The Pressure of Perfection
It’s the word we use for affirming someone when they have done something for us.
That Valentine’s Brunch yesterday was perfect!
We use it almost unconsciously when we want to say thank you and let someone know that we are pleased.
The decorations you all brought, ah… perfect.
It’s the word we use for for the highest score one can achieve in sports like gymnastics and diving where judges rate the quality and difficulty of a performance.
That was a perfect 10!
It’s the word we use to describe food when it has just the right blend of herbs and spices.
That corn casserole Joanie made least week for our potluck lunch was perfect!
We use it to describe gifts, whether exactly what we wanted from a spouse or simple yet lovingly
made by our children.
That was the perfect present for me.
We use it when we are trying to reassure someone that they are good enough.
Oh sweetheart, you’re perfect just the way you are.
We use it to describe the weather when it fits our desire for an event. We husbands use it to describe our spouse’s appearance when they ask the dreaded question, “How do I look?”
It feels so good to hear that word as praise. It signifies the ultimate, the best, the ideal, flawless. And yet, perfect can – and has for so many of us – become as Voltaire said long ago, “the enemy of the good.” Perfect, you see, becomes the thing we want, the goal we set time and again for what we do. We crave perfection in each little craft we make, each word we write, with each dish we cook, with every single task we do. As if all of life was a performance that was being rated 1-10 by judges and the only acceptable score is a perfect 10.
We, you and me, in so many ways, become perfectionists. Now, I don’t know about you, but I have throughout my life been eaten up with perfectionism. I was such a perfectionist during my years in school that I could not really accept any final grade except an “A”. Now that may seem like a great way to make one’s parents proud…and I used that as the reason for my obsession with grades for a long time. But the truth is, I could simply not accept anything less than perfection in my grades.
That is, after all, what society taught me. You do work, you get judged. You do well enough, you get rewarded. If you do the best, you get awarded for being the best, you get validated for your hard work, you rise to the top, you are given opportunity, you can expect the best job, the highest pay…the perfect life…right?
That is part of the american dream, after all….isn’t it?
Well, it hasn’t worked out that way for me. You see, there was this thing I loved…music. My choice to pursue that thing I loved in high school prevented me from taking enough AP classes to graduate Valedictorian, despite being almost flawless in high school….I received one B in all of school, AP US History…and I got a perfect score on the AP exam to boot (you can believe I was upset with my teacher for that one).
So perfection did not work out so well for me in high school. Despite doing everything I was asked, I fell short….and all because of my love for something. Not only with my academic work was I pretty perfect, but with music as well. I became one of the best trombonist in the state of North Carolina during the mid and late 90s. I was a soloist with our band, I was in every audition group in the Raleigh area, always in one of the top few chairs in NC All State bands – almost always receiving the highest scores for my solo performance. I was assured a music scholarship, so folks told me.
But neither my grades nor my musicianship earned me a full scholarship. In fact, it took both of those combined. And despite getting a full scholarship, I felt defeated because my perfect grades were not good enough nor was my music good enough on its own.
Perfect, as I learned, was simply not enough. Perfectionism had failed me. And in fact it had left me with scars. Scars from worry and anxiety over tests and auditions and competitions. Scars from coming in second…ridiculous right! Scars from the burden, the weight of needing to be the best.
Perfection had become for me exactly what author Anne Lamott says in her best selling book titled Bird by Bird:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.
I had become insane. So consumed and focused on perfection that I had lost sight of real joy in living. And that is, my friends, exactly what our modern idea of perfect does. It makes us insane and obsessive about things that are not the end goal of life. And here is where Jesus words at the end of Matthew 5 come in and just flat out haunt me:
Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.
Well, I sure had tried…for years…for all of my school aged Life…and I had fallen short. I had become obsessed and unhealthy. I faced anxiety like no one should have to. I had cried because of being second…second! ….which is just plain saddening because I could not be happy about such an accomplishment.
And if all these sound like the trite life of a middle class white kid who had most everything he could want, I went further with my pursuit of perfection. Recall those words in Matthew that lead up to the be perfect line: turn the other cheek, go the second mile, love your enemies. Then, “Be perfect.” Sounds nice, sounds beautiful, sounds lovely…..sounds…..impossible!
Love your enemies? Respond to pain by opening yourself to more pain? Pray for your persecutors? Oh yes, and besides all that, be flawless.” Yeah, Right!
But folks, insane as it may seem, I went and did all those things. I left seminary and moved into an intentional community where everyday I turned the other cheek to people who controlled me, who abused me with manipulation and passive aggressiveness. I walked an extra mile with people who literally stole from me. I loved people who would not forgive me when I failed. I prayed for people who spoke poorly of me. And I lived in this environment for a decade trying to work it all out, trying to keep following Jesus commands, trying to fix myself through counseling, trying to be better, to be good enough, to be strong enough to take it all, trying to be exactly what Jesus asks us in Matthew: Be Perfect.
And that’s the conundrum: Jesus asks us to do the impossible, to be flawless. What was I to do when my faith was asking more from me than I could sanely give? What was I to do when my faith seemed to call me to a life that was not sustainable, that was not joyful, that was not perfect.
Honestly, I think deep down there were moments that were so painful, so filled with guilt and disappointment that I just felt damned, literally damned….because despite my efforts, perfect was not working out for my life. I was failing God’s command to be perfect. Perfection had truly become for me an oppressive goal that was robbing me of the joy of life that God offers in each and every moment.
Now, I don’t know exactly how all this connects for you, but I feel pretty sure that we have all, at different points in our life, felt the pressure of perfection. Only you can look deeply enough into your life to tell your story and to understand how “perfect has been the enemy of good.” I suspect your story is pretty powerful, now matter how you may personally feel about it.
And so I want to offer a way forward, which is really not m way forward, but Christ’s way forward. Life is not really about perfection in the way that you and I understand that word: Perfect. In fact, Jesus is not asking us to be flawless, without blemish…not at all. He is not even asking us to be the best.
No, Jesus is asking us to be telios. That is… whole and complete. Jesus is asking us to grow and learn until the very end of our days on earth. For that is exactly what that little Greek word telios means – complete, mature, full-grown, finished, whole.
I want to suggest that you never again read this verse in the Bible with a translation that says “Be Perfect.” And if yours says that then change it, write in a note, put an asterisk by it that clarifies that this idea is about wholeness and completeness, not flawlessness.
Perfect in our society has become a distorted idea obsessed with the removal of faults and flaws. But make no mistake, Jesus is all about making us whole and complete, not about asking us to be without flaw. Jesus knows we cannot do that, he died for us because we cannot do that. Jesus knows what it looks like to be fully human, he knows what the end can hold for us…and end filled with life, and end that culminates in being fully present with God. And that is what Jesus calls us to in Matthew.
Through all those sayings – love your enemy, turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile – Jesus is not calling us to be flawless. No, Jesus is painting a portrait of the very heart of God, reminding us that God is with us, and calling us to seek wholeness through a love for other people that looks like God’s love for us.
Friends, To be perfect is not to add pressure to our already overwhelmed lives; instead, it is to assure us that we are not alone in the world, that God is with us, and continues to work in and through us.
So next time you feel the urge to be perfect or to encourage someone else with that word, remember this: Perfection is not about getting things right. It is about making things whole. It is about loving as God loves, and Jesus is the example of that love.