Be Ye Therefore Perfect

At some point we’re bound to fail in walking with God—and our perfectionism only makes matters worse.

Imagine a race that pits a runner named Excellence against one of identical size and skill named Perfectionism. If you’re sitting in the stands watching them run, it may be almost impossible to tell the difference between the gait of someone pursuing her best and someone being driven by the desire to win every race in record time. Perfectionism may win many of her sprint-length races against Excellence by a split-second, but she never celebrates those victories. There’s no room to celebrate when she’s being hounded by anxiety and the elusive “best” is looming in the distance, always just beyond her reach. Perfectionism refuses to accept a victory if there is even the remotest hint of a flaw in that success.

I learned that perfectionism is a harsh, unflinching coach when I helped to produce worship services at a church. The pastor, worship leader, and I were supposed to plan every element so the service was intentional, worshipful, and accessible to both visitors and longtime members. It was an honor to work together, prayerfully imagining how we could involve people, welcome the gifts they were offering to our congregation, and point the congregation toward reverent, meaningful worship.

But I grew to dread the Tuesday morning debriefing session during the staff meeting. Some of the feedback on the service was constructive. But there were a couple of people who seemed to relish acting as though they were judges on a reality TV competition show. They never seemed to have a positive word to say about anyone:

“Didn’t you think Keith went on too long when he led us in corporate prayer? After all, we all know how he can get.”

“Why was Danita given a solo again this week? She’s had too many lately, don’t you think?

“Why did you have Tracy make the announcement about the women’s retreat? She’s not a very dynamic speaker. It sounded as if she was inviting us to a funeral.”

The constant refrain during these meetings was that it was our job to pursue excellence during worship services. Because we all affirmed that value, there was an unspoken rule that it was bad form to challenge those critiques, no matter how negative the words were. After a particularly punishing session, the pastor said to the group, “What I hear in your words is that our services can never be good enough. We always have to keep striving for excellence.” His perceived affirmation gave critical staffers a green light to dissect every service, sniping in a “Christian-acceptable” way about every person who didn’t perform up to their standards. And their “pass-fail” grading system didn’t seem to leave any room for growth.

Perfectionism can lead to fabulous performances and gold medals. But its achievements are rooted in the acid soil of fear and can’t produce life-giving fruit.

Many of us have experienced poorly executed church services where the piano accompaniment was full of clunker notes, the PowerPoint slides seemed to have a mind of their own, or the marathon-length sermon never seemed to make its point. In reaction to sloppy, uninviting services, some mega-church programmers began to highlight the value of excellence in corporate worship gatherings. This brought the gift of heightened intentionality to those planning worship services in many congregations. But in some of these churches, it also unleashed an unhealthy focus on performance each Sunday morning instead of focusing on the worth of our God. In my own experience, the toxic perfectionism at work among us during that time tapped into my own perfectionistic tendencies. And as a result, I burned out on the job after less than two years. It took much longer than that for me to begin to reclaim the beauty of imperfect worship.

Perfectionism can lead to straight A’s, fabulous performances, Instagram-ready looks and lifestyles, and gold medals. But its achievements are rooted in the acid soil of fear and can’t produce life-giving fruit.

Sports psychologist Dr. Chris Stankovich noted, “While it may sound impressive to call yourself a perfectionist, what you are actually doing is raising the bar so high that it is virtually impossible to ever truly be successful … Sport psychology studies show that anxiety increases dramatically as we try to be perfect, and when this occurs, the nervous physical energy experienced (i.e., rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, tense and tight muscles, etc.) actually disrupts the mind-body synchrony needed for successful sport movements.”

Of course, anxiety can disrupt a perfectionist’s well-being in every area of life, including the classroom, the workplace, the internet, and yes, church. Perfectionism can fuel intense, even obsessive religious behavior. We can see it at play in the apostle Paul’s life, when he was still known as Saul. We first encounter him in Acts 7 at the trial of Stephen, a Jewish leader in the early church, whose words and works provoked unbelieving Jewish leaders. The ardent young Saul sought to be of service to the Pharisees, the men who were discipling him. As the religious leaders rose up in rage against Stephen, declaring him guilty of blasphemy and dragging him out of Jerusalem so they could stone him to death, young Saul served his elders by watching their coats (Acts 7:57-58). This coat-check duty seems a small detail, but it highlights Saul’s deep commitment to those whom he recognized as exemplars of religious performance. He was a company man through and through.

When Saul joined the wave of persecution that was unleashed against Jesus’ followers in the wake of Stephen’s execution (Acts 8:3), he was absolutely convinced he was serving God. Later, he even described himself with these words: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6). His lineage and spiritual training put him among the Jewish religious elites of his day, and his zeal and scrupulous adherence to the law point to a life driven by the desire to live without error.

Traveling to Damascus to continue his “holy mission” of persecuting believers, Saul was apprehended by the risen Jesus and found his religious performance orientation turned upside down. It took some time for other believers to trust this stunning change of direction. Not long after the life-changing encounter, those who’d once been among Saul’s spiritual mentors turned their sights on him, seeking to put him to death (Acts 9:23-25; Acts 9:29-30). He later reflected that after he met Jesus, the things that had once driven his behavior were as valuable to him as trash (Phil. 3:8).

Over time, Paul moved away from the religious perfectionism of his earlier years to the kind of humility that recognized he was no longer the potter of his own life but a very human jar of clay God was filling and using for His glory. (See 2 Corinthians 4:7 NIV.)

In fact, it is the language of potter and clay that points to the healthy alternative to perfectionism. It’s no mistake that this metaphor is used throughout Scripture (Job 10:8-12; Isa. 45:9; Jer. 18:1-23; Rom. 9:20-21; 2 Timothy 2:20-21). Excellence is the superlative descriptor we use to signify the very best version of a person, place, or thing. It is the result of a process of seeking, striving, practicing, and pursuing a goal, in contrast to perfectionism, which describes a disordered process of the pursuit of excellence. The steps a potter takes to soften, mold, re-mold, dry, fire, and glaze clay illustrates for us how excellence emerges from our lives.

My daughter took piano lessons from a woman named Diane, who specialized in teaching beginning students. That meant Diane sat through a lot of pretty terrible piano playing every week. She was a gifted musician but once told me that her own musical skill didn’t have much to do with her thriving business. Instead, its success was in recognizing the value of the learning process and celebrating each student’s growth from week to week. “My reward comes from remembering where they started,” she once told me. “Yes, I prepare my students for recitals every spring, because that experience creates goals and teaches them about poise and public performance. But my real reward comes from working with them each week. A performance might last for three minutes, but lessons they learn through practice last for a lifetime, whether they continue with music study or not.”

Diane’s attitude reflected for me something of the delight God has in our learning process. Where a perfectionist focuses on presenting a flawless product—even if that product is the person herself—God is at work bringing us to holy completion. The Greek word teleios captures the purpose of excellence, which describes the process of maturing in the faith as a believer walks with Jesus. Interestingly, teleios is often translated “perfect: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). But this verse is talking about something else: Teleios is a call to follow, pursuing maturity, as we journey toward our whole, holy, perfect Father in heaven. Excellence emerges as a by-product of this Potter-and-clay process in our lives. The elusive prize of perfection isn’t our goal. Completion is.

It is said that skilled Amish quilt makers, who create some of the most stunning fabric art in the world, intentionally stitch some sort of mistake into one of their quilt blocks to remind themselves that no one is perfect except God. When my anxieties cause my inner perfectionist to make an unwelcome appearance, it can be helpful to stitch a “humility block” into my thoughts: God has begun an excellent work in me, and He will be faithful to complete it—and me.


Photography by Ryan Hayslip

Related Topics:  Growth of a Believer

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57 But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse.

58 When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

3 But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.

5 circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee;

6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

23 When many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him,

24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death;

25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket.

29 And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic Jews; but they were attempting to put him to death.

30 But when the brethren learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus.

8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ,

7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves;

8 Your hands fashioned and made me altogether, And would You destroy me?

9 Remember now, that You have made me as clay; And would You turn me into dust again?

10 Did You not pour me out like milk And curdle me like cheese;

11 Clothe me with skin and flesh, And knit me together with bones and sinews?

12 You have granted me life and lovingkindness; And Your care has preserved my spirit.

9 Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker-- An earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, `What are you doing?' Or the thing you are making say, `He has no hands'?

1 The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD saying,

2 Arise and go down to the potter's house, and there I will announce My words to you."

3 Then I went down to the potter's house, and there he was, making something on the wheel.

4 But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make.

5 Then the word of the LORD came to me saying,

6 Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does? " declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.

7 At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it;

8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it.

9 Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it;

10 if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it.

11 So now then, speak to the men of Judah and against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying, `Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds."'

12 But they will say, `It's hopeless! For we are going to follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.'

13 Therefore thus says the LORD, `Ask now among the nations, Who ever heard the like of this? The virgin of Israel Has done a most appalling thing.

14 Does the snow of Lebanon forsake the rock of the open country? Or is the cold flowing water from a foreign land ever snatched away?

15 For My people have forgotten Me, They burn incense to worthless gods And they have stumbled from their ways, From the ancient paths, To walk in bypaths, Not on a highway,

16 To make their land a desolation, An object of perpetual hissing; Everyone who passes by it will be astonished And shake his head.

17 Like an east wind I will scatter them Before the enemy; I will show them My back and not My face In the day of their calamity.'"

18 Then they said, Come and let us devise plans against Jeremiah. Surely the law is not going to be lost to the priest, nor counsel to the sage, nor the divine word to the prophet! Come on and let us strike at him with our tongue, and let us give no heed to any of his words."

19 Do give heed to me, O LORD, And listen to what my opponents are saying!

20 Should good be repaid with evil? For they have dug a pit for me. Remember how I stood before You To speak good on their behalf, So as to turn away Your wrath from them.

21 Therefore, give their children over to famine And deliver them up to the power of the sword; And let their wives become childless and widowed. Let their men also be smitten to death, Their young men struck down by the sword in battle.

22 May an outcry be heard from their houses, When You suddenly bring raiders upon them; For they have dug a pit to capture me And hidden snares for my feet.

23 Yet You, O LORD, know All their deadly designs against me; Do not forgive their iniquity Or blot out their sin from Your sight. But may they be overthrown before You; Deal with them in the time of Your anger!

20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, Why did you make me like this," will it?

21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?

20 Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor.

21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.

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