...And Deliver us From Perfectionism: How the Gospel Delivered and Delivers Me from Jesus Plusisms

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

I was a sad case many years ago. Ask my wife. She'd probably tell you I still am. But I'd reply, "I already knew that!" Perfectionism had a grip on my life like nothing else. Perhaps you can relate to the following description - a borderline OCD patient (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). Some people may define it as one who is an organizational freak, or Type A personality, or any number of other synonyms. As I look back on it, I was borderline freak. Robert Hillyer is noted for saying, "Perfectionism is a dangerous state of mind in an imperfect world."
  • I arranged the clothes in my closet and drawers perfectly. My closet looked like this: short sleeves on the right side, long sleeve on the left. When the seasons changed, they were swapped. The short sleeves were arranged left to right, from light to dark. The groupings went left to right from pullovers to button-ups, then subgrouped by solids, to stripes, to plaids, again from light to dark or by similar patterning. In my drawer of t-shirts, there were three rows. The left row was white t-shirts; the middle was gray t's, and the right were other colors. These were arranged from top to bottom from the ones I wore more regularly to the ones I wore infrequently. My socks were arranged also, two sides: the left side being colored socks (arranged light to dark from front to back), and the right side being white socks (arranged from ankle socks to tube socks, front to back). The shorts in my drawers were arranged similarly, and the pants in my closet arranged the same as my shirts: from left to right, casual (light to dark), then dress slacks. (The picture is not of my closet by the way, but is just what mine would have looked like years ago.)

  • While I'm still on clothes, my friend Randy makes fun of me because of my OCD hang over of feeling like I've got to have two pockets on my shirts, if they are to have pockets at all. There's this splinter of symmetry stuck in my brain. Shirts with one pocket cause the mental splinter to hurt (kidding of course).

  • I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 4500-5000 theological books now. This part of my life still retains the clearest expression of my perfectionistic years. I have moved my library many times and each time it gets set up the same way. They are all categorized by author's last name and in this pattern. First, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and reference books. Second, backgrounds, histories, manners and customs, etc. Third, hermeneutics, exegesis, and Bible study. Fourth, bible versions and translations. Fifth, language references, first Hebrew and then Greek. Sixth, language dictionaries. Seventh, Bible references: e.g. surveys, one volume commentaries, introductions, etc. Eighth, commentaries, from Old to New Testament, of course, beginning with full/completed sets, then moving to individual commentaries. Ninth, systematic theology volumes and or sets, by author's last name. Tenth, systematic theology sections: theology proper, christology, pneumatology, angelology, hamartiology, anthropology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology (I may have missed a category or two...my library still resides at my former church and I haven't looked at it for five months now! Yes, I'm having withdrawals). Eleventh, biblical theology. Twelfth, church history and historical theology. Thirteenth, biographies. Fourteenth, miscellaneous works/sets by various authors from The Works of Arminius to Jerome Zanchius (or John Zens...I forget). Fourteenth, Christian life and discipleship books. Fifteenth, marriage and family books. Sixteenth, in the resource room, journals and out of print copied books, as well as books on the cults, postmodernism, conflict resolution, Puritan history. Seventeenth, fluff books (Your Best Life Now, Greatest Salesman in the World, etc.). My filing system is the same way. My wife will attest to the sacred code by which all material is to be filed and meticulously updated, consistently.

  • My garage and/or storage shed also reflects my struggle with perfectionism. I finally got it all sorted out last week, and as I stood back reflecting on my work, I was reminded of my struggle.

  • The motto here at the house with the kids is simple: "Everything has a place." And it does. If it's organized, it's easier to find when you need it. That's obvious enough. When I look at a tub of toys, my mind, to this day, freaks out and I have thoughts of hiding in a corner and finding a happy place. Our toy closet reflects my struggle: action figures in one container, legos in another (top drawer - Knights Kingdom, middle drawer - Bionicles, third drawer - sundry legos, separate container - duplo blocks). Games have a shelf, dress up has a container (one for the three boys and another for our daughter). There's a bin specifically for lightsaber equipment - yes we have an enormous amount of this category of toy and we use them quite regularly. Then there's a sheetrock mud bucket (cleaned, of course) to hold elongated weapons like swords. There's a container for Polly Pocket gear, a container for tea party gear, and containers for anything that has more than one of it in its particular category. (By the way, girls use tupperware to store their things, and boys use containers or storage bins...I had to educate my boys on this just two weeks ago!).

Perfectionism is also related to other tendencies pointed out by psychology such as "Type A Personalities," obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anal-retentiveness. Webster's New World College Dictionary defines it in two ways.

1. "Any doctrine that holds that moral, religious, or social perfection can and should be attained in this life.

2. "Extreme or obsessive striving for perfection, as in one's work."

If a perfectionist is honest, he holds to both definitions, especially if he is a Christian. Yet therein lies the difficulty. A perfectionist Christian is sort of an oxymoron, and a regular moron as well. How so? I believe that to be perfectionistic denies the gospel I say I believe and hold so dearly.

- In a way, when I am acting out of this tendency, I am practically denying my innate depravity and inherent sinfulness. Though I would acknowledge my depravity and sinfulness in one sense (else I would not be so obsessed with doing things perfectly), I deny it in another sense in that I actually believe I can possibly if not probably achieve perfection in certain areas. In other words, I'd never say such a thing, but you could never tell that from the way I used to act.

- By focusing on becoming perfect or doing things perfectly, I denied, rejected, and/or ignored the God of the gospel, the only One who is perfect.

- Because only God is perfect, perfectionism ignores the reality that we fall far short of perfection and therefore stand in need of a substitute, in need of forgiveness, of justification, of sanctification, etc.

- Anyone who has lived with a perfectionist can attest to the fact that part of his goal in life is to either force others to become like himself or get extremely irritated at their inconsiderate attitude toward the order that everything in this life ought to have! But this denies the gospel because it operates from a hypocritical, Pharisaical mindset that doesn't recognize it's own inherent in sinfulness while pointing it out in everyone else.

- Pharisaism is rooted in hypocrisy and is reflected in a lack of forgiveness. My tendencies caused much upheaval early on in my marriage. I denied the gospel by holding her tendency to not be like me against her. How insane is that? Again - perfectionist Christian: from oxymoron to just plain moron.

- Perfectionism extends hardly if any grace at all to those who happily do not share this trait. By the second year of our marriage, I had her in counseling with a woman at our local church because of my pharisaical standards of how clean a house ought to be, how often it ought to be cleaned, and other nonsensical shenanigans like that. When an elder pointed out that I may be acting legalistically toward my wife, I self-justifyingly responded with a theological chart defining legalism from the New Testament. A fitting move for a Pharisee, wouldn't you say?

Consider the following questions for yourself, toward an accurate diagnosis of whether or not you struggle with this trait.

  • Do I ever get angry at myself -- and take more than a day to feel good about myself again?
  • Do I feel embarrassed when it turns out I am wrong about something?
  • Do I try to cover up my blunders with lies or by redirecting the focus off of myself?
  • Do I get defensive when someone indicates I'm not a perfectly good person?
  • Do I blame others even when I am responsible?
  • Do I believe that if people get to know me well enough, they won't like me any more?
  • Do I examine my conscience only rarely?
  • When I realize I have sinned, do I doubt that God forgives me?
  • When a person gets angry at me, do I feel like dirt?
  • Do I have only a few friends, and is it because I'm protecting myself from getting hurt?
  • Do I deal with pain by drinking or using some other form of getting high?
  • Is this quiz making me feel uncomfortable?

As I look back on my road to recovery, I'm still not quite sure of the motivation behind it. Some would say it is legalism - attempting to achieve favor with God through doing things in an orderly fashion. But like I said, I'm not sure of that. I had a decent understanding of justification by faith at that time, and would have known I couldn't live before God otherwise.

Clearly the obvious motivation is simply pride - a desire to exalt myself and my ideals and my standards as equal to God's, or perhaps even above God's. Perfectionism is ultimately all about me - order in my world, organization of my stuff, control of my environment.

My thoughts now are that this was a trait I received from my dear mother who would very much share these tendencies. She trained us well to clean, organize, straighten, maintain, etc. And I notice many of those things being passed down to my kids. But what's the motivation behind it? For that is just as important, if not more so, than the act of organization and order itself.

Though it is still a mystery to me, I have concluded this: no matter what kinks I may be born with wired into my personality, the Spirit of God residing in me can change that with the hope of the gospel of Christ - that message and Person whom the Spirit seeks to glorify within me day by day. It's taken years - years of marriage and child rearing - to rewire my personality with the gospel. The process was simple. The fact of the matter is that I could never expect to live with other sinners and have everything go as smoothly as I would like. And who's to say I'm the standard of smooth anyway, though my friends in high school did call me "Smooth Operator" when I was on the ball court at the three point line. But that's for another post.

It took time, and the change was gradual. But it was not natural. I had to identify that tendency and work to kill it, replacing it with patience, love, tenderness, forgiveness, and the spiritual gifting of flexibility - rolling with the providential punches. Over time, folded laundry that sat for more than a day didn't bother me so much; dirty clothes that lay in a corner for more than a day didn't eat away at me so much; the toilet paper being installed to hang under rather than over was not an issue (though it is still difficult to find in the dark).

My wife and I have both grown through this struggle. She has identified areas where the things I pointed out were right, though the attitude and communication behind it was worse than wrong. She has made wonderful changes. But here is the essence of the gospel: I have purposed to not be behind any of those changes.

The gospel teaches that the Spirit of God is living inside she and I both. He will work in us to do and to will according to His good pleasure, not mine (Phil. 2:13). If I keep my mouth shut long enough, God will do a much better job at changing her than I will. And what is more, He knows where she really needs changing, and it may not be with the laundry or toilet paper! How superficial I was (and still am!) as a (recovering) perfectionist.

Praise God for the gospel which preaches to me that I am not perfect, never have been, and never will be. I will never be able to do anything with any degree of perfection, if perfection had degrees at all. Every one of my best efforts will be contaminated in some way with the taint of sinfulness, though I may not be able to detect it. I need a substitute, someone who was perfect to be perfection for me. And when I stand in His presence, worshiping Him, I see just how imperfect I really am. And even my view of my own imperfection is so thoroughly imperfect I would despair if God were to ever show it to me.

But I have Jesus, perfect God made perfect human being, to be for me what I could never be, in order that I could have all of Him living in me. May perfectionist Christians out there humbly submit to these truths, as utterly painful as it will be to your lives and souls. Take off the proud flesh with its self-centered desires, and cast it off. Purpose to stand naked before God, and purpose not to hide behind a personality test or psychologist's conclusions. Submit to the Spirit who works to rewire you into the image of King Jesus.

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