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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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5 Truths for When Hearing No is Hard

For some of us, saying no is worse than 1,000 mosquito bites and a week of sleepless nights. I mean, saying no hurts!  We relational types hate to let others down. We hate to disappoint.

For others, it’s not saying no that’s so terrible-  it’s  hearing and taking no that hurts worse. Being rejected rates right up there with jumping in Lake Michigan in January and getting stung by angry bees in August. That bad.

This post is for those of us who are more undone when we hear no. No, your son can’t take that class- your dog is not allowed in here -you can’t take off Friday – I can’t watch your kids. No, we can’t make it.

No. Sorry. No. 

So Sorry

The first text read, Late meeting. So sorry I’ll have to miss tonight.

Then, I forgot it’s my son’s half-birthday. Sorry I’ll miss. 

And, Abigail, so sorry I can’t make it. It’s our anniversary.

That- more or less- is how the texts came in.

Grace had stretched me far but now it felt personal. Resentment was starting to grow. 

Because it’s hard to take no.

When We Are Rejected

So here we were. We three, then four, out of the dozen who’d been part of our little summer Psalms study.  Then two more texts.

Ab! Locked myself out of the car. Sorry to miss.  

And, Feeling drained. Think I’d better stay home. 

That was when that toxic cocktail of emotions started stirring again. The one that comes after the first twinge of rejection, the  resentment/self-pity mix. The Enemy tempts me with it when I feel like my efforts don’t matter or my labor is wasted.

Or, honestly, when my requests are denied and my invitations are rejected.  Simply put, when I’m told no. It’s ugly, I know.

But Christ Jesus died for this.

And he died for us, that we might die to sin. So we’ve got to preach to ourselves and stop emotions from driving the train. We’ve got to take ourselves in hand and get perspective.

Here are 5 ways I’ve been learning- learning- to take rejection and hear no with grace.

1. Remember Who else was rejected.

This gives me perspective: God Almighty was rejected- God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.

Remember that parable of the guy who threw the big party and invited many guests? At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’  

Remember the excuses? They’re in Luke 14.

18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’

19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’

20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’

Talk about rejection! Those texts messages are miniscule, not worth comparing- even after I reserved the room and sent the invites and spent a couple hours prepping the study guide. Small potatoes. Teeny-tiny, speck of dust potatoes are my little rejections compared with that rejection.

Those texts were just polite little no’s to a Wednesday night Bible study. The host of the real party is God the Father. (Also Matthew 22)

In Isaiah 53:3 the Son of God, the Suffering Servant, is described as despised and rejected. When He came to his own, his own received him not. He said, The Son of Man must suffer and be rejected.

The rejection theme extends to the third person of the Holy Trinity, too. When we reject what the Holy Spirit shows us, Scripture tells us that He is grieved.

2. Look past the NO to God’s ruling hand.

This one is big. It’s the perspective I want to have whenever I hear no.  And not just in retrospect, but line by line as the texts roll in. When people upset my plans, I want to be like a woman I read about named Janet.

Someone who knew her said,

She delighted in seeing her plan upset by unexpected events, saying that it gave her great comfort, and that she looked on such things as an assurance that God was watching over her stewardship, was securing the accomplishment of His will, and working out His own designs. Whether she traced the secondary causes to the prayer of a child, to the imperfection of an individual, to obstacles arising from misunderstandings, or to interference of outside agencies, she was joyfully and graciously ready to recognize the indication of God’s ruling hand, and to allow herself to be guided by it. (From The Life and Letters of Janet Erskine Stuart, quoted In Keep a Quiet Heart, by Elisabeth Elliot)

When people say no and reject our requests, this too reveals God’s ruling hand. The half-birthday and the locked car and all of those texts were God’s ruling hand.

They upset my plan, but worked his all-things-work together-for-good better plan.

3. Do unto others, when they say no unto you.

When we are told no, the Golden Rule still applies: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

When we have to say no, like I had to say no to my sister this afternoon, about watching my nieces and nephew tomorrow, I felt bad. I don’t like to disappoint. But Danielle understood. In fact, she sounded a lot like Janet.

Oh well, she said, I was on the fence about going to the party, anyway. 

She took my no with grace and made it easy to say no.

I need to do the same. I need to do unto others when they say no to me. Odds are they like saying no about as much as I like hearing no.

4. Be disillusioned, in a good way.

I know that sounds strange. Because disillusionment isn’t usually good. It’s the feeling of disappointment we get when we find out that something isn’t as good as we believed it to be. But we can be disillusioned with people in a healthy way.

Jesus shows us what that looks like in John 2, where it says that he did not commit himself to them…for He knew what was in man. 

In “The Discipline of Disillusionment,” Oswald Chambers explains,

The disillusionment which comes from God brings us to the place where we see men and women as they really are…The refusal to be disillusioned is the cause of much of the suffering in human life. It works in this way — if we love a human being and do not love God, we demand of him every perfection and every rectitude, and when we do not get it we become cruel and vindictive; we are demanding of a human being that which he or she cannot give. There is only one Being Who can satisfy the last aching abyss of the human heart, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ.

When we allow ourselves to get disillusioned, we won’t demand every perfection or resent every rejection. We’ll be quick to remember others are frail and finite, with limited time and energy, too.

Being disillusioned is another of saying we don’t resent those who refuse or reject us. We take it with grace because we know that we all stumble in many ways. We don’t demand of others what they cannot give and we sit loose to our plans.

Good disillusionment means we aren’t devastated when our peeps say no. 

5. Keep sowing.

This last “tip” for taking no has been immensely helpful to me, especially when it comes to the rejection and no’s that come with Kingdom work.

In Ecclesiastes 11:5-6 the Teacher says,

Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle; for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.

This passage, I’m coming to see, is about holy boldness when we, to use Jesus’ own words, sow the seed of the Word.  Not everyone- maybe hardly anyone- will accept my invitations to a Bible study or Vacation Bible School or dinner or a walk. 

But we need to keep sowing and asking and inviting. Because we do not know what seeds will grow. But we will not reap if we do not sow.

Put something out there that God can bless.

We can be too cautious. We don’t want to be the farmer who watches and waits for perfect conditions and never plants or reaps. There’s always a chance that the seed will stay dry or blow away when you plant. Or that a storm will knock it all down the day before harvest. You never know.

But Ecclesiastes 11 is a warning to us, when we hear no and only a few people show and the ministry seems a bust.  It’s a warning to not stop sowing.

Phil Ryken explains:

Whenever we engage in kingdom enterprises we offer to the Holy Spirit something he can use to save peoples’ livesSome of us are so risk averse that we keep waiting to invest. That’s the picture we get in verses 3 and 4. The Preacher is asking us to invest in the Kingdom. If we want the blessing of it, we’ve got to exercise our faith and put something out that God can bless in return.

Don’t wait for the perfect circumstances. Don’t hold back in fear. Step out in faith. Not faith in your own efforts but faith that God can do it. But faith that God will take whatever you do and use it somehow for his glory. When it comes to kingdom work we should be venture capitalists willing to risk for the kingdom.

God is God and we are not. We don’t know God’s ways. We don’t know if our efforts will take and seeds of the Word will grow.  But, we do know that we will not reap if we do not sow.

Get out of the closet of the manageable.

Some of us fear rejection and hearing no so much says Sean Michael Lucas, that,

We cover ourselves up and lock ourselves into the closet of the manageable…The things we can manage are in that closet. We believe that’s the only way we can protect ourselves.

And it just so happens that the Psalm our little remnant studied Wednesday night was Psalm 121, the one that starts with, I lift up my eyes unto the hills. Where does my help come from?  

The Psalm ends with an immense, security-building promise for God’s children. Not only is He present and powerful, God promises to guard and watch over you. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore (Psalm 121:8).

Keep on risking to the glory of God.

And, says Sean Michael Lucas, this means something powerful. It means that,

You can risk yourself to the glory of God. You can live dangerously for God, because God will watch over your life.  He will watch over your very soul. He will protect you and guide you and bless you and guard you all your days.

God promises to care for us and to guard our very souls from this time forth and forevermore. This means we’re free to request and invite and love others in risky ways, because the LORD will keep us.

So we give him something to work with and trust Him to get it done.

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

Galatians 6:9

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