Do you remember how old you were when you first realized that life isn’t perfect? Chances are, you don’t. Almost immediately in this life we get a chance to use our lungs and make some noise, first to tell our parents we’ve arrived, then to let them know when we’re hungry, or wet, or otherwise uncomfortable. We learn to respond to less-than-perfect feelings inside ourselves by raising a fuss, so a person outside of us can come to the rescue and help make us feel better. That’s the normal, natural way of things, until we’re big enough to do that ourselves. Child development experts tell us that an infant who learns that the adults around her can be counted on to meet her needs will grow into a secure, usually well-adjusted child. That belief that our needs will be met helps us learn trust, which is important throughout our lives in all our relationships—with ourselves, with others, and with God.
As we begin to explore our world, we meet lots of imperfect things. There are physical boundaries like cribs and baby gates; there are people who tell us No and sometimes frown at us and put us in time out. There are other toddlers at the playground who take our toys (or won’t give us theirs), naptimes, spinach baby food, and the disappointments are just getting started. And then our innocent, center-of-the-universe perspective ends quite quickly as we begin to encounter the larger world and learn that there are lots of Nos and rules and people with expectations we hadn’t even imagined. We begin trying really hard to do what the big people want—parents, teachers, group leaders, coaches—and throughout our growing years we develop inside an internal way of managing ourselves that keeps us, we think, motivated, focused, and moving forward. Some people come through this time with a balanced sense of self-acceptance; and others of us—(raises hand)—become perfectionists.
The Oxford dictionary defines perfectionist as “a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection,” and you don’t have to think too hard about that imagine how tied up in knots we can get when we simply can’t be happy with anything less than perfection from ourselves, from others, from the situations we meet in life. I think I get my perfectionism genetically: I come from a long line of perfectionists: My grandmother insisted on having the potatoes peeled and in the water on the stove by 2pm for a five-thirty supper; I remember my mom once being absolutely mortified that she’d forgot to put the salt shaker on the table. I know, small potatoes, you’re thinking. But when perfection is the only standard you’ll accept, even the tiniest misses can feel like huge infractions. And in my own life, there was the never-ending to-do list; the bossy inner voice in my head, and the no-excuses mindset. Most days I worked until I was exhausted, and there never seemed to be enough time to do all the things I told myself I had to get done.
Research has shown that it’s hard for perfectionists to feel happy with themselves and that they are inwardly critical of whatever they do, judging themselves harshly and demanding improvements, no matter how acceptable their efforts might seem to others. To them, everything falls short. That creates a lot of internal anxiety, which only pushes them to try harder, do more, and focus even more relentlessly on getting it all absolutely right. Sounds miserable, doesn’t it?
That was my story through my 30s and into my 40s and I can tell you that it is miserable. Perfectionism steals our joy. But the good news is that things change, and somewhere along the line, in seminary—which is quite helpful if you’re willing to take a look at the unexplored parts of your thinking—I noticed that something huge was missing in relationship with myself. And that something was grace.
Grace is willing to listen to why we didn’t get something done and grace cares about how tired we look and how hard we’ve been trying. Grace invites us to take a deep breath, to relax a little, maybe even do something that makes us smile, give ourselves a little break. God’s grace comes to love and nurture and explore with us and there is freedom and play and maybe even a little humming or whistling involved. Grace brings life back into our tired bodies, sore from how tightly we hold them and how relentlessly we drive them. Grace tells us everything is okay just the way it is because God is here, and as a result, puts a spring in our step if we’ll allow it and smiles back on our faces.
In the mid-1600s George Fox traveled all over England speaking to increasingly large crowds about how they could know and worship God in the spirit of the early church, the way God intended it. He talked about the light of Christ and it’s leading of each soul, and how every life can be transformed by the loving, purifying presence of Christ. In Derby, England, Fox felt led to attend what he called in his Journal, “a great lecture…with many officers of the army, and priests, and preachers…as well as a colonel” who was also a preacher. Fox gave the message he felt moved by the Lord to share, and he wrote, “and they were pretty quiet. But there came an officer and took me by the hand, and said that I and the other two with me must go before the magistrates.”
So George Fox and his companions were brought to the judge on charges of blasphemy, and when they asked him whether he was sanctified, by which they meant holy or consecrated, he told them, “Yes; for I am in the paradise of God.” Shocked, they asked him whether he had no sin, and he said, “Christ my Saviour has taken away my sin; and in Him there is no sin.”
The end of the story that day for Fox and his friends was a conviction of blasphemy and sentence of six months in the Derby jail, but the point Fox was making was an important one that still serves us today. Perfectibility, Fox taught, is possible for human beings—flawed as we are, walking around on this earth as we do. But the perfection is not our own; it is the work of God’s grace, acting and leading and guiding each of our lives in love. This is how Fox could know he had no sin; because his heart was led by the Light of Christ, who completes, transforms, and purifies us from the inside out, one flaw, one habit, one blind spot at a time.
In our Old Testament reading today, the psalmist is asking God to do a searching inventory of his heart, assessing where in him there might be areas still blocked to truth and light and love:
“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
This is where that trust we developed when we were kids really comes in handy, because if we are able to pray this prayer with the psalmist and keep our hearts and minds open for God’s leading, God will surely answer. Situations will pop up in our lives to help us see clearly what gets in our way and becomes as an obstacle to God’s love. And step by step—if we’re paying attention and willing—God will help us understand and let go of our sticking points, forgive our trespasses, and gradually open our hearts to a more graceful way to live.
That willingness—that readiness—to open to this kind of inner change reminds me of a lovely poem by Joyce Rupp, called The Empty Cup:
it is time for me
to see the flaws
it is time for me
to halt my drive
and to accept
it is time for me
slowly evolving growth
the kind that comes
in God’s own good time
and pays no heed
to my panicky pushing
it is time for me
it is time for me
if I wait to be
before I love myself
I will always be
if I wait until
all the flaws, chips,
and cracks disappear
I will be the cup
that stands on the shelf
and is never used
One day last week I saw a picture of a beautiful blanket crocheted in a basket weave pattern and I decided that on my way home from work I’d stop and get some yarn and start making it that night. Seemed like a good relaxing way to spend an evening. A few hours later I was snuggled on the couch with Gloria, happily crocheting what I hoped would be a blanket with a lovely pattern. Except. Either I didn’t understand the pattern (which is possible) or I didn’t count closely enough (which is likely), but I soon saw that what I was creating was turning out all wonky. I don’t know the correct crochet terminology, but the poofy places didn’t line up or alternate with the non-poofy places. It was all out of order. There was no logic to it. Six or seven double-crocheted rows in, I realized I just wasn’t making the lovely blanket I’d intended to make. Frustrated, I gave up for the night.
The next morning, in that soft, dim place between sleep and waking, I had the thought that everything God created, He blessed. He celebrated the land and the sea, the day and the night, the animals and the plants, and His first human kin. He loved it all and named it “very good.” And I saw, in contrast, that what I created—even though I’d had fun doing it—I named “not good enough.” That showed me that my understanding and acceptance of myself still has strings attached. I hadn’t been able to simply enjoy my time crocheting because I was unhappy with the results. I didn’t give myself the grace of being a learner. Instead, that evening, my perfectionism stole my joy. I saw that grace is still—and may always be–doing its perfect work in me.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he writes movingly about how God fills in the gaps for us and how that ultimately makes all God touches perfect—in and with and through our very human lives. It takes both of us together—our willingness and God’s grace—to make a perfect whole. I read in a book by New Thought leader Florence Scovel Shinn about a man who learned to overcome his anxiety and self-criticism by simply doing his best in every situation and then putting it all in God’s hands saying, “I bless this in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” And then he left it there; he trusted God to finish the work and bring the right result for all involved.
Paul struggled throughout his adult life with what he called a “thorn in the flesh,” and he asked three times that God might take away the condition. But Christ instead told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” For that reason, Paul says, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
We were never meant to be perfect, to have things all figured out, to be the masters of our fate, able to go it alone. In fact, it is when we need help—and are willing to let it in—that perfection is closest. When we’ve tried hard and reached the end of ourselves–our ability, our patience, our hope–God’s grace takes over from there, setting us free of our struggles, lifting our spirits, renewing our joy, and reminding us that we’re loved, whether we do things perfectly or not.
“A little girl and her mom were out for a walk one day when they met their neighbor, who had a jump rope she had gotten for the child. The girl had never tried to jump rope before, so the friend unwrapped it and showed her how. The girl took the handles in her small hands and studied them for a minute, and then she swung the rope over her head and gave a little jump. Her mom and neighbor clapped. She tried again, and this time was a bit better. They clapped louder. Soon she was able to jump the rope twice in a row. Her appreciative audience cheered her on. As the mom and neighbor talked, the little girl decided to practice jumping the rope down the sidewalk. But soon she came back, dragging the rope behind her, a sad look on her face. “I can do it, Mommy,” she said, “but I need lots of clapping.”
We can do it, too, whatever it is, and we also need lots of clapping. Lucky for us we are loved by a God who is all about encouragement, strengthening, and guiding our growth in a loving and transforming way. That is the best news of all. Not that our to-do list will get done on time or the blanket will be perfect, but that God’s grace is always with us, cheering us on and transforming even our weakest efforts into something good. Maybe one day, like God, we’ll be able to look at our creations with joy and see that they’re very good. Until then, we can welcome God’s presence in all that we do, remembering that we don’t need to be perfect, because God is.
- OT Psalm 139: 23-24
- NT 2 Corinthians 12: 1-10
- Rupp, Joyce. “The Empty Cup.” https://joycerupp.com/the-perfect-cup/
- Fox, George. The Journal of George Fox. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Journal_of_George_Fox/O5zZAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover