Are you a perfectionist?

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How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?       Galatians 3:3 NLT

As a teacher, I always had those students who were self-acclaimed perfectionists and proud of it.  Usually girls. If they came to trust me as an older mentor, I would try to have at least one conversation about the burden and futility of striving for perfection.  The way I see it, striving for perfection is a self-chosen ball and chain.

I often think about perfection on Mondays when I clean house. Showers gross me out the most.  No matter how much I would like, there is absolutely no way on earth to keep a shower as pristine as it appears when new.

I’ve learned to accept this reality and relax.  In fact, I often think of my sin like that shower stall. No matter how much I scrub the shower or my soul, I can’t eliminate sin. Knowing this fact really helps.  My rule for cleaning is always, ‘good enough’. Striving for a higher standard would eat up time I’d rather spend reading.

What does the Bible say about perfection?  Isn’t there a verse that goes, ‘Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect’? Yes!  Matthew records Jesus in 5:48 exhorting his listeners to do that very thing.

It’s only when we look at the Greek meaning of our English word ‘perfect’, do we understand what God means. Here are two synonyms:  complete, mature.

In fact, other verses that use this word ‘teleios’ employ it to describe divine things such as:

  • ‘God’s perfect law’
  • ‘when the perfect comes’ (obliquely, referring to Jesus)
  • ‘perfect tabernacle’
  • ‘perfect gift’
  • ‘perfect love’

“Okay,” you say, “so most of the references are about God and his perfect creation and gifting.  But what are we to do about that pesky Matthew verse about being as perfect as God?” 

Look back up to what Paul told the Galatians.  He was chastising them for trying to make THEMSELVES perfect.  To the contrary, our transformation or ‘perfection’ in Christ will not come by our own effort, but through the Spirit working in us. 

Paul gives us an example or picture of the Spirit at work as he exhorts us to desire the fruits of the spirit that simply emerge as we stay connected to Jesus, our Vine.  Although we don’t see ‘perfection or completion’ among the nine qualities, I think they describe Jesus, who is perfect.

If you’re not yet convinced of the futility for striving for perfection in everyday life AND/OR in your Christian character, I’ll leave the last word to Oswald Chambers:

“The one marvelous secret of a holy life lies not in imitating Jesus, but in letting the perfections of Jesus manifest themselves in my mortal flesh. Sanctification is “Christ in you.”… Sanctification is not drawing from Jesus the power to be holy; it is drawing from Jesus the holiness that was manifested in Him, and He manifests it in me.”

Perfection and futility

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clay pot  “There I go again!”  as hammering self-condemnation reprised.  I had just done what I didn’t want to do, overeat.  Nothing really sinful in that per se, except that overeating is a gateway to my sin of self-centered, interior moping. More familiar than any other melody is my original adaptation of the human ‘Ode to my Pitiful Self’.

But thanks be to God and Bible-centered preaching and writing! Pastor and teacher John Piper rescues imperfect sheep prone to turn inward by proclaiming a recurring life-giving message of: “Don’t waste your disappointments, trials, suffering, failures,……”

God must have thought it was time to break my bent towards control and perfection with this sovereignly ordained ‘trip-up’.  So what galls me the most?  What sends me into despair each time I let myself down and overeat? Certainly not His condemnation, but MY disappointment with myself.

Here’s the rub:  Why am I even surprised that I can’t do what I want to do?

Like Paul, I wail: I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. Romans 7:15

“Stupid!,” this home-grown expectation or gateway toward self-chastisement. A recent podcast drove that home.  The speaker had been in therapy for a broken marriage and started to heal when she made the connection between her:

  1. Assumption that I CAN be perfect (do what I want to do)
  2. Anxiety over the burden of trying to be perfect
  3. Bondage to control in order to gain perfection

I suddenly saw the futility when I realized that we were never meant to strive for perfection.  In fact, God has intentionally designed us the opposite!  The human model comes with abundant limitations.  We see them as flaws; He ordains them as gateways for God’s glory and grace to show.

...we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. 2 Cor 4:7b

Breakable clay is the term for earthenware. In Paul’s time, vessels, plates, jars, cups were made of a clay mixture containing oyster shell pieces. God has purposefully made us out of crumbly stuff.  The Almighty Father and Creator made us delicate and fragile so that we would depend and rest on Him to do all that He calls us to do.  He didn’t aim to populate His kingdom with self-sufficient, sturdily consistent perfect little beings.

That is good news, brothers and sisters.  Let it go, all those expectations of how you want to act.  Yes, we are called to be imitators of Jesus, to be holy because God is holy.  But He knows we are going to blow it, multiple times a day.  Why are we the last to accept that?

