“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.”
“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:
IF YOU ARE WAITING UNTIL YOU FINISH PERFECTING YOURSELF BEFORE YOU LET THE LORD USE YOU, YOU MIGHT BE LANGUISHING IN THE WAITING ROOM UNTIL YOU DIE.
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)