I am sure you have seen the bumper sticker I am not Perfect Just Forgiven. The Christian driver of the car is warning you ahead of time that he plans to drive like a non-Christian. As he cuts you off in traffic or changes lanes without a blinker, just remember he is not perfect, but, he is forgiven. I am quite certain that there are no perfect people. I have met some great examples of human character, but given enough time they will always show that their feet are made of clay. In the human realm, perfection does not exist and it seems quite clear to me that perfection does not exist in the spiritual realm either.
I have battled with perfectionism most of my adult life. Coupled with an obsessive-compulsive personality, the end result is that I have often set an impossible standard of living for myself. I crave order and structure. I demand answers. The TV has to be perfectly centered on the entertainment center. All of the cables must be hidden away so no one can see them. When I go to the doctors office or the store, I am quick to point out crooked signs. Polly laughs as I try to straiten out these hanging monuments to human laziness and imperfection. I am the type of person who people would love to have clean their house but can’t stand to be there while I am doing it because it would drive them crazy. I am the one person in America who still has the receipt from the lifetime-warranted $4.00 can opener purchased 5 years ago. Any of my six children will tell you that they have heard their father say to them countless times, everything has a place. That, and the Bruce Gerencser classic, do it right the first time.
My desk drawers are kept in perfect order, though thanks to declining health I’m finding it harder to keep every paper clip and rubber band in its proper place. My clothes must hang the same way, sorted by type of garment. When I buy a newspaper, I have to be the first one who reads it. Why? Everyone else messes up the paper. I like to read it first, making sure every section is in its proper order.
I obsess over the smallest of things. If something isn’t working right I will expend hours attempting to fix it. I know all about the law of diminishing return, but I just know I can figure it out if I have enough time. This approach has served me well in many areas of my life. With significant amounts of time invested in figuring things out, I have become something of an expert on certain things (computers for example). Sadly, an increasing loss of cognitive function is ever-so-slowly robbing me of my storehouse of knowledge (and minutia).
I bought my first computer 24 years ago. I started out with a DOS Vtech 286 and have owned numerous computers since. Currently, I have a Windows-based desktop computer I built, along with an iPad Pro. While I, at times, have Luddite tendencies, I do love owning new technology. Whether it is a new camera or the latest, greatest offering from Apple, I invest significant time in learning everything I can about my new purchase.
I have broken, crashed, and screwed up more computers than I can count. Well, I could count them. Making lists of things is another thing l seem driven to do: how many jobs have I had, how many cars have I owned, how many houses have I lived in. That’s how my brain works. I don’t know that I understand it, it’s just how I am. If I’m sitting in the doctor’s office impatiently waiting for my savior to walk through the door, I will occupy myself with counting how many ceiling tiles there are or some other silly game. Polly, did you know there are 43 ceiling tiles in this room? No, I didn’t, she says, smiling as she returns to reading a six month old issue of People Magazine. Polly, did you know that the tiles on the one end of the room are a different size from the tiles of this side? No answer, just a smile as she returns to the latest on Brad and Angelina. Polly, did you…no smile this time. Time to silently play the ceiling tile game, I tell myself.
My three oldest sons have a plethora of stories they could tell about their fathers obsession with perfection and order. They’ve watched me go to great pains to make sure this or that is level. My need to make sure the church pulpit was exactly in the middle of the center aisle is legendary. Right down to 1/32 of an inch. Back before we had HD television, I would obsess over cable roll in the TV picture. I’d check every connection, every cable, as I attempted to find the cause of the roll. While digital equipment has put an end to cable roll, rarely does a weekend go by when one of my sons doesn’t make a joke about there being something wrong with the TV’s picture quality. Ah, fond memories.
In every area of my life I strive for perfection. It is a frequent topic of discussion during my visits to my counselor For all my striving to be perfect, I know I’m not. I have character flaws and shortcomings that are ever-present reminders of my imperfections. However, as any perfectionist will tell you, knowing you have imperfections just makes you try all the harder to be perfect.
Where did my drive for perfection come from? I wasn’t raised in a perfection-dominated home. My mother kept a clean, but cluttered house. If I wanted to play sports I could, but my parents never push me to excel. The same could be said for my schooling. There never was any pressure from my parents to be an exceptional student. By the time I got to high school I had learned how to get by, a smart kid, who with little effort, could get B’s and C’s. So where exactly did my perfectionist tendencies come from?
