Since it was the definitive catalyst, I’ll begin by describing it. It was two and three quarters by six inches long and instructed the Branch Banking and Trust company to pay X dollars to … no one. Having conducted my first funeral, I fixated over one problem I had with the service. It had ruined my appreciation for the event and led me into a severe case of self-criticism. Even though the family had expressed their appreciation for my ministry to them, I still retained a deprecatory attitude toward my performance. Afterward, one of the family handed me a check, but the payor had left the payee line blank because he did not know my name. I had not filled it in nor cashed it because I considered myself unworthy of being paid anything at all. I was being a perfectionist.
I’ve been doing some reading on topics that fall outside my normal studies. For Christmas, I received The Birth Order Book, by Kevin Lenman. In it, he spends two chapters dealing with the dangers of indulging in what he calls perfectionism. Perfectionism arises from a desire to be perfect. The perfectionist determines his worth based on the goal of becoming mistake free. This attitude proves to be very destructive, because it sets a goal human cannot achieve. Essentially, the failure of our goal causes a negative reaction. We create unrealistic expectations and failing them end in sharp self-criticism. More unfortunately, as we build higher and higher expectations of ourselves, we often place unreasonable demands upon others generating highly critical attitudes toward them as well.
The call to perfection appears in Scripture. Jesus said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt.5:48) God calls His people to pursue perfection. What then causes the quest for perfection to take such a toll on our lives? The problem is one of time. We either pursue immediate perfection or emerging perfection. The former theologians call perfectionism, the latter sanctification. Perfectionism asserts that we can achieve sinlessness in this life. Sanctification reminds us that ultimate perfection occurs only upon glorification, at the resurrection when Jesus receives us as His own.
In our Christian lives, too often we find ourselves victims of the mentality of perfectionism. Perhaps we would not admit to thinking ourselves capable of perfection in this life, but our pressure-filled lives tell another story. Certainly, we can never tolerate sin in our lives, but as finite people in time, growth in grace and holiness is just that, growth. We will not immediately find ourselves sin-free. Sanctification is a process from the infantile to the mature. When we demand immediate perfection in ourselves, we destine ourselves to failure. Our souls cannot stand the pressure of the pursuit of immediate perfection. They were never meant to.
What’s worse is our reaction to our failure. We know we ought to be perfect and our imperfection either motivates us to redefine sin, or fall into depression. We either change the rules so that we can be perfect or we become our own worst critics. Since we already engage in self-criticism, it only lacks a minor step to start criticizing others. Intolerant of our own failures, we become unfeeling towards others who also fail. Eventually, we end up with a dark view of reality. We may profess the goodness of the world God created, but find it difficult to give thanks for the goodness of God in us. Here’s a good diagnostic question. When was the last time you thanked God for something good you did for others by His strength?
We believe in total depravity, that sin corrupts and twists the very core of our being. As regenerated people, our core has changed in Christ. While our actions still retain the stain of sin, our good works are pleasing to God because they are done in Christ. There huge difference in saying, “God is pleased with Christ in me,” and “God is pleased with me in Christ.” The first borders on panentheism; the second expresses our true self-worth. We must not say, "God is pleased with me." This does not complete the truth. God cannot simply be pleased with any fallen creature. The phrase "in Christ" proves indispensable to our understanding. We please God only in Christ, but the fact remain God's people please Him. In Christ, you please God. Your person and works please God. Your good works please God. Do you see that, or does the sin which stains all your actions prevent you from appreciating what God is doing in you?
Let me address the issue another way. Why should you demand perfection to see your good works as pleasing to God? God doesn’t. Consider this passage from the Westminster Confession of Faith. “Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.” The confession expresses what the Bible teaches, God accepts our good works (not just Christ’s works) because we are in Christ (by His merits, not ours). This may sound confusing, but actually, it’s quite simple.
Imagine a child learning to play the piano. His teacher gives him a certain series of notes to practice. The child practices them until nearly note perfect, but they are very simplistic and do not sound well. At the recital, before all his family, the student sits at the piano beside his teacher. He begins playing. It doesn’t sound like much, but then his teacher starts playing with him, and the audience realizes that the teacher has taught the student a complex line from "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" by Sergei Rachmaninoff. (think Somewhere in Time) The audience erupts in thunderous applause. Should the child ignore the applause because he hit one wrong note? Should he focus solely on the mistake bringing him to a different assessment of his performance than that of everyone else?
It is similar with God, but much more immense. Yes, our good works are flawed, stained with sin, just like that student playing the wrong note. We cannot by our best efforts merit God’s grace or reward. If we had acted perfectly, the best we could say is that we are unprofitable servants. (Luke 17:10) We don’t even in our good works act perfectly but mix with our actions and motives heinous sin. But God does not see His people or their works in sin. He sees us in Christ and by His merits acknowledges our works as good. He hears the symphony the Son plays with us and His Spirit plays through us. He applauds our efforts, as beggarly as they are. Why should you hold a different view of your works than God’s? Yes, your good works include heinous sin. Yes, Christ alone merits the pleasure of God for you, but the Father still accepts our works as He accepts us in Christ.
Some shy away from this gospel promise thinking that accepting the notion of pleasing God by our works minimizes the work of Christ for us. They worry about this becoming a source of pride. If we recognize success in our behavior, some fear we might become proud. However, pride normally comes not from achievement, but from a defeated perfectionist trying to mask his insecurities. If we cannot find any aspect of our lives which measures up to our impossible standard, we may use pride to hide from others our dissatisfaction with our own performance. We use the methods of carnival magicians, misdirection. “Look at this part of my life,” we say attempting to distract anyone from seeing the part we find imperfect. Pride becomes a mask to cover our insecurity over our failures. Understanding the truth that our actions please God as faulty and broken as they are brings security. It allows us to remove the mask and allow others to see our true nature. We no longer feel like we must hide from God or one another.
We must always remember balance in sanctification. We cannot allow progress to make us complacent. We will never achieve perfection in this life, thus sanctification and the warfare against sin in our own lives must rage continuously. Nevertheless, an intolerance of sin ought not overshadow the good works that God does in and through His people. The desire for more holiness should not eclipse our thankfulness for what God has already done for us in Christ, or in us by His Spirit. Yes, pursue holiness, chase after perfection, but not out of guilt because you think nothing you do will ever please God, but because He already is pleased in the progress you have made. See yourself as God sees you a sinner, saved by grace, in the process of becoming the perfect child He predestined you to be. (Eph. 2:10)