That one word. It doesn’t seem like much. We use it all the time. We make the perfect plans. Find the perfect outfit. Take the perfect vacation. Run after perfect outcomes.
There’s a long list of words in the English language that are so overused and abused that they have become meaningless. For me, this one tops the list. As I’ve spent the last three years untangling a knot of anxiety and depression and altogether neurotic behavior, it became inescapably clear that perfectionism provokes all the mayhem.
Yet, nothing is perfect. Not a single thing.
For years I rejected perfectionism as playing any part in my life. To me, a perfectionist had impeccable everything—perfect bodies, perfect clothes, perfect careers, perfect homes, perfect husbands, perfect children. In the pursuit of everything flawless, they surely drive everyone in their world up the proverbial wall. No one in their lives could possibly withstand the constant criticism. The result is strained marriages and children destined for the therapist’s couch.
That can’t be me, I reasoned. I have a wonderful marriage. I have devoted friendships. I try to parent with grace. In fact, I offer tons of grace to everyone—except myself.
My house is not clean. My life is the sum total of incomplete projects. I’m sloppy. The pile on my desk dwarfs the desk. I pay little attention to my clothes. I take as little time with my appearance as possible.
“I can’t be a perfectionist,” I insist to my therapist. “Nothing in my life is perfect. I’m not trying to be perfect. I know it’s impossible.”
She studies me. I cringe. Obviously, I’ve served up the diagnosis from which I’ve been running.
“There it is,” she confirms. “But you have to remember this—even less than perfect is unattainable.”
Those words have stuck with me. They drape over my thoughts as I weigh options when making decisions. They take up residence on the couch by my side at 4 AM as I grade essays. They are with me on a coffee date, listening to sweet friends describe their own struggles trying to manage the demands of ministry, marriage, and motherhood.
One friend, when considering the prospect of perfectionism, said decisively, “Hmm. I don’t think that’s me.”
I winced. I’ve read the books. I’m writing the book. I know it when I see it.
Remember agonizing over the littlest decisions? Hyper oversight of every detail of your children’s lives? Working yourself sick to be a powerhouse at work? Worrying that your husband won’t get it done? How about the constant dieting, meal planning and training—all to be frustrated over a half inch of fat below the belt that no one sees?
And guess what? Every one of those questions applies to me and every other woman I know. I obsessed over every little thing, fretted over my husband and kids, ran hundreds of miles only to beat myself up for not reaching my goals, felt depressed that my students didn’t master objective 4 on a state mandated test that everyone agrees is worthless …
We’re all going through this. All of us. Our culture inundates women with its expectations. We must earn, we must work, we must produce. We must protect everyone, hold everyone up, not let anyone down.
Recently I asked my 11th graders to respond in their journals to I Peter 1:13, and specifically discuss where they set their hope. One sweet girl wrote, in so many words, that she knew her hope should be in Christ, but she just wanted her life to be perfect.
Living God, save us.
I return again and again to my therapist’s words—even less than perfect is unattainable.
Christmas is a few days away. This year, I’m celebrating with fresh insight into my own struggles in light of God’s gift to us.
Not perfection for me to attain, but perfection for me to adore. We have been set free from the world’s standards—we have no obligation to answer our culture’s demands. The object of our worship died for us, meeting the requirements that no being ever could.
Nothing on this planet since the beginning of days has ever been perfect—except the Lamb.
If we chase after perfection for our own glory, we will fail. If my goal is performing by that perfectionist’s standard, then my god is myself. And that god is as powerless as the idols of Babylon.
But what if Perfection—His Perfection—is something we follow in obedience? He is our Christ, the Messiah, the Lamb of God, our Savior. He is the Word of God who became flesh and lived among us. He is the one who died and is alive forevermore. He is the Lord who no longer calls us servants, but friends.
A gift cuddled up in a manger. A gift giving up His spirit on a cross. A gift walking away from the tomb which could not hold Him.
What could be more perfect?