On Perfectionism

I’ve never been a perfectionist; or so I thought.

When I think of perfectionism, I think of my sweet mother, who made certain her quilt’s corners were flawlessly square and cringed as I eye-balled all of mine; or, my brother adjusting every setting on his camera until the exact balance is achieved while I snap away, happy with any of my kids in focus; or, that writer who agonizes over every word while I write furiously in the cracks of my life and send it out to the world without (likely enough) scrutiny.

See? I am not a perfectionist. I have not cared for the externals of my life to be perfect, and I have been happy about that.

Recently though, at the age of 34, I was confronted with a woman I idolized. I loved how she patiently and gently mothered her children, the way she always looked beautiful, how she thoughtfully cared for her husband, how she cheerfully set the tone in her home daily, how her home was tidy and her children obedient, how much she could accomplish, and how calmly she handled the many stresses of her life. I could not get her out of my mind; her perfect life tormented me, and I felt I could not measure up.

It was the perfect version of myself; the version I can never quite seem to be. It was the woman I wished I was, and the one I measure myself against. Her existence is in some supernatural realm I never could quite access.

In Rising Strong, Brené Brown wrote something that undid me: “One of the greatest challenges of becoming myself has been acknowledging that I’m not who I thought I was supposed to be or who I always pictured myself being.”

For me, marriage and motherhood have been the avenues that have revealed the depths of my heart; both my capacity for deepest love and my innumerable shortcomings. My heart has broken many times over my own failures; I have tearfully repented, and continued to sit in my own self-condemnation, agonizing over my lack of all the things. This, friends, is not of Christ.

Looking through the virtual window into the world of another, and measuring myself against what I see there rarely leads me to greater godliness or contentment. Rather, I come away with a greater sense of inadequacy, a deeper sense of my lack, a stronger temptation toward discontent. We know that comparison is the thief of joy, and yet we do little to curb the thief. This, friends, is not of Christ.

If the gospel is the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for the redemption of my soul and for the restoration of the world, then self-condemnation, comparison, and perfectionism have little place for the gospel-clinging Christian.

Rather, the gospel-clinging Christian looks within herself, and rather than seeing all of her many inadequacies, she sees the adequacy of Christ.

Rather than focusing on her repeated failures, she rests in the gentle and persistent mercy of Christ.

Rather than sitting in self-condemnation, she fixes her gaze on Jesus, who is the author and perfector of faith.

Rather than imaging a perfect self, she clings to Christ, who is perfect already.

Rather than bearing the weight of her sin, she lays it aside, and runs with perseverance.

That woman I spoke of earlier? Her fictional self does not torment me anymore, at least, not on a regular basis. I have come to acknowledge that my inward expectation of myself was one of perfection, clouded with pride, and self-love, and far from godliness. I am more gentle with myself, reminded of Christ’s gentle and lowly heart, and his deep, unending love for me. I am remembering that I am doing my best, with the help of Christ, and slowly, slowly, being transformed into a greater likeness of him.

So, see? I am still not a perfectionist. 😉

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1-2

Grace Enough

Last night, I found a darkened room and threw myself on the couch, and for a moment, thought about all the legitimate things that were difficult at the moment. It was pity party time. Time to wallow in my difficulties and discontent. Time to welcome the tears and relish the misery. That will make me feel better about life, won’t it?

As we all know, it’s unlikely.

It didn’t do much for Jonah, as he sat under that scanty tree, that the Lord had given as shade the day before, wallowing. Pity is never God’s preferred path for us.

Elizabeth Elliot once wrote, “to love God is to love his will. That which He gives we receive… God shields us from most of the things we fear, but when he chooses not to shield us, he unfailingly allots grace in measure needed. It is for us to choose to receive or refuse it. Our joy or misery will depend on that choice” (Secure in the Everlasting Arms, 19).

After all, she would know.

Do we get to handpick that which God gives? Sunshine is my favorite, Lord. Can you make the storm clouds go away? As if we were selecting our favorite foods? Yes, please, I’ll take the chocolate cake. No, no thank you on the snap peas. I’ve never liked those.

Rather, we acknowledge that every thing, good or difficult, that the Lord brings into our lives serves a purpose. Both the sunshine and the storm clouds. Both the chocolate cake and the snap peas.

When he chooses not to shield us, when he brings storm clouds and offers snap peas, he allots grace in measure needed. Have you experienced this? I can look back over the darkest moments of my life, and see his grace, unfailing. I think of the most difficult seasons, and recall his grace, boundless. He always offers grace; we just need to pry open our tightly clenched fists to receive it.

To receive the storm clouds and snap peas, and the grace along with it.

To trust that he has got this.

To trust that he knows what’s best for us, because he is our good Father.

To speak our fears to him, sometimes aloud, because there is so much peace in giving them over to him.

To give them over to him again, the next night, as we lie in bed, trembling in our thoughts.

To accept the hard things along with the good things, the happy days alongside the sad ones, the life along with the death.

And, we get up off the couch, tears falling as they may, and press on in the day. Not because the darkness or sadness has left us, but because his grace has been given to us.

And that’s always enough.

originally published on October 18, 2018

God’s Kindness Through Hardship (Ruth 1)

If you were at Fellowship Bible Church in Springdale last night, you heard Ben share on this topic from Ruth 1. Here are some follow-up devotional thoughts.

Naomi was bitter. Call me Mara, she told her friends who did not even recognize her. She had experienced famine, as a result of God’s judgment on disobedient Israel. She had followed her husband out of God’s promised land, into the land of God’s enemies. She had witnessed her sons take Moabite wives, against God’s will. If all of those were not hardship enough, she lost her husband and both her sons, without heirs left for her to care for, or to care for her.

The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me, she said. In her pain, she did not deny God’s sovereignty. Could he have prevented these hardships in her life? Could he have spared her husband and sons? The Almighty has brought calamity upon me. She did not question his providence.

Perhaps you, like me, have called into question the theology of God’s sovereignty in difficult times, God, do you really have this? Perhaps you have wondered about God’s presence in your life, God, are you even there?

The Lord has testified against me, she said. Though Naomi understood and accepted God’s sovereignty in her life, she could not see past her pain. God, in his sovereignty, had afflicted her and she was consumed by it. She was so consumed by it that she did not notice God’s kindness to her.

For where you go I will go. For absolutely no logical reason, despite all of Naomi’s urging, Ruth insists on staying with her, promising never to leave her. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. She sheds her cultural identity, her religious identity, and any remaining family ties. Naomi is her family now, