I approached the seminary season with great hopes of having all of my questions answered. I ask a lot of questions…so much so that my husband calls me “The Riddler.” Much to my surprise, my questions would birth new questions, deeper questions…questions that have left me feeling as if the very foundation I am standing on is weak. Instead of the newfound confidence I craved, both for myself and for my ministry to others, I have been left with newfound insecurities. I feel like my marriage to Jesus has somehow reverted back to the awkward dating phase, “So…Jesus, tell me about your family. Your favorite color. How you grew up…” It is a bit frightening and I am left vulnerable; vulnerable to answers that I don’t expect, vulnerable to being wrong about something I was so confident in before…vulnerable.
Yet, how would Jesus define my foundation? Would he define it was “thinking rightly” about him? In the same way, how does my husband define the foundation of our marriage? Is it defined as knowing everything about him? Is there room to “rethink” things I thought I knew about him that end up being wrong?
In Matthew 7, Jesus speaks about our foundation, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like the foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
The variable in this story is the one who either does or does not do the words that he/she hears. Each one hears, yet the emphasis is not on “hearing rightly,” the emphasis is on the doing. I would argue that right hearing leads to right action, and is very important. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t subject myself to a grueling 3 year intensive study of the Scriptures. However, for the sake of today, Jesus equates the one possesses a strong foundation with the one that does the things that he/she hears.
If I equate my foundation with “right thinking,” I am certainly on shaky ground. This perceived vulnerability has led to a wall in my relationship with Jesus – “If I can’t be sure about you, Jesus, then why should I come to you at all? Why should I trust you, if I don’t even know if I’m trusting who you really are?” The one person I can rely on and put full trust in has made me with limitations in my knowledge. As a result, certain parts of him are veiled, beyond my reach. He has chosen to reveal himself in time to humans made from the dust, rather than in one moment of full clarity.
The reality is, my foundation in marriage and in relationship to Jesus is seen most clearly in covenant actions – first and foremost, actions or vows made on my behalf. The very foundation of Christianity is on the actions of God in history. Jesus not only “thought rightly” about me, but he chose certain actions: humbling himself and taking on the form of human flesh, resisting temptations and dying on my behalf. He certainly thought well, yet earned his “well done, good and faithful servant…not, “good argument” or “good analytics!,” but “well done” on the basis of his actions. Because he obeyed the greatest commandment to love God and love neighbor, he stood strong against the most destructive of storms: betrayal, shame and even death itself.
With Jesus as both my foundation and example of true humanity, I build on the foundation of love with which he loved me. Even in my wrong thinking, he loves me, and beckons me come. And because he loves me, I know love and am free to love. He is more concerned about my building on his unshakeable foundation of love – trusting him in the things I do see of him and loving my neighbor in the ways I ought – than my abstaining from love because I don’t fully know and can’t fully see. He waits for me to come, to hear, and to respond.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor” – Anne Lamott
If you missed my first post on perfectionism, read it here.
Ok, you’re convinced you struggle with perfectionism. Some in lesser degrees, some in more life-defining ways. Now what?
First, let’s start with some common strategies that reflect the wisdom of the world. What are the counselors of the world saying about overcoming perfectionism? How can you spot these strategies in your own approach to combatting the problem?
Here are a few I’ve come across:
1. Ideals are not something to be achieved, they are meant to point you in the right direction. In other words, lower your expectations of yourself.
2. Respect and love yourself. You are not perfect, but you are valuable and worthy of love.
3. Stop worrying about things that are not under your control such as the future or others’ perceptions of you. You cannot do anything to change them, so let them go.
Although these strategies have good intentions, the Gospel offers something so much richer than letting go of ideals, loving yourself in the midst of failure and simply “letting go” of things that are out of our control.
Here are some truths of the Gospel from Mike Emlet that speak to the heart of the perfectionist:
You are united to the PERFECT ONE.
Romans 6:1 – 7:6 outlines various truths re: our union with Christ. We are united in both his death and resurrection. We have died to sin and raised to newness of life. Because we are “in Christ,” we hear God’s loving voice “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) Hear His voice, brother or sister! He has freed us, He has broken any condemnation that lies within the voice of the oppressor. So go and live in confidence! We are freed from our slavery to standards because there is one that has met all the standards worth meeting. His record is ours. The question is not “how do I make my standards more realistic,” it is “how do I cultivate a deeper appreciation for God’s love shown in Christ?” The focus turns outward, off of ourselves and our performance and onto the One that did what we could never do!
