The definition of Perfectionism: “A disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable; especially the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.”
Hi, my name is Lisa and I’m a recovering perfectionist. I know some people wear that label like a badge of honor, but I don’t. Perfectionism is an ailment; the enemy of the good; an evil taskmaster that keeps us stiff and always feeling not quite good enough. Individual perfectionism is not of God. I agree with Anne Lamott who says “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life. Perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
We live in a culture that idolizes success, holds up the “winners” in life and scorns the “losers.” We have become skillful self-promoters dangerously adept at selling ourselves, even to the point of deceiving ourselves sometimes. We define ourselves by our accomplishments; our ability to deliver, our perfect performance. We have bought into the myth, sometimes unconsciously, that “success saves.”
One of my favorite books of all time is Maria Boulding’s Gateway to Hope: An Exploration of Failure. In it, she extols the odd, counter-cultural truth that God doesn’t love us despite of our faults and failures, but rather in and through them we are being emptied, being broke open and brought into deeper intimacy with God and one another. God works in and through our failure to bring about the kingdom! Our faults force us to shed our self-sufficiency and masks of perfection and accept redemption, knowing that we have not earned it by our accomplishments. Our weakness cultivates a deeper vulnerability, compassion and acceptance towards others – the very hallmarks of a follower of Jesus. In the spiritual life, our failures are often much more valuable than our successes. Consider Jesus. He was most successful at the very moment that he experienced his deepest failure and suffering. This is the paradox that we Christians know in our bones. It is the very mystery of God that we are invited to live out…
There is something very sacred to be found in our brokenness. Accomplishments, failures, successes, embarrassments – no matter; we are but instruments.
But then what does Jesus mean when he says “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:43-48)? Dr. Brene Brown says “Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.” Alone, we are not the Messiah, we are not perfect, we – as individuals – are not the whole enchilada, so to speak. But, we are also not powerless or expendable. Each of us – warts and all – are unique and important pieces of God’s puzzle; an irreplaceable part of the body of Christ, equipped and called to make a special contribution to the on-going revelation and redeeming action of Christ in our world. Odd though it may be, we are the vehicle of choice for God’s grace.
We are “made perfect” by loving and accepting our limited, human, selves and others in their imperfection and in doing so we are bringing about God’s kingdom. God’s perfection is found in US not ME. As Martin Buber wrote: “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”
In context, when Jesus instructs us to “be perfect” he means “love as God loves: without partiality.” Jesus said “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Jesus is clarifying, despite popular opinion, that the intent of this commandment is that we make the decision to love everyone – even our worst enemies. If we love those who love us, big deal? Who doesn’t? We are to love as God loves, without partiality. God takes care of (“makes the sun shine on the wicked as well as the good”) and shows mercy to all. We are to be perfect, as our God is perfect, in the way in which we embody – together – this indiscriminate, caring, nonjudgmental, lavish, undeserved, unearned love. This is the stuff of God.
Jesus said: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jn 13:35). The apostles back this up too in Rom 13:8, Gal 5:14, Jam 2:8-9, and the list could go on…This is all to show that in scripture – perfection, completeness, spiritual maturity, fulfilling the Law, and loving others are all synonymous AND are most definitely a team sport. WE are the body of Christ.
So maybe at the top of our New Year’s Resolutions this year we can put “accept and recognize mine and others’ imperfections as part of God’s design” for as St. Paul famously says, “God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)