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In our strivings to grow closer to God and become more like Christ we often find ourselves feeling frustrated and detached instead. Today we are going to talk about how our perfectionistic, achievement-oriented tendencies infiltrate our relationship with God and contradict the very heart of what it means to be in Christ. Perfecting ourselves is a key part of sanctification but if we don’t engage this properly we could fall into dangerous perfectionistic habits and beliefs. This is not only true in the various areas of our lives, but also in our relationship with God. So what this means is that we live in this tension between living in our sinful nature and Jesus’ call for us to be perfect (Matthew 5:48) and to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And just as perfectionistic attitudes have infiltrated our culture telling us what we should look like and be like, they have also come into the church and the Christian culture in America telling us what Christians should look like and act like.
As you think about the messages we are receiving as Christians and how our relationship with God and our Christian walk should be, what comes to mind? What does the Christian culture in America tell us it should look like to be a Christian? For me coming out of college I felt the pressure to be like the “Baylor” Christians I knew. They were sweet, good looking, athletic, positive, cool, trendy, talked with a particular Christian lingo, listen to the newest Contemporary Christian artists, and so on. On top of that there is an image today that being a Christian means you must always be nice, serve the poor, deny yourself, have daily quiet times, attend church regularly, and be in a Bible study. And if these things don’t exist then you are not a Christian. Coming to Dallas and attending PCPC added several expectations on to that list…Christians should be very knowledgeable in theology and especially the covenant. There is not so much an emphasis on memory verses as just knowing the Bible. And we must be cautious, always questioning and challenging all teaching, especially if it does not come out of the PCA.
But as we look over this list something very vital is missing….the expectation that we actually have a relationship with God. The expectation that being a Christian first means submitting to Him, listening to Him, caring more about who we are on the inside, not just the outside, being content because of who God is, and finding our identity in God alone.
The problem here is that these images of Christian perfectionism affect how we think and act in the body of Christ, just as the images of perfection in the media affects how our culture thinks and acts. And what happens when we let these ideas of what it looks like to be a Christian become what we are striving for we lose the very heart of our faith, our relationship with God. In our Christian faith what we are striving for is to cultivate that relationship with God. So all of those things we do…knowing God, knowing His Word, obeying His Word, and worshiping Him…are all what we do in order to grow in our relationship with Him and to bring glory to Him. So when we begin to focus on perfecting those actions instead, we face the risk of neglecting why we are doing them. Rather than being driven by a healthy desire to be in relationship with God, our Christian walk becomes driven by fear, self, pride, and comparing ourselves to others.
To unpack this idea I’m going to us the 5 categories of perfectionism in Richard Winter’s book, Perfecting Ourselves to Death.
1. Performance – The first category is performance. He explains that when we seek perfection through performance our “…sense of value is highly dependent on how [we] perform. Measurable productivity and achievement is vital…if [we] are unable to produce or perform at peak levels [we] usually become depressed and anxious” (p.37)
So as we think about this in regards to our Christian faith, what does it look like to be a performance based perfectionist? Perhaps it’s having the “all or nothing” attitude. If I’m not doing it all and doing it perfectly then I have failed. My performance in quiet times or serving at church are the gage of how I am doing in my Christian walk and relationship with God. Recently a friend of mine was lamenting over how far behind she had gotten in a year long program working through the Bible. She was obviously feeling that she had failed and the only option was to set aside a large chunk of time to catch back up. It wasn’t an option to simply accept that she had failed and just pick back up where they were or back where she left off. Instad she became paralyzed and couldn’t move forward. She wanted to do it perfectly and so the purpose got lost in the process. Operating like this in our relationship with God is exhausting and turns our faith into a chore or burden rather than restful, sweet relationship. Then we begin to see God as only accepting us when we are perfect and never fail, and our faith becomes depressing and causes us anxiety when we are not perfect and we do fail.
2. Appearance – This second category is concerned with how we look to others. And how we look to others tells us who we are. The standard is influenced by the images around us, like what we talked about a minute ago. (p.38)
So what would this look like in regards to our relationship with God and our Christian faith? Perhaps it means going through the motions because it’s what you should do. Joining the Bible study all your friends are in or serving because everyone else is doing it. Following trends and hype because it is how Christians are suppose to look. Believing that if you look like a Christian and smell like a Christian, than you must be a Christian! But what really happens in the end is our outside is no longer lined up with our inside, we have spent all our energy doing what Christians do, but not being who God calls us to be, and being in relationship with Him. It is the Christian version of “keeping up with the Jonses.”
3. Interpersonal – The interpersonal perfectionist has very set ideas about the way things should be done. They are critical and demanding, desiring not only perfection from themselves but also from others. Relationships are very complicated and dysfunctional because of these expectations.
There are many ways that this could interfere in our relationship with God. It could mean putting expectations on God and when He does not live up to them feeling as if God has failed you. Believing that if I do certain things then God must bless me. Sometimes it means hiding your own sin and flaws or retreating from God thinking that then He won’t see your issues or know just how bad you are. This also includes pointing out other’s failings to feel better about your own, thinking God will approve of you because you are in a better place than those other people. This is a struggle many young single women face who have been pure and had high standards in their dating life but God has still not delivered. Men face this in believing God will bless them economically for their Christian ethics at work and in their career. All of these mind-sets result in disillusionment when things don’t line up and God doesn’t deliver. These types of perfectionists are often very frustrated with God and have a very empty relationship with Him.
4. Moral – This next category is probably the easiest one for us to understand in the Christian faith. This is when you become concerned with keeping rules and laws meticulously and judge your relationship with God based on your ability or inability to uphold the law.
The greatest examples of this for us in the Bible were the Pharisees. For them their faith was no longer a relationship, but about do’s and don’ts. It caused them to judge others on the standards they had laid out for themselves. Their faith was very self focused, instead of God focused. In Matthew 23 Jesus calls them hypocrites, they were behaving one way on the outside but it didn’t reflect what was on the inside. Their hearts were filled with love of self instead of love for God. He says they focused on cleaning the outside, but not the inside and so they were left full of wickedness, hypocrisy, and greed. So the result of moralism, or legalism, is an empty faith that leaves you constantly striving to be better and do better, it is never ending because we will never be able to perfectly uphold God’s moral law.
5. All-Around – The all-around perfectionist is concerned with having high standards and excellence in all things. These are often our obsessive compulsive friends who are overly concerned with order, organization, rules, and lists. They are happy and content when they feel perfectly in control, but their lives are often very rigid and lifeless and when things get thrown off track they become overly anxious and unhappy. They key here is their need to be in control.
When we live in this way we leave no room for God to speak and move outside of our set schedule. A relationship is not something that we can schedule and control so a major tension exists. They care more about the structure and order than the relationship. When their lives are under their control they feel fine spiritually, but when life gets out of control will have a hard time connecting with God and being content. So the result is a joyless relationship with God and one where you are constantly fighting for control.
What I hope that we all see walking through each of those things, is that when our perfectionistic, achievement oriented tendencies bleed into our Christian faith, it causes our focus to move from our personal relationship with God, to the things that we do instead. Where do you fall? Perhaps one perfectly describes you, or maybe you see a little of each in you. When we live in these ways we must realize that the thing that is most central to our faith is no longer at the middle. Our walk is no longer about cultivating that relationship with God. And what it results in is devastating and often cyclical….guilt, shame, depression, anxiety, and so on. Rather than figuring out what the 5 Healthy “perfectionisms” would look like I think it would be more useful for us is to look at what to do when we see these things in our lives. How do we combat the unhealthy perfectionistic approach to our faith when we notice them creeping up?
HEALTHY PURSUIT OF PERFECTING OUR FAITH
In Matthew 5 Jesus tells us to be perfect. The Greek word translated as perfect is telios which gives the understanding of something becoming “complete.” So what Jesus was urging His disciples to do was to seek completing their faith, to seek the end goal or design of their faith. Richard Winter explains it like this,
“This does not mean that we are to mirror Christ physically or match his intellectual abilities or lifestyle. Instead we are to reflect Christ’s character in our attitudes and relationships. When Christ says, “Be perfect,” he is encouraging us to make this our goal until we are finally made perfect in heaven. Jesus uses the word perfect not in relation to performance or appearance but in relation to maturity in personal development.” (p.169)
The end goal of our sanctification is a restored relationship with God, that is what we are striving for and the heart of how He calls us to live. So how do we move forward, fighting these urges to live in our flesh but also seeking to “perfect” our faith? I think Paul is one of our greatest examples of this, and he shows us how he overcomes it in Philippians 3
Philippians 3:2-14, 4:10-13
Here Paul begins by showing you that if anyone has a right to put confidence in their flesh, it is him! He lists everything from his pedigree to his faultless service to God.
2 Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
As perfectionists, as we just talked about, this is often what we might subconsciously do. How am I doing with God? Well, I prayed and read scripture 5 out of 7 mornings this week, served at the homeless shelter one night, came to church, was nice to that guy I don’t like, and was an all-around better Christian than my neighbor. But Paul shows us what we must do with that when those thoughts start creeping in…
7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
The first thing Paul does is recognize that in and of themselves, those things are rubbish. Circumcision was not a bad thing, it was from God, coming from a good Jewish family was not bad, or knowing God’s law and having zeal for God, none of those were bad things. But where Paul went wrong was when it became disconnected from his relationship with God and therefore became about self, others, pride, fear, and so on. So he goes on and says….
8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
The things he was doing he now saw as a loss compared to being in relationship with God. Rather than going through the motions to earn our sanctification we are to seek out God personally and as we do this those actions will flow from a heart that is filled with Christ. This is why Jesus said,
“The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart…out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” Luke 6:45
When we are fellowshipping with God and seeking that relationship first, then out of that will flow a life that reflects your faith and that relationship. And the motives behind how you live will be about love for God and bringing Him glory, rather than trying to keep up with others or check things off a list. Belonging to God and living in relationship with Him is not about what we do on the outside, but about who we are on the inside which is then seen in who we are on the outside and the way we live. Through doing this Paul identifies himself not by who he is in the eyes of the world or what he does, but in that relationship, His identity is “in Christ.”
Then Paul goes on to explain this tension that we live in. We are not perfect and we know we will never reach perfection on earth…yet because of our desire to “know Christ” we “press on to take hold” of what He died to give us, completion of our salvation.
10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
One of the most key things that Paul says here for you and I to take note of, is that he “forgets what is behind.” As perfectionists we often are fueled by guilt and shame over our failures, or a drive to never fail. But for Paul, accepting failure was part of the process. And this does not mean writing off all sin to our sin nature or on the other hand drowning in sorrow over our sin, but it means confessing our sins to God and learning to receive His grace so that we can “strain towards what is ahead.” I once heard a quote that said something like, Failure isn’t failure until the moment you decide not to get up after you have fallen down. This is why in 2 Corinthians 12:10 Paul says he delights in his weakness, because that is when God’s strength works in and through us, we have a choice in God’s grace to get back up everytime we have fallen down.
Then in chapter 4 we see the result of living this way instead of in the perfectionistic ways we talked about earlier that resulted in depression, anxiety, guilt, shame, etc…
4:10 I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Paul’s new contentment comes from recognizing his own failings and then in seeing that in all things he can lean on the strength of God. That through being in relationship with Christ he is given strength to do anything God calls him to do. Paul’s new contentment is no longer about how well he can perform, but about submitting and yielding to God. And this brings us back to where we started. I began with the statement that….
…perfectionistic, achievement-oriented tendencies infiltrate our relationship with God and contradict the very heart of what it means to be in Christ.
This idea of being weak so that God can be strong, submitting and yielding to God, and seeking first our relationship with God completely goes against our perfectionistic tendencies to impress God and the world around us through our actions and abilities. So as people prone to perfectionism it is a daily struggle but one of great importance and with the potential to bear much fruit in our lives. We must begin each day to seek first God and know that all of those other things will flow out of that healthy relationship with God.
Perfecting Ourselves to Death, Richard Winter
Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton