Confessions of a Perfectionist

I don't think I am a perfectionist. Per say. Maybe I am just "overly ambitious" or better yet "filled with high expectations." Whether it is my daily routine, my performance in extracurriculars, or my thoughts on my future--I expect and anticipate an idealistic picture of what will happen.

Frequently in college I would amuse my roommate by verbalizing to him my to-do list for the day. I would plan to hit the books, get started on a paper that is still three weeks out, be proactive in my required reading. Then I would plan to go to the gym in the afternoon and enjoy some leisurely time later in the day. That for me was the perfect day. It was productive and forward thinking, yet there was time left over for rest.


Well surprise, surprise: more often than not my ideal day would fail to come to fruition. When it came down to it, I lacked the fortitude and the personal discipline to see my dreams into reality. Hours that could have been spent in rich, unadulterated study were squandered playing chess in the library or watching soccer highlights. Time that could have been spent on the treadmill in the gym were traded for an afternoon nap. Some days I may have gotten closer to my objectives than others, but the perfect day proved elusive.

This brand of perfectionism was not limited to my schedules, however. When I look back, even as a kid I would dream of the perfect life. I would by my estimation, grow up to be a strong and dashing man with a career in politics (maybe change the world for the good in the process). Or I would come up with some entrepreneurial product and make millions. Maybe I would overcome my fears of public speaking and become Billy Graham 2.0, preaching to thousands and write earth shaking books with my obvious genius. Or maybe still my body would late bloom into that of a freakish athlete that could have a career in a professional sport.

So when I went to college and quickly realized that I was not good enough for the D-III NAIA soccer team. Or when I caught someone sleeping during MY Bible study. Or when I wrote something I thought was good, but few cared to read. Or when instead of finding a lot of awesome in my life, I found a lot of normal--there is disappointment! Reality, even very good reality, just never seemed to match my idealistic conceptions.

But this unhealthy perfectionism as described not only guarantees disappointment, it also paralyzes. It holds back. Because why would anyone play a game when mediocrity is guaranteed? Who wants to always finish seventh? Why invest blood, sweat, and tears in people when measurables of success are impossible to read? Or why would anyone put themselves "out there" in ministry or career or relationships when failures, mistakes, and criticisms are unavoidable? We perfectionists often believe that if it can't be done perfectly, it is not worth doing at all. So instead of trying and failing we (happily) prefer to fail to try.

I do not think it is wrong to dream. I do not think it is wrong to set goals (even lofty ones) for yourself that push you farther than you would be before. Ambition is a good trait that nearly every "great" in history exhibited. Without drive no one would do anything. But perfectionism is a different story. Perfectionism is dangerous. It steals your joy and restrains your life. It also has a very nasty root: pride.

Though pride manifests itself in innumerable ways, it always says in essence "my life is all about me." Pride views everything through the lens of ME. It is wrapped up entirely in the idea of ME. It is the definition of self-worship, and in the form of perfectionism, pride designates value to things that I do very well--because I do them very well. Something is worth doing not because it is a good or noble thing to do, but only because I am good at doing it. Deeds are done not because they are valuable, but because they designate a degree of value to me. Perfectionism is about how I am perceived, and maybe not even how I am perceived by others, but how I am perceived by myself.

And what makes pride so dangerous for Christians is that it goes straight against the call of our Savior Jesus Christ who instead of calling us to a life of personal exaltation, glory, and perfection--he calls us to lose ourselves. Achievements and prestigious records vigorously pursued and worshiped have no room before a jealous God. They oppose each other. There is no room for Jesus in the heart where self is on the throne.

So we must get rid of self. An example of a character who exemplified this is none other than John the Baptist. For a season John had incredible personal success and fame. People flocked to him, and were coming in multitudes to be baptized by the radical, locust eating wanderer. John was experiencing so much success in fact that people were even asking if he was the Messiah. 

To me, John's ministry looks a lot what a perfect ministry would look like. Not only was there a following, but there was a response. People were repenting of their sins, and hearts were being prepared for the Messiah. Talk about a significant life! A perfect life.

But when Jesus finally came around--the numbers eventually faded for John. The fame that he had enjoyed had subsided, and the national focus rescinded to a far more interesting target. One of his followers approached him about this in John 3: “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

What was John's response to his remarkably sudden decline, and Jesus's sharp rise at his expense? Jealousy and envy perhaps? Rage? What about melancholic depression? Instead John simply says:
The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.

John the Baptist got it right. For him, his life was not about how great he did, or how perfectly eloquent his speeches were. He wasn't measuring his performance by some flawless scorecard in in his head for the purpose of making him feel better about himself.  John could care less what "name" he made for himself--or even the difference he had made. How could he? He had lost himself that he might find Christ. And instead of his joy being dependent on his personal performance, John’s joy was complete for no other reason than that Christ was growing in fame.

Perfectionism is a struggle that may depend on the temperament. But we all can learn something from its cure. Jesus demands that we lose our prideful hearts that revolve around self and insist on being perfect (the best, significant, fill in the blank...). In the example of John the Baptist (and ultimately our Savior) let's get over ourselves. Let's break that idealism that pads our egos and tells us about our inherit goodness. Instead of engrossing in ME, may we be fixated on our Savior—worshiping, serving, and enjoying  Him above all illusions of personal excellence.

"What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ" -- Philippians 3:8

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