I am convinced that my battle with perfectionism and all its attendant problems stems from my religious upbringing. It goes something like this: A perfect God gave us a perfect Bible and he expects us to keep his commands perfectly. For 50 years, I believed the Bible to be the perfect Word of God. a direct revelation from God to me. In this perfect Bible are verses that speak of perfection. Verses such as:
These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. Genesis 6:9
And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. Genesis 17:1
Thou shalt be perfect with the LORD thy God. Deuteronomy 18:13
Let your heart therefore be perfect with the LORD our God, to walk in his statutes, and to keep his commandments, as at this day. I Kings 8:61
And thou, Solomon my son, know thou the God of thy father, and serve him with a perfect heart and with a willing mind: for the LORD searcheth all hearts, and understandeth all the imaginations of the thoughts: if thou seek him, he will be found of thee; but if thou forsake him, he will cast thee off for ever. I Chronicles 28:9
There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil. Job 1:1
Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace. Psalm 37:37
For the upright shall dwell in the land, and the perfect shall remain in it. Proverbs 2:21
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. Matthew 19:21
And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. Romans 12:2
Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you 2 Corinthians 13:11
That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. 2 Timothy 3:17
One verse, above all others, reminded me of God’s standard for my life:
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect Matthew 5:48
I remember thinking as a newly-saved, baptized, called to the ministry teenager, Wow! God demands and expects perfection from me. And according to the Bible this goal was attainable. 2 Peter 1:3 says that God gave me the Holy Spirit that would teach me EVERYTHING that pertains to life and godliness. God saved me, called me, and filled me with the Holy Spirit. He also gave me a perfect book, the Bible. Within its pages was all knowledge necessary to live a godly, holy, perfect life.
The new-fangled grace and love passivity that is quite common in Evangelical circles these days had no place in my life. James said “faith without works is dead.” While I knew that good works saved no one, I strove to show my love, devotion, and dedication to God through my good works. As a pastor, I expected churches services to be orderly. I expected parishioners to give 100% of themselves to the work of God. I taught them, and tried to live by example, that God deserved 100% of our time, effort, and money. Think of what Jesus did for us, I often said. Should we not give our all for him?
Such thinking led to an outward form of righteousness. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but God demanded it as did many of the people I pastored. Over time, I learned the fine art of covering my imperfections. I didn’t commit awful, evil sins, but I did do things that were contrary to the perfect standard set forth in God’s infallible Word. This dualistic way of living kept me in constant turmoil. Right with God. Messed up, not right with God. Pray for forgiveness. Right with God. Rinse and repeat.
Eating too much, watching R rated movies, going to a strip club, fighting with my wife, not claiming love offerings on my tax return, buying non-essential stuff, not giving more money to the church, not praying enough, or not reading the Bible as much as I should–all these kept me in a seemingly constant state of repentance. This kind of thinking was reinforced every time I attended a preacher’s or Bible conference. Great men of God, great outwardly anyway, would rail against sinning preachers and their worldly habits. I’d hear their pronouncements and their words would cut me to the quick. You need to repent, I’d tell myself. So I would, and with the fervor of the apostles on the Day of Pentecost, I would strive for perfection once again, knowing that in a day, week, or month, I’d be right back on my knees pleading with God to forgive me of my sins.
Since leaving the ministry 12 years ago and leaving the Christianity 5 years later, I have been on a path towards regaining self-worth and personal identity. Christian perfectionism robbed me of my humanity, and here I am, an aged, broken-down ex-preacher learning what it is to be human. My focus and standard of conduct have changed dramatically. My list of “sins” is much smaller than it ever has been. Bit by bit I am learning to just live life and enjoy what comes my way. Above all, I’m working to embrace my imperfection. This isn’t easy and it doesn’t mean I no longer strive to be better in areas where I need improvement. The difference now is that the standard has changed. There’s no God to please and no church demanding perfection. I’m free to be who I am, a man who still craves order, but who is learning that it is okay if the window valances at the dentist’s office are off-center or the pictures in the doctor’s waiting are crooked.
How about you? How you have a story to tell about how Christian perfectionism affected your life? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
The line about the dentist’s office window valances references the fact that all the valances at my dentist’s office were a quarter to a half an inch off-center. I asked the dental assistant is she ever noticed it and she said, No. She then looked at them and said, Why, you are right. They are crooked. She then laughed as I reached up with my cane and tapped a valance over to the right spot. Order restored, I thought to myself.