This is by far the easiest thing to tell a perfectionist, right? Embrace your weakness! But when the Gospel has sunk in, this is the appropriate attitude to embrace.
Reactively: What do you do when you fail? We are called to run to Jesus. His sacrifice is once and for all. Embrace it and repent with the strength He provides.
1. Cultivate a daily dependence on God. What does your prayer life look like?
2. Practice vulnerability in your relationships. Failure is exposed and brought into the light.
3. Make faithfulness, not perfection your aim. This one was SO liberating to me. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the Parable of the Talents. The master gives his servants each a different number of talents “to each according to his ability.” He rewards both the servants that took their talents and made more talents with it, but rebukes the servant that hasn’t invested what he’s been given. How are you being faithful with what you have been given? Do you compare yourself with others, or are you more concerned about being faithful with the time, physical and mental abilities, emotional capacity, etc. that you have been given? And remember, even when we are faithless, we have a faithful Savior.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” 2 Corinthians 4:7
Tears streamed out of my eyes as this reality bounced off the walls of my heart and home. Like any good physician of the soul, she brought the Truth to my situation like it was tailor made for it. God’s word never returns void, it accomplishes what He sets out for it to accomplish. And her words would plant a seed of hope: hope that began its journey by exposing my perfectionistic tendencies that united me to shame.
The “Successful” Perfectionist
I have struggled with a desire to be perfect since birth. My mom says that I wouldn’t even try to walk until I knew I wouldn’t fall. This pattern has echoed throughout my life in meaningful ways. In 4th grade, I told my teacher that ‘B’ stood for bad. In high school, I cried uncontrollably after the state cross country meet and state soccer game because I didn’t live up to my own expectations. I punished myself when I didn’t do well in athletic practice by running more hills, more laps. More recently, I have found myself secretly fearing that I am not measuring up as a Christian woman or wife. I’m not great at cooking, I don’t yet have 5 children (much less, 1) and I have an unshakable desire to spend my time both in and outside of the home. Those of you that struggle in this same area don’t even have to call to memory your moments or nagging thoughts of perceived failure. You know them, you live in the shadow of the sense of rejection, failure or inadequacy they produced. And chances are, as the instances multiplied, so did the overwhelming sense of shame.
This weekend, I attended the CCEF Conference on Guilt & Shame. One of my favorite sessions was Mike Emlet’s discussion of perfectionism, a topic I have never heard formally addressed. All of the thoughts from this point forward reflect his musings on the subject and how to fight it.
Less “Common” Forms of Perfectionism
Most people that struggle with perfectionism know it; however, there are less common forms of “perfectionism” that reflect the same sinful attitude:
The Procrastinator: You procrastinate because your standards are so high that they’re essentially self-defeating from the beginning.
The Controller: You are hard on yourself and others. Typically, if you are hard on yourself, this attitude easily transfers to thinking about those around you.
The Pleaser: You live (and die) by the standards of others.
The Tortured Decision Maker: You find it hard to make decisions and you have a general aversion to commitment.
Although most of us can identify with one (or in my case, all) of these struggles, insight at the level of the heart will free us to see what is really going on and serve as a starting place to fight.
1. Misplaced Security
“Ultimately, perfectionism is about wanting to find in yourself what you can only find in another” – Mike Emlet
Are your standards rooted in God’s law, or are they formed on the basis of your own expectations (or the expectations of others)? Even if they are rooted in God’s law, your response to failure says everything. If they are based on your own expectations (or the expectations of others) both the standard itself and response are faulty. Our security is rooted in our position, not performance…or standing, not standards. Sin means relationship breaking more than rule breaking.
2. Mistaken Timing
Perfectionism robs you of the present, as you dwell on past failure or fear of future failure. We live in the “already, but not yet” and we will not break free of our failures and weaknesses this side of heaven. Perfectionism demands that our future hope be fulfilled in the here and now.
3. Malformed View of God & Self
God is distant and wrathful; God requires us to earn His goodness. None of us would say this out loud, but as we live with a perfectionistic attitude, we act as if this is the character of God. At the same time, the perfectionist views him/herself as the ultimate judge and jury. There is a co-existence of pride (I hit the mark!) and shame (I am such a failure).
Start here. Pray for wisdom to see how a perfectionistic attitude has infected your daily interactions. Take heart.