Apathy in the Christian Walk – PURE Conference 2009

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Diagnosing Apathy

I would love to start by explaining to you why I wanted to teach on this topic and how I personally relate with it. I have found myself in a new place in my Christian walk in the past few years and I have had a difficult time understanding it and knowing what to do about it. I was not raised a Christian and was already a pretty wild and unruly heathen when the Lord saved me at age 14, so the bulk of my Christian walk for the first 15 years was focused on…

  • learning and understanding what it meant to even be a Christian,
  • painfully and slowly changing my lifestyle and mindset according to what I was reading in the Bible (for the first time in my life)
  • learning BIG lessons from scriptures and having mountain top experiences.

I guess you could say that the beginning of my walk with Christ was exciting, moving, passionate, and full of lots of major changes in regards to who I was and who I was becoming. And in addition to that it all took place during a time in my life when I was overly involved in ministries that were constantly challenging me and bringing me into heartfelt worship, authentic fellowship, repentance, and study of the Word.

But in the last several years, as my ministry involvements and circumstances in my life have changed, I have found myself in a very different place spiritually. I want to share with you some of the things I have seen in my own spiritual life. On the front of the hand out there is a table that lists the different words I am going to use to describe the spiritual state I have been in, and as I share with you how I see and experience it in my life I encourage you to think through how you may see or experience it in your own life, feel free to fill in the right side with those things, with my examples, or wait and fill it in later. Before healing can happen in any area of our life we must recognize and diagnose the problem, and this is what we are doing.

The Overarching Issue:

  • Apathy, “a lack of interest, enthusiasm, & concern; No deep internal response”
    • I don’t feel as engaged, moved and amazed by Christian writings and sermons.
    • Good worship does not draw me into God’s presence like it used to.
    • I don’t feel the desire to engage in fellowship and I don’t feel filled up or encouraged when I leave.

Aspects of Apathy:

  • Laziness, “Unwilling to work or use energy, a lack of effort, freedom from worries or problems”
    • While I am very committed and diligent to maintain a healthy relationship with my husband no matter what that means, I often take the first chance I can get to not have to get up early to spend uninterrupted time with God, I don’t focus on it as something of the utmost importance in my life, and I see it as a burden to have to “work” at it, I would rather it just happen or come naturally.
  • Dullness, “lacking interest or excitement, feeling bored or dispirited”
    • When I open the Bible I feel I already know what I’m about to read, I’ve either read it or heard it before.
    • I’m not passionate or interested in having discussions about the faith or friendly debates on religious topics.

Results of Apathy:

  • Disillusionment, “a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be.”
    • I am sensing cynicism and jadedness in my heart towards other Christians and the church. I love to talk about what the church is doing wrong and how they need to do things better.
  • Drifting, “To digress or stray to another subject; To move passively or aimlessly into a situation or condition.” and Distraction, “when things prevent you from giving your full attention to something else, often causing extreme agitation to the mind and emotions”
    • My mind is extremely distracted every time I try to have a quiet time or pray, which results in me feeling ungrounded in God’s Word and disconnected from His voice.
    • The responsibilities of my life overshadow my felt need for time with the Lord.
  • Doubting, “A feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction; Includes cynicism, skepticism, and mistrust”
    • Thoughts come into my mind which question truth and bring doubt to my heart.
    • When someone is teaching/preaching God’s Word I find myself thinking really cynical and critical thoughts about them and what they are saying
  • Rebellion, “The action or process of resisting authority, control, or convention”
    • For me my rebellion is in very subtle ways, but it is still rebellion to God’s authority and control in my life.
    • I want things done much quicker and clearer than the ways God tends to do them. So I often get frustrated and feel “stuck” in my life, because I am trying to figure out how things can work out in a way that I think is best, and so I push against God’s ways and His timing.

Realizing it is Normal and Expected, but not ok

As I have struggled with this and asked God for help in this area I have come to see that it is not only normal to feel this way at some point in our Christian walk, but that it is probably a struggle we will all face through out our lives. My guess is that each of you related on at least one of those points, if not all, even if they manifest themselves differently in your lives. As I searched the scriptures for answers I saw that it is exactly this spiritual state that much of the Bible addresses in the hearts of Believers, in both the Old and New Testaments. And it does not address these issues like they are specific problems that only some Christians might struggle with, like alcohol abuse or adultery, but instead this problem is brought to light as a struggle that every believer in Christ will be threatened by. The Scriptures make us aware of this threat so that when we do face it in our own lives we can know what to do with it so that we don’t fall into despair, or even worse, become nominal Christians who are believers by name but don’t live in the blessings Christ has to offer.

Look at the quote at the top of your handout…

A famous 20th Century Spanish author, Miguel de Unamuno, put it this way:

“Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, not in God himself.”

In other words, if you struggle with these things it is a sign of a person with true faith and willingness to engage themselves in the harsh realities of living for Christ in a fallen world. It does not mean that you weren’t ever really saved, or you dropped the ball, or you did something wrong. However, it also does not mean its ok, the Christian life is about fighting for our faith and to live it out actively each day and experience God’s presence.

In the book of Revelation Jesus says,

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. ‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.” (3:15-16)

Lukewarm is the same as apathy, and here Jesus says it is not congruent with the Christian faith, it does not work. When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment was to follow, how we are to live as Christians, He answered:

“YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’  38 “This is the great and foremost commandment.  39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments’ (Matt 22:34-40)

Jesus says that these two commandments sum up the entirety of how God calls His people to live. Everything we are called to do is about these two things. And these two things are the exact opposite of apathy. Someone who is apathetic does not have the ability to love God or love others with all that they are, it is impossible. So the greatest threat we face to living out the Christian faith is the threat to our faith that starts with apathy and results in all the other things we talked about earlier, and it keeps us from living out the essence of the Christian life. As we look at the Scriptures, it is important to remember that apathy is not so much about what we are doing wrong as it is about what we aren’t doing at all. And Scripture speaks to this constantly, it is actually one of the main reasons that we have the Bible in the first place.

How do we Fight Apathy: 4 Things

We are going to primarily focus on the third chapter in Hebrews and also pull in some other Scriptures as we seek to understand how to fight this apathy in our lives. So go ahead and flip to Hebrews 3. The author of Hebrews has written this letter/sermon in order to encourage Hebrew Christians who are struggling with these same issues that we have been talking about. And chapter 3 encompasses much of what he has to say to them in regards to this, so this is what I want us to focus on today.

1. LOOK TO JESUS (the most important)

Look at Hebrews 3:1

He begins here with the word “therefore” – In the previous verses, he has just finished explaining the gospel – who Jesus is and who we are because of what he did for us. So basically, he is beginning this new section saying, “because Jesus saved you, understands you, and is God…”

“fix your thoughts on Him” or “Consider Him”

  • Here he echoes something he says earlier in chapter 2 where he told them to, “pay more careful attention to what they believe”. And then again in Hebrews 12 he will tell them to “fix their eyes on Jesus” and “Consider Him”.
  • What He was saying throughout the book of Hebrews is that they must pay closer attention to what is central to their faith, the most important thing, or they are going to start drifting away, that they must use their minds in their faith to focus, pay attention, be careful, consider, and fix their thoughts on the center of the truth. And he does this because they have allowed other things to steal their focus, they have drifted and their focus is now off of Christ. So he repeats it because it is crucial to their faith and he knows that they are very distracted and need to be reminded of what is most important.
    • EX: To understand this we can imagine a boat at sea. How do you keep a boat from drifting away? By dropping anchor. The anchor represents here what our focus should be, the truth of salvation in Christ, the gospel. The only way we won’t drift is by constantly being anchored in the truth, the basic and most central part of our faith. So dropping anchor means being focused on and dependent on God’s Word.
    • Now Read Hebrews 4:12-13

Here he reminds them that God’s Word is relevant and it speaks to us today in every area of our lives. It seeps into the darkest most hidden places of our lives and brings light into those places. So we must constantly be fixing our eyes on the Truth in God’s Word. If we desire change in our lives, this is where we have to start, His Word. It is our anchor. And we must learn to view all of our lives through His gospel, without that we are lost and distracted.

Application

What has happened here to the Hebrews happens to all of us over time, we stop living in the awe and wonder of God’s presence in our lives, we fail to ponder the unimaginable truth that we are saved because of what Jesus did. We learn the gospel and move on to other, maybe even more intellectual, things. We begin to focus on the application of the gospel and forget to continue grounding ourselves in it.

We make ourselves, our lives, our circumstances more important than God. Yet, as a Christian you will never be at a place in your faith when you don’t need to basic gospel anymore. The truth is, we need to be reminded of it everyday, because if we are not we will drift away from it.

So he says, everyday focus your mind on God’s truth, remind yourself of it. Drop anchor in God’s Word. Remember the power of sin and evil, look to Jesus as the one who covers over your sins, who gently leads you back when you drift, the one who desires confession and repentance more than anything, who you can turn to even in times of apathy, and the one who shows you how to live obediently and submissively to God. This is the first and most important step in fighting apathy.

As we talk about “fixing our minds on Jesus”, how do you suppose we can do that? How can we practically do this each day?

  • Having some sort of devotional, meditation, or prayer time each morning
  • Focus on reminding my self of the gospel, reading the gospels
  • Worshiping in the car when I can
  • Praying constantly

2. LOOK FOR GOD & LISTEN TO HIM

Look at Hebrews 3:7-11

This passage is taken from Psalm 95 and the author is simply repeating words God has already spoken to His people in order to remind them and help them not to make the same mistakes others before them have made.

v.7 He begins with the words “if you hear his voice”, which actually echoes the opening of the entire letter to the Hebrews which reminds us that God speaks to us, he spoke to us in the beginning of time, he spoke to his people in the past, and He speaks to us today. This means God is speaking to you today and everyday, but the question is whether you recognize and hear His voice or not.

v. 8 Then he says, when God speaks to you, because He will, “do not harden your hearts”

What does it mean to have a “hardened heart”?

One way to understand it is to think of the opposite, What would be the opposite of a hard heart?

    • It would be a heart that is soft, sensitive to God, trusting in His Word, receptive to whatever God has to say.
    • So a hard heart would be one that is not receptive to God’s will, even unable to hear God’s voice, and not trusting in God. Ultimately it is a heart unwilling to be changed or used by God. It is someone who doesn’t want to hear God, and resents Him and the life He has given them.
    • And it manifests itself in apathy, disillusionment, drifting, doubting, rebelling, etc… This is the Bible’s word for what we have been talking about!

How do our hearts get hard?

      • There are times in the Bible where God is responsible for hardening hearts in order to carry out His plan, but that is not the type of hardening that is being talked about here.
      • In commanding them to “not harden their hearts” he is saying we are fully responsible for the hardening of our hearts.
      • It is very important to understand this so that when we do sense our hearts becoming hard we realize that there is something we can do about it, we are not helpless victims. This is not works-based faith, we are not talking about salvation or earning anything, we are talking about how God has called us to live as believers and the process of sanctification while we walk in obedience and submission and the Holy Spirit enables and refines us.
      • When God speaks to us we have two choices.
        • To hear His voice (because we are looking for Him to speak to us), submit and obey, trusting in who God is.
        • Or, fail to hear Him, resist and rebel, hardening our hearts towards Him.

v. 8-9 In these verses he gives them example as a reminder of when their forefathers heard God’s voice but hardened their hearts resulting in rebellion and trying & testing God. He says “you” but he is referring to Israel, to his people, their forefathers. It says here that they were living in a difficult time, in the desert. Their lives were hard and they didn’t like that. So because they were unhappy with the path God had led them down they dug their heals in the ground and refused to obey and worship Him until He gave them what they wanted. They wanted something better, different, easier….they just pictured God saving them from Egypt differently.

The 2nd half of verse 9 is very important for us to take note of as we not only understand this passage but seek to relate with it. We read here that for 40 years they saw what God did, they witnessed Him providing for them, never leaving them, doing amazing and powerful things. The question we need to ask here is, Why did God’s works not give them hope?

  • Because when we harden our hearts towards God we can no longer see God’s hand in our lives, His love, His provisions.
  • This is a huge point, because the truth we are told in the Bible is that He is always with us, He never leaves us, He is always working in your life.
  • But it is up to us to look for it, to pay attention, to remember who He is and what He has done, to have softened hearts so that we can see and be receptive to Him.
      • EX: When you start looking for something you suddenly start seeing it everywhere! Seeing God’s hand in your life is the same way, it was always there but at times you weren’t looking for it.

v. 10-11 He concludes sadly with a summary of what happened with the Israelites in the desert:

  1. Their hearts were always going astray
  2. They did not know God’s ways – meaning they couldn’t see or understand God because their hearts were hard
  3. Because of this, they didn’t get to enter into God’s rest
    1. We don’t have enough time to talk about God’s rest and what it means here, but I included an explanation of it on your handout for your own study and time in the Word.

3. FIGHT FOR YOUR FAITH

Look at Hebrews 3:12-19

He has just presented to us a problem, now he tells us what to do about it, and the solution is simple to understand. Instead of living as their forefathers had he gives them a different way to live.

v.12        First, he says we must take responsibility for our own hearts and make

sure it doesn’t happen to us.

    • We must acknowledge that we will be tempted to harden our hearts and that when we are we are responsible for it.
    • How do we know when it is happening? It should be pretty obvious – is your heart being drawn into sin & unbelief? Do you see it in your thoughts and responses? If you do, then you are in danger of turning your heart away from God, having a hardened heart.

v.13 A very important observation is made here that we don’t want to miss. In  verse 13 he tells us the root cause of the hardening of our hearts.

