Keep Your Idealism, But Lose Perfectionism

by Joe McKeever

It sounds so right: "I expect nothing less than perfection from you. We have the highest standards in this church (or company or family)."

Many years ago, Psychology Today magazine ran an article titled "The Perfectionist's Script for Self-Defeat." It was one of the most practical and helpful things I had ever found.

Here's a woman on a diet. She has done well for two weeks now, avoiding the danger foods, eating only the prescribed meals. She has lost 7 pounds and can already feel the difference in her clothes. One day in a moment of weakness, she eats 3 potato chips. Just 3. But she is so overwhelmed by guilt and the knowledge that she has broken her diet, she gets discouraged about the diet and goes on a binge. By the end of the day she has consumed 3 bags of chips and a half-gallon of ice cream.

Anything wrong with eating 3 potato chips? Not at all. The problem was the impossible standard of perfection she erected for herself.

A pastor said to me, "When I start at a new church, I gather the staff and say to them, ‘As far as I know, you are the best at what you do in the world. I expect the highest standards from you. If I ever find otherwise, you will be the one who convinces me.'"

That sounds right, I suppose. However, he's setting himself and these staff-members up for a disappointment. He's expecting fallible, frail humans to live up to an impossible standard.

He was right to affirm them, and correct to encourage them to set high standards. A longtime pastor friend recently told me the staff he inherited at his new church had grown lazy and unproductive and desperately needed to be motivated to do better. That is often the case. My point here is that setting an impossible standard-for oneself and for one's employees-is not the answer. You're dooming yourself and the others to failure.

"If it's worth doing, it's worth doing poorly." That little backward-sounding ditty has a lot going for it. On the surface, it appears to encourage shoddiness, and no one wants that. But look a little deeper and it says something stronger: that if a project is worth doing, just because you cannot do it perfectly does not mean you shouldn't try. Give it a shot. Pretty good is better than not at all.

Here's a guy who refuses to sing a solo in church because he does not sound as good as-fill in the name of your favorite singer here. The fact is, he sounds fairly good. Not great. No one is going to be calling from Nashville this week offering him a recording contract. But for our church, he would do fine. But no, he won't do it, and that's a real shame. He could bless a lot of people and do himself some good by taking the plunge. Even if it's not of professional quality, if it's the best you can do, go with it.

Bob refuses to give a talk in front of his church. Many years ago, in the eighth grade, he was delivering a memorized speech and forgot his lines about two-thirds through. The memory of that embarrassment is very much alive inside Bob to this day. He will make any sacrifice not to repeat that humiliation and so refuses to even try to speak in front of a small group. We assure him he'll be talking about something he knows very well-his own testimony of faith in Christ-and he can do it any way he pleases. But because he knows his delivery will not be smooth and flawless, and out of the fear of failure, he refuses to even try.

God uses frail, human subjects, thankfully. If He used only the perfect among us, no one would be doing anything. "All have sinned." "He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust" (Rom. 3:23 and Ps. 103:14).

So, loosen up. Give yourself permission to fail. But more than that, allow yourself to give the Lord your best even when it's not up to the standards you'd like to offer.

Always, someone asks, "What about that verse in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect?'" (Matt. 5:48) A good question, one that deserves a good answer.

Craig L. Blomberg writes that "perfect" is better translated as "mature" or "whole." "Jesus is not frustrating his hearers with an unachievable ideal but challenging them to grow in obedience to God's will-to become more like Him." Blomberg quotes J. Walvoord who said, "While sinless perfection is impossible, godliness, in its biblical concept, is attainable."

The best biblical evidence I see for that is the 20th chapter of Exodus, the location of the Ten Commandments. After giving these commands to Moses and the Israelites as His standard, God turns right around in the same chapter and gives them the provisions for an altar. It's as though the Lord was saying, "My standard is there and it is unchanging. However, I'm aware that you are frail and prone to failure. Therefore, I know you will fail to live up to this standard, so here is an altar. Here is my provision for you to receive forgiveness for "falling short" of my standard."

No wonder we make so much of the grace of God. As this perfect God deals with imperfect mankind, He does so with a perfect understanding of who we are, how we are, and what He may expect from us.

Since the God of perfection does not expect perfection from us, we would do well to cut ourselves and our friends a little slack also.

Dr. McKeever, a pastor for more than four decades, writes and creates
church-related cartoons with equal felicity. He presently serves as
director of missions for the New Orleans Baptist Association.

2011 Disciple 155x50 2011 AMG 155x50
Disciple Banner Ad