I rarely write sequels to these columns, but last week I wrote about the trouble with perfectionism, and I can’t quit thinking about it. The best way to unburden myself of such thoughts is to burden you with them, so brace yourself for Round 2.
A friend and pastoral colleague reading my column remarked that over the years he has worked with many people beset by this kind of perfectionism and has discovered both it and its attendant shame at the bottom of their alcoholism. Evidently, serious perfectionists don’t just drive others to excessive drink.
Genuine perfectionists try to trade places with God (and such gods are hard to live with). Some even try to back up their idolatry with Scripture, such as Matthew 5:48—“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Here Jesus is indeed calling us to a high standard, specifically telling us to strive for God’s “perfection” (the word means “completeness,” “wholeness,”) in loving even our enemies. Luke, in his parallel passage (6:36) writes, “Be merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful.” Complete love and mercy constitute a tall order, but God wants his children to grow up to look like him.
But do I need to tell you that we’ll never reach that “completeness” here, and that the power to get it done is God’s? This is not a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” sort of thing. If it were, Jesus might as reasonably have said, “Be ye spotted toads,” and expected us to reach that goal; instead Christ urges us to trust our Father and his power to mold us.
Some perfectionists point to the Apostle Paul’s admonition to Christian slaves: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23). It surely is no stretch to hear the apostle urging, “Do a good job in your work, and thus honor the Lord.” The problem, again, is that as we work as “for the Lord,” we must not confuse ourselves with God and become control freaks seeking to sanctify our disease with Scripture.
The difference between productive, godly contentment and idolatrous perfectionism is vast. The former does not produce stagnation, it produces beautiful fruit, while the latter leads to fear, paralysis, and despair. It’s the difference between working joyfully for the Father, secure in his love, as opposed to working your fingers to the bone as a parley for paltry pseudo-love. It’s the difference between living a balanced life honoring the Lord, and a slavish life in which you live to work and forget to really live, to go home, or to look upward. It’s the difference between inner peace and slavery, between grace and law. It’s the difference between the truth that we are of immense value because we are created by God, versus the lie that we are just the sum total of what we produce.
Ironically, those who bow before the Lord and lead grace-filled, balanced lives end up being far more fruitful and productive than those who bow before the idol of their own perfectionism. At heart, we are self-made or God-made. We really must choose.
Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org