  • It is the result of sin deceiving us. Sin is not outside us, it is in us…talking to us, wooing us, asking us to believe its lies.
  • And when we do listen to it and believe it our hearts become hardened.
  • When you experience a hardening in your heart you must remember that it is sin luring you into that place.
  • This too means that the root cause of apathy is the sin within us, luring us away from devotion to Christ and tempting us to not live out our faith actively.

v.14     He then says we are able to do this all by “holding firmly”

  • It is never going to be easy and we have to actively choose to live out our faith every day. Our struggles and sins will always threaten to cloud our confidence in Christ and threaten to weaken it….so he says hold firm.
  • This is what Paul is saying in 1 Corinth 9:24 when he says to run the race as if you are running for a prize, be actively engaged in your Christian faith!
  • Hebrews 10:22-23 He tells us tells us that holding firmly means drawing near to God and “holding unswervingly to the hope we profess”…
      • With a sincere heart
      • With full assurance & faith
      • Guilt free
      • Not only because we can, but because we must!
      • As we sit in the mornings, or on our lunch breaks, or last thing at night before we go to bed, and seek to spend time with God, this is to be the state of our heart, sincere, trusting, confident, and free of guilt. Our faith is not about shrinking away and wallowing in our guilt and sin. We are saved by Christ, the Son of God who is faithful, and we have more to celebrate than anyone who does not know Christ….so believe and know you are saved!

v. 16-19 Then he makes an almost humorous point. As we read about the Israelites who experienced God more tangibly on earth than we ever have we might be tempted to say “Who were those awful people and what was wrong with them?!”

And the author of Hebrews answers:

  • They were God’s chosen people
  • They were people who knew God
  • They were people who saw His power and might
  • They were people God had freed from a horrible situation
  • And his conclusion? You are no different from them. Just as they fell into unbelief and because of it missed out on the privilege of living in God’s blessing here on earth, so could you and I. (look at 1 Corinth 10:1-6 later, this is exactly what Paul says to the Corinthians!)
      • We face this danger everyday and we have to choose to hope in Jesus and cling to Him.
      • As it says in 1 Peter 5:8 – we must remember that the enemy is watching at all times to devour us like a roaring lion, so we must learn to always be on our guard, fighting for our faith.

The opposite of apathy is activity…and God will honor and bless your every effort. If you are feeling uneasy right now because you feel like this is bordering on a works-based faith or simply giving you things to do that you know you can’t do on your own anyway, let me share with you an analogy that Tim Keller recently shared at the Dedication of the new Redeemer Seminary in Dallas.

Tim Keller analogy

He related our Christian faith to a wood burning fire. He said, that for some, they are like a huge pile of ready to burn logs, doused in lighter fluid, full of all the good things you need to get a great fire going…and when the Spirit lights that fire they burn like a bonfire. Then he said that there are other Christians who began more like a small fire, adding wood over time, learning and growing in the faith from a young age at a steady pace. But either way, both need kindling to keep burning. Both need to continually be aware of the fire burning low and the need to continue adding wood to it in order to keep the flame burning. And if you want a big hot fire, you have to add more wood. This requires constantly assessing the state of the fire and its particular needs at any given time.

In the same way, we must constantly be checking the state of our spiritual growth and fire. Adding kindling when it is needed and not expecting the fire to burn on its own or magically start burning stronger without doing anything.

In a workbook I was doing recently called Listen to My Life, the author says:

“People don’t drift into maturity, purposefulness, and the abundant life that Jesus promises his followers. It takes intentional action – regular patterns or rhythms of activity that place a person before God, so he can produce life-giving results. This is how we grow up in Christ.”

If you are serious about fighting the apathy in your Christian walk then I would challenge you to spending a season of your life to do exactly this. Set an amount of time, such as 3-6 months, that you will dedicate to developing a spiritual rhythm in your life and focusing on spiritual disciplines. Come up with a spiritual action plan. I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t pay off.

Recently I was answering some questions in this workbook and it asked me “Which Spiritual Practices give me life?” So I listed them, mostly from that earlier time in my walk when I really felt close to the Lord. And then it asked, “Which spiritual practices do I already engage in?” So I listed the things I am currently doing. The discrepancies between the two lists were impossible to ignore and gave me a clear picture of what I needed to be working on.

The last page of your handout is a guide to help you process what we have talked about. I encourage you if you have time before you leave this weekend, to sit and go through it. Answer the questions that seem to speak to where you are at, journal, pray, and really think through where you are. And at the end I listed three books that you could use to help you get on track with spiritual disciplines.

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How Perfectionism Affects our Relationship with God

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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.

UNHEALTHY PERFECTIONISM

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.

The Conclusion?

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.

Recommended Resources….

Perfecting Ourselves to Death, Richard Winter

Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton