In my last post of 2015, I made the confession that I am a recovering achieve-aholic. When alcoholics participate in AA, they eventually must confront the many secondary habits that arise from the original disease: i.e. lying, stealing money, etc. Similarly, my addiction has many secondary symptoms, one of which I’d like to openly address today. You see, not only do I have the tendency toward a need to achieve to prove my worth, I need to achieve perfectly.
Perfectionism, just like the addiction to achievement, is a crafty trap. It looks attractive, and many times it can masquerade as the right thing, but it will shackle us to shame until we are completely immobile. Perfectionism is actually a sneaky form of fear: fear of making mistakes, fear of being rejected because of those mistakes, fear of failure. It can appear to be noble, but like any fear it will paralyze us, leaving us trapped in a prison. Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity, and our creative God, who made us in his image, wants us free from all its bondage.
Perfectionism says: “If only you were a good [parent, daughter, employee, boss, son, spouse, Christian, fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever-you-please], you wouldn’t have made a mistake like that.” I know this because I hear the voice ALL. THE. TIME. Even over the tiniest, most ridiculously nit-picky things, the voice taunts me. It’s relentless. And I’ve actually given into it many times. At times I’ve even walked myself down to that dark cell, willingly handed over the key, and shut the door. And then begins the merciless punishment: “You’re such a screw-up. You can’t do anything right. You should be able to… (whatever-the-heck-it-is-I-can’t-seem-to-do). Why can’t you get it together? If you were worth anything you wouldn’t have made that mistake.”
Well, I’m calling bull. If you’re breathing, you’re probably making mistakes. Mistakes are a sure sign that you exist. So congratulations! We’re glad you’re here! Honestly, many of the people making mistakes are making them precisely because they’re being faithful to the assignment God gave them, instead of sitting on their buns where it’s less risky. The thing about big, scary assignments, is that we usually can’t do them successfully on our own. That’s ok. That’s good. That means you’re in the right place—the one where the divine can break through and be seen. God’s strength is magnified in our weakness. That’s part of the mysterious way of God: choosing broken human beings to show off the beauty and splendor of a perfect God.
Jesus is not asking for perfection from us. He’s asking for faithfulness. I’m sure we’ve all heard the saying: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” God wants good and faithful servants, not perfect ones.
Sometimes faithfulness doesn’t look pretty or perfect, but it’s just showing up to do the thing—again and again. We’re not perfect, friends. We’re aiming for faithfulness, just one step at a time. And when we make that our goal, we’re all gonna be alright, eventually. We may not always end up with flawless, dazzling results, but part of the maturing process is discovering that these things were never the goal. It’s actually in the mundane task of coming to the drawing board countless times that we begin to see our masterful God at work. And when we fall on our face or things aren’t sparkly like we imagined, it takes grit and determination to keep on going. No major league player hits the ball out of the park every single time he’s up to bat. But he doesn’t let that discourage him from showing up again and again. He doesn’t bench himself just because he’s got a strike on the board. He keeps coming to the plate.
Sometimes faithfulness just means showing the humility to admit when we’re wrong, and asking for forgiveness—again and again. Perfectionism tells us to hide all our flaws, to try to cover up our mess and our screw-ups. But if we buy into that, our BS is gonna start to stink. News flash: no one’s fooled when we try to explain away our mistakes. They happened. Yup. Let’s be brave enough to own up to them, to seek forgiveness when we need to from those we’ve hurt, and then to choose to forgive ourselves.
For many of us, forgiving ourselves actually seems much harder than forgiving others. In reality, they go hand in hand. If we don’t let go of our own mistakes, it becomes much harder to let go of others’. When we hold ourselves to impossible standards and then punish ourselves when we don’t measure up, we’ll inevitably treat our brothers and sisters with the same harsh cruelty. I’m unfortunately speaking from experience.
One day this past December, when it was unseasonably warm, I took a walk around a nearby lake. I came upon a small clearing with a shady picnic table, and a little embankment which would be perfect for fishing. I stopped to sit and read and journal for awhile, taking in the beauty and letting the fresh air fill me up. I had been slugging it out in a rough week, was under a lot of stress, and the kids were squirrelly. Predictably, I had made a lot of “mom mistakes.” In true perfectionist fashion my mind had been hurling accusatory thoughts a thousand miles a minute, and it was getting impossible to trudge on under their weight.
And then I looked up, and in the tree above me, saw this:
I stopped and stared, giving my brain time to process the sight. And suddenly it became so clear: I was like the many previous fishers, who had cast their line, and made a blunder. I cast my line with gusto…straight up into the branches above. Now, of course, I had a choice. I could keep mulling over my mistakes and stay tethered to the tree, unable to move forward and certainly unable to fish. Or I could cut myself loose. Those were my options.
I’m betting I’m not the only one who has fought this battle. Maybe you’re hung up on a line today, unable to forgive yourself for the mistakes you’ve made.
So this is me, kindly and gently tapping you on the shoulder. Hey, friend! How’s the fishing today? I see you had a bad cast, there. Yeah, happens to me all the time. In fact, it happens to all of us. It can be so infuriating, can’t it? Would you like to get back to fishing? Here, I have some scissors with me! You can borrow them if you’d like. The thing about these, though, is that there’s kind of an honor system. I’d love to help you, but I can’t do the cutting for you. It won’t work if I try to do it. You’ve actually got to take these into your hands and cut it loose yourself. Go on, now. It’s ok. You already have all the permission you need. There’s more line where that came from. In fact, there’s like, infinity line. So all that pressure you feel each time you try to cast? No need. Just relax. Be free. Get out to a clear, open space with no inhibitions, and simply try again. You can keep the scissors, actually. Consider them a gift. I have lots of extra pairs because I tend to need them quite a bit. Happy fishing!
Let’s all take a deep breath, look up at all those hopelessly entangled bobbers up there in that tree, and make the choice to cut ourselves loose. We’re not perfect. But if we can choose to forgive ourselves as freely as God does, we’ll be given the freedom that paves the way for faithfulness.
*I am making the disclaimer that I do not fish. I have not fished in over twenty years. So all the fishing-related jargon I used may be completely inaccurate and nonsensical. I apologize. Also, I’m not a big baseball fan, so I may have butchered that analogy as well. I make mistakes. And I’m trying to be ok with that. Thank you for understanding.