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Be Freed From Perfectionism

Sign with perfectionism crossed off.

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” 

G.K. Chesterton

Perfectionism Paralysis

Perfectionism paralyzes. For perfectionists, the perfect is the enemy of the good. According to productivity gurus, it’s also the enemy of the done

Because perfectionism is crippling. When the project looked great on Pinterest, but then the drive to make it match the pin made you freeze? Like when I a blog post and feel so overwhelmed by the thought of knocking it out of the park that I grab a bowl of popcorn and pour a cup of tea and dust those cobwebs in the corner and grab another snack and… well- the post never gets started, much less done.

We’ve all been there. In fact, I just left my last stop there about an hour ago. Now I’m soaking in the wisdom of just doing something. Namely, of imperfectly writing this.

Because when it comes right down to it, I agree with G.K. Chesterton that, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” And, honestly, as D.L. Moody once told a critic, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.” 

Or as I often remark, “Something is better than nothing.”

Perfectionism Stifles Growth

But we’d best define terms. I’ll borrow Jon Bloom’s definitions of both perfectionism and excellence. They’re not the same.

What we call perfectionism is not the same as the pursuit of excellence, though sometimes the lines can blur. When we pursue excellence, we’re determined to do something as well as possible within a given set of talent, resource, and time limits. But perfectionism is a pride- or fear-based compulsion that either fuels our obsessive fixation on doing something perfectly or paralyzes us from acting at all — both of which often result in the harmful neglect of other necessary or good things.

His clarification is important. Children of the King are called to excellence, to working “wholeheartedly, as unto the Lord” (Col. 3:23). The focus is God. But that is entirely different from a self-focused orientation that insists on flawless, likely motivated by fear or pride to win others’ approval.

In one area or another we all have an inner drive to excel. Whether running a faster mile, proofreading before sending, or becoming a better listener- we strive to do well.

Making good resolves is a healthy way to grow.

Perfectionism Or Healthy Striving? 

But perfectionism is not a healthy pursuit of excellence. Those who strive for excellence- and, dare I say for *perfection?– in a healthy way take genuine pleasure in trying to meet high standards.

I do this when I strive to make a batch of chewy chocolate chip cookies or teach a lesson that drives a point home or write in a compelling way that makes you want to read it. I enjoy this sort of striving. But perfectionism does not promote joy. Instead, it leads to discouragement, self-pity, and fear.

Though not overtly “Christian,” this article is insightful on the distinctions between paralyzing perfectionism and healthy striving. 

Perfectionism

  • Never being satisfied by anything less than perfection
  • Becoming depressed when faced with failure or disappointment
  • Being preoccupied with fears of failure and disapproval
  • Seeing mistakes as evidence of unworthiness
  • Becoming overly defensive when criticized

Healthy Striving

  • Enjoying process as well as outcome
  • Bouncing back quickly from failure or disappointment
  • Keeping normal anxiety and fear of failure within bounds
  • Seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
  • Reacting positively to helpful criticism

Do you see the difference? Are you more of a perfectionist or a healthy striver? Your focus probably determines your answer.

Focusing on Christ leads to freedom. Fixation on self enslaves. 

Be Freed From Perfectionism

I struggle to rest in God’s grace when I am so aware of my failure, a friend confided. I can relate. I suspect every Christian who struggles with perfectionism can.

Can you rest in the grace of God when you miss the mark? In other words, can you know God’s love when your life is an imperfect mess? 

The answer is a resounding YES!  But only if our focus is right. Jon Bloom again, 

God has something far better for us to strive toward than our idealized imaginations of perfection, which only end up enslaving us.

Perfectionism’s subtle, but great danger is its self-orientation. Since it is a fear- or pride-fueled effort to win approval for the self, its primary focus is de facto on self, not God or others. In other words, perfectionism, even in the battle against sin, is not motivated by love or faith. And “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom.14:23).

But God wants us to be free — free from the tyranny of pride and fear. He wants us to live in the freedom of knowing that he has our past, present, and future perfection issues completely covered.

Do you want to be freed from perfectionism?

Look For Growth

In our ongoing battles with failure and sin, we must know that God is not looking for perfect, externally performed behavior. He is looking for us to look to Him. He is looking for faith that works through love (Gal. 5:6) and for us to trust in his love (Psalm 147:11).

God is not concerned with our never falling, but at our getting up again (Prov. 24:16a). Our heavenly Father wants to see us grow (2 Peter 3:18, Ephesians 4:15, 1 Timothy 4:15).

Remember, growth implies we haven’t arrived. If we were already perfect, there wouldn’t be room for growth. But God’s call for us to grow also means we shouldn’t be not stagnant and stuck. Or paralyzed by perfectionism.

Because when God commands a thing, he also enables it. The God who calls us to grow, gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). And that God calls us to grow also means he knows that there’s room for growth. He knows. 

Can you rest there? 

There’s Grace For That

A friend and I tag that on a lot when we talk, and confess our sins to each other. “There’s grace for that,” we say. For my being late, again; for her overeating, again; for my hasty words that cut, again. 

That’s why He died. That is the gospel, my friends. If we were already perfect, Christ wouldn’t have died for us. He loved us and gave himself for us when we were dead in our sins. Perfectly dead.

That truth knocks the perfectionist breath right out of me. 

Because Scripture is clear: “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions— it is by grace you have been saved (Eph. 2:4-5).  This is true.

This truth has power to demolish the lie that you can only please God and know his love if you are perfect. It is both humbling and exalting.

Because, as Timothy Keller so poignantly put it, 

We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope. 

Maybe we recovering perfectionists ought to write that out and tape it to our bathroom mirrors. Then maybe we should to take a tour through the “Faith Hall of Fame” in Hebrews 11.

Commended for Faith, not Perfection

I did that with my Sunday school class yesterday. And it was so refreshing to see the very imperfect saints on the walls in there.

There’s Rahab the prostitute and Samson the proud who loved a prostitute, Jephthah the reckless and Abraham the liar, there’s Noah the drunk, David the adulterer, and Moses the murderer– just to name a few.

And all these, though commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised (Hebrews 11:39). Do you see? These were not commended for being perfect. They were commended for their faith.

But perfection will come. In fact, the very next verse tells us when perfection will come. It will for the ancient saints when it comes for us (Heb. 11:40). We will be made perfect together in glory, when we see see Jesus face to face.

Until then, we press on in faith and love. But we do so with our gaze on the God who loves us so and has already made us his own.

And with Him in focus, and his grace, we can be freed from perfectionism.

Not that I’ve already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

Philippians 3:12

*P.S.- I know it. I didn’t deal with the command to “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). But stay tuned. I will.

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A Clarifying Question for People-Pleasers: Who Are You Willing To Disappoint?

There are two kinds of people. Those who struggle to take no and those struggle to say no.

This post is for the second kind, for those who have a hard time saying no, the self-described “people-pleasers.”

Because, believe it or not, I’m a recovering praise-seeking, people-pleaser too.  And these days when I come to a crossroads and don’t know if I should say yes or no, I remember the Molly the dog story.

It started with a call from my friend Kelly on a sunny June morning. 

The moral of the Molly the dog story.

Hey Ab. Would you possibly be willing to watch Molly for us next weekend? We’re going up north and I know Molly had fun with you last time.

That was true. Molly had had fun. We weren’t an indoor pet family, but our big fenced-in yard and wrap-around deck made it easy to host Molly for long weekends. 

But next weekend was different. We were hosting the birthday bash for our clan’s June birthdays. These June parties were outdoor deck parties and aunts and uncles and a teetering great-grandma and toddling little cousins were coming. 

Here’s the rub: Molly was a big lively lab with a tail wag that could bowl a toddler over. With four toddlers in the invite list and two elders who disliked dogs, we’d need to crate Molly for most of Saturday. Molly didn’t much like to be crated. We’d sampled her pitiful, crated yowls last time.

But the party was only one day. And maybe we could keep the kids inside, away from Molly. 

Kelly, I want to help, but we’re having this birthday party. Can I get back to you? 

You have to disappoint someone.

I was torn. I didn’t want to disappoint my friend. But I also didn’t want to deal with Molly the dog while hosting the party. Jim didn’t mind, either way. So I tossed it around all day and I was undecided- and anguishing- that evening when my parents stopped by. 

I wasted no time. Could I ask your advice? 

It’s what Dad said, after the Molly story unfolded, that’s stuck.

Abigail, Dad said, You can’t love everyone. You’re human. You have to disappoint someone. When you say yes to one thing, it means you say no to other things and that’s okay.  As long as you’re motivated by love- throwing a peaceful party on your deck without distraction by a dog- you’re doing well. 

Being human, we can’t love everyone. Only God can do that. We can only give and love and stretch so far. And really, isn’t that freeing?

It means that we don’t have to feel guilty when we say no. In a sense, saying no is a form of humility. It means we’re accepting our limits. It’s acknowledging our finite-ness and creature-ness.

When Mom and Dad left, I called Kelly, Please ask us again. We like Molly. But for this weekend we’d better say no. 

How do you know when to say no?

Pleasing people can be a good thing. Giving joy to others is a great gift. Loving and serving and caring for others are God-ordained. But, as Tim Keller says, when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing, it’s become an idol.

And too many of us, and I include myself, have made an idol out of man’s approval and praise. 

So, how do we know when to say yes to people? Why do we spend our time doing what we do? Are you confident that you’re saying yes and no to the right things, to the right people? 

If we’re honest, we’d probably admit that many of our decisions are based on what we think others will think of us if we do or don’t do something.

For better or worse, how other people perceive us- or how we think they’ll perceive us– has a huge influence on whether we say yes or no.

The Critical Question: Who are you willing to disappoint?

In his insightful article, “You Have to Disappoint Someone: How to Say No to Good Things,” John Bloom writes,

Coming to terms with ways we seek people’s approval or fear their disapproval will force us to face humbling truths about ourselves and may require repentance and uncomfortable change.

Bloom describes a conference he attended where Christian leaders were asked how they remained focused on their core calling while inundated with demands. In response, one of the speakers posed another question: “Who are you willing to disappoint?”

That sounds a lot like my dad’s advice: You have to disappoint someone.  I disappointed Kelly. (And, for the record, we’re still friends a decade later.)

Bloom continues,

That might seem like an unloving way to decide what we should or shouldn’t do. But it really isn’t. It’s actually a clarifying question. It isn’t asking us who are the people we will choose not to love. It’s asking us what we are really pursuing in our time commitments. Whose approval are we seeking? God’s? Other people’s? Of those, which one more?

We should ask the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and try our thoughts (Psalm 139:23). We should ask ourselves the hard question: who are we willing to disappoint? Or who are we unwilling to disappoint? Are we unwilling to disappoint God? Or are we unwilling to disappoint others? Are we unwilling to disappoint our own selfish preferences? 

Who are you willing to disappoint?

Mary knew who to disappoint.

Let’s close with a fresh look at Mary and Martha through this new lens (Luke 10:38–42).

Martha, you recall, was “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40) and “anxious and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41).

Bloom writes,

I imagine nearly everyone in her home that day thought she was doing a good thing. Martha herself thought this, which is why she requested Jesus’s support in exhorting Mary to get busy helping. She didn’t seem to be aware of her own motivations. But Jesus was. He saw the deeper motivations in both Martha and Mary.

Martha’s time commitment was being motivated by anxiety, not love. Given the context, it’s reasonable to assume her anxiety stemmed from what all her houseguests would think of her if she stopped waiting on them and did what Mary was doing.

On the surface, Mary’s actions might seem selfish and inconsiderate. Since Mary lived with Martha, she must have known how much Martha wanted her help. Yet, there she was, sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to him speak.

Guess what? Mary knew who to disappoint. She was more willing to disappoint Martha than *to disappoint Jesus.

And remember what Jesus said about Mary?

…Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

Luke 10:42

 

*More on disappointing God and grieving the Holy Spirit in the next JoyPro Post, “Grieve is a Love Word.”