August 2008. Perfectionism: it's the sin I've never wanted to face up to, but I can no longer avoid it. When I'm working on something, it drives me to read every book and Bible reference, address every issue, and check everything a hundred times. It's the heart of my busyness and the hardest thing for me to shake.
I get too busy when ... I pursue perfection and completeness.
What I was thinking. "I have to get it right. What if they notice I make a mistake? I need to cover everything. I can't miss anything important. I have to work hard. I have to stay at the top of my game. I can't face not being perfect."
What I'm learning.
Perfection is an idol.
I've never forgotten the day I asked a mentor about a sin I had battled for years, consumed by guilt and failure. She pointed the spotlight on a different issue: "If Jesus was speaking to you, I think he'd say you need to repent of your perfectionism." We all have an idol that goes deep to the heart of us: perhaps for you it's pleasure or peace, but for me it's perfection. I've discovered that perfectionism and workaholism go hand-in-hand, because perfection is an ever-receding goal. It takes everything you pour into it and still asks for more.
Perfectionism is pride.
The same mentor pointed out to me recently that perfectionism is arrogance. Who am I to think I can get things exactly right? Why do I imagine the world will fall apart if I don't? If I miss something when I teach others, will those who listen fail to grow? Of course not! Perfection isn't really about helping others: it's about making me feel better about myself. It's about avoiding criticism. It's about that wonderful (and fleeting) feeling of completeness when I get something right. God alone is perfect: not me.
Perfection is already mine.
God has given me the perfection of his Son. Because Jesus bore all my sins and failures on the cross, I am perfect in God's sight, pure and free from blame. I find it so hard to wrap my head around this! But it's true: my sins are forgiven, and the good things I do (so marred by sin!) are washed clean and presented to God without flaw. When I pursue perfection, I deny that Jesus has already won it for me. I act as if his righteousness isn't enough. I try to prove myself to the One who has clothed me in the perfection of his Son. Over and over, I need to preach the gospel to myself again.
The 20/80 rule.
Here's a great little observation from Tim Chester: we spend 20% of our effort on 80% of what we do, and 80% of our effort on 20% of what we do. I have to admit I'm still pursuing the 20%! But I remember the 20/80 rule when I obsess about getting something exactly right.
Plan before I start, and stop when it's still imperfect.
Once I'm in the middle of a project (or a decision, or a responsibility) it gets its teeth into me and it's hard to stop. There's always more I could do! I need to plan carefully before I start: what I want to do, how long I want to spend on it, how much time to give to each part. I'm realising that, at whatever point I stop, I could always have done some things better. I'm still learning (slowly), but each time I start something new, I work a little smarter.
The answer to perfectionism is grace.
During the last few years, I've discovered just one cure for perfectionism: the grace of God. As I begin to see that nothing I do can change his grace - that it will never let me go, however often and terribly I fail - perfectionism loosens its grip on me. I know I'll battle perfectionism until the day I die, but God is growing me deeper into his grace. My sin is greater than I will ever know, but God's grace is greater still.
images are by Nomad Photography, rachel_titiriga, tabogarcia and Jules.K at flickr