Holy Spirit, remind me straight away when I miss the self-assigned mark I naïvely think will make me feel good about myself.  Grow me a new song,

a melody of music“Here I go again, a perfectly designed child of my Father who just sent me a love note that says, ‘Maria, come to me with your mess; don’t be surprised, you just need to give it a rest and flop down and swim in my grace and love!‘”

 

 

Pop quizzes lead to good things

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Pop Quiz

It was pop quiz Tuesday apparently.  A long-standing besetting anguish ‘popped up’ again and I recognized it for what it was:

  • not only a spiritual attack BUT BOTH
  • a trial AND
  • a venue for one of those ‘good things’ that God promises NOT to withhold from me.

In Psalm 84:11 God promises:

For the LORD God is a sun and a shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.

I’ve always LOVED that verse because it corrects my perspective when faced with a day when God did NOT give me the time I wanted to read, exercise, or get as much work done at school.  I say to myself:  “Having that time to read must NOT have been one of the ‘good things’ God intended for me today.”

This morning, however, when I was processing how to handle that reoccurring trial, James’ spin on tests was on my mind:

James 1:2:  Count it pure joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. 

And I saw the connection.

  • If God has promised NOT to withhold even one good thing from me this day
  • If trials are designed to prove my faith AND give me greater endurance and patience
  • If the final result of this endurance or steadfastness is completion (aka: looking like my Older Brother)
  • Then…..this testing/trial/pop quiz is a conduit to one of those GOOD THINGS that God has promised He won’t withhold from me.

Maybe that’s why James tells us to rejoice when our School Master announces a Pop Quiz!

 

When falling flat on your face leads to life

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But she’s a GOOD person!

Have you ever heard someone push back against suffering that has befallen a friend?  The sentiment seems to be that such trouble should not have befallen a person like HIM or HER!

But what defines good?  How good do you have to be?

That’s easy – the Bible is pretty clear about what God considers ‘good’.

The truth about us is NOT so good…..

Whether it’s the 10 commandments that Moses carried down Mount Sinai….

Moses and 10 C

  • Or Jesus’ long list of requirements He taught listeners on the hill
  • Or His ‘Cliff Note’ version of two, (Love God…Love neighbor) we can’t BE good enough.  We can’t DO the “Law”!

 

 

 

And that is exactly what we are supposed to learn!  Only when we come face to face with the humbling fact that we stink at being ‘good’ as defined by God (Be perfect!), can we find freedom.

In short – we have to hear the ‘bad news’ of our guaranteed failure at being law-abiding citizens before we are ready to welcome the ‘good news’.

F - failing grade

 

 

 

 

 

People often choose just what they want to pursue to define themselves as good.  Many people invest energy, resources and their enthusiasm in a pet project.  They might be motivated by a vision they catch from their interpretation of the prophet Micah’s message:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?   

Micah 6-8

 

 

 

But it’s relatively EASY to pick the category and measure ourselves by how well we stack up.  But God doesn’t let us pick just what WE want in order to please Him and then to brag.

If you take a few minutes and THINK about Micah’s 3 activities, you can gain some insight.  These are the described  AND prescribed acts, thoughts and feelings an individual follower of God is to show – always.  Let’s imagine a checkbox by each so we can see how well we perform, moment by moment:

_____We  are called to DO what is JUST in every encounter with people, not just the ones we choose.  The Hebrew word mishpat refers to the right or correct legal decision in  a dispute.  So if we individually DO justice, then we give people the benefit of the doubt if we are not sure, following the legal standard of ‘innocent’ until a preponderance of evidence shows otherwise.  Often I do what will maximize MY time and convenience, not is what is RIGHT or in someone else’s best interests at a cost to ME.

_____ God commands us to LOVE  chesed, that steadfast mercy, kindness and love associated with God. What we talk about often reveals what we love.  By THAT proof, I love ME, my husband, my kids, new tech stuff, and time to read.

_____Finally, we are enjoined to WALK…..HUMBLY…WITH God.  That means going at HIS pace, in HIS direction that He alone knows, being DEPENDENT on Him.  But isn’t it MY life? And isn’t the pursuit of happiness one of our country’s bedrock principles?  It’s un-American to be dependent…..

perfection

 

 

How have you done, so far, this day?  God requires a perfect score EVERY moment of EVERY day in EVERY domain of our lives.  It’s only when we grasp the enormity of what God requires to let us into His heaven, that we come face to face with the stinking reality of how impossible it is to meet His standard.  And in case one thinks he can earn a perfect score, Jesus throws a wrench into our calculations with this ‘silly’ image from Luke 18:26, Matthew 19:24 and Mark 10:25  and of how hard it is to get into Heaven:

Eye of the needle

 

 

 

 

The illustration is meant to convey the fact that we can’t measure up adequately to please God.  Only when we really GET this truth are we desperate enough to drink in the good news……… of someone else’s record extended to those disgusted enough, tired enough of their own efforts to meet the standard!

Good News

Next time we’ll talk about how the knowledge of Jesus’ life and death changes everything.

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