can't wait for it to be beer o'clock.

How can we support each other if we all pretend we don't have any issues? For every single person whose opinion of you might slip, there are four more heaving a sigh of relief. Perfection is a lonely way to live.

Erin M. said...


Praise God for his freedom from perfection!

Thanks for the amazing words that have come from God's spirit through you Kim. Thanks for continuing to put yourself 'out there' so we can all learn and grow with you!

Allison said...

We should start "A Perfect Mess" Club;) Thank you for your transparency. Your courage to dig deep and share. Our mess is what shows us our deep need for Christ and Who He is.

I missed out on the posts that were removed and such. But, I want you to know that the Lord is blessing so many people because of your courage to share your "perfect mess."


Emily Ferris said...

I so needed to hear this! Thank you, Kim!

Christine said...

I don't think I've ever commented before, but I have followed your blog from the beginning. My son was born 2 days before Katherine's accident and my parent's live in Montgomery. I LOVE your posts, they are completely from the heart and this post made me cry. It is the #1 thing I struggle with (the allusion of a perfect lift) and also comparing myself with what perfect"I think" lives my friends seem to have. I think, why can't I run marathon after marathon, have dinner on the table every night for my husband and kids, take a bi-annual trip to Disney, rent a beach house in Seaside and weigh 100 lbs, all the while keeping my house spotless with two perfectly behaved boys, oh and I forgot to mention that lots of my friends are starting to get boob jobs and tummy tucks so that's another thing to add to the plate. Ha! I often tell my husband that I would love to live back in the 50's and 60's when life seemed so simple. I look at my grandmother who led such a simple life, but was so full of joy. I could go on and on, but I just loved this post! Thank you !

Anonymous said...

Thank you for making me feel better today.

allison guyer said...

Such a wonderful post Kim. I made my fiance listen to me as I read it all to him again. I have tried for perfection all my life, and when I have not succeeded (every day), I have let my anxiety grow. And like Amy said, I feel like such a hypocrite...and thus the vicious cycle continues in which we are unable to find total freedom in Christ. I am so thankful for the dawn because it brings a new day and a new opportunity to get it right. Thank you for this post!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kim! I needed this post this morning. You also brought back a sweet memory of my Daddy, he used to call me "a mess and a half" which was a way of saying he loved me. I can still see that sneaky little smile on his face. Blessings dear friend. Carol Meredith

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. As you know, this subject is near and dear to my heart!! :) God has been showing me that it's as we admit our need before Him, that we can truly receive His grace, and worship (as the prostitute was able to freely and fully worship Jesus with her tears, as opposed to the pharisee who was into pretending). Then, as we realize we are all such a mess, and Jesus loves us anyway (!) we can extend this marvelous grace that we've received to others. The cross is wonderfully leveling.

I love the verse where Paul says, "By the grace of God, I am what I am." Amen!!

I appreciate you and your ministry. Blessings, Jeri

BellaLinda said...

You have a precious, sweet soul/spirit. God bless you(and HE will)!

P.S. I like the idea of the Perfect Mess Club.

Christine said...

I have been thinking about this post a lot. It was just so moving to me. I always dreamed of marriage and being a mother and I never could have understood what a dark time this could be for me. I feel like striving for perfection has robbed me of so many joyful occasions with my precious children. I was recently given the book, Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. We are in the process of moving and I had misplaced my book and I found it tonight and was reading today's post. I went back a couple of days and if you have this book, please go back and read the page for June 5th. I don't know when you starting writing this, but journal entry always seems to coincide with what I am struggling with. How ironic?? I will go ahead and type out the post just in case one of your readers doesn't have this book.
June 5th says,
Remember that you live in a fallen world: an abnormal world tainted by sin. Much frustration and failure result from your seeking PERFECTION in this life. There is nothing PERFECT in this world except ME. That is why closeness to ME satisfies deep yearnings and fills you with Joy.
I have planted longing for PERFECTION in every human heart. This is a good desire, which I alone can fulfill. But most people seek this fulfillment in other people and EARTHLY PLEASURES or ACHIEVEMENTS. Thus they create idols, before which they bow down. I will have no other gods before Me! Make Me the deepest desire for your heart. Let ME fulfill your yearning for PERFECTION.
Exodus 20:3; Psalm 37:4

Catie said...

You are amazing! Thank you for your honesty & transparency. I love your comparison to southern ways and traditions...they are always so spot on! Thank you for your ministry and inspiration.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your transparency and honest post !!!I to have fallen into this as I know so many who have,by God's amazing grace ( and some age on me) all this is so anxiety producing. I am a mom of six , from 30 to 13, and now a grandmama to two. The pressure is still there now being a great grandparent and I continually have to go to the Lord for help in not "caving " to my old ways. As the old song goes "He is sltill working on me " :) thanks for sharing Kim !!You are a blessing in my life ♥ Katie

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your transparency and honest post !!!I to have fallen into this as I know so many who have,by God's amazing grace ( and some age on me) all this is so anxiety producing. I am a mom of six , from 30 to 13, and now a grandmama to two. The pressure is still there to be the perfect grandparent and I continually have to go to the Lord for help in not "caving " to my old ways. As the old song goes "He is sltill working on me " :) thanks for sharing Kim !!You are a blessing in my life ♥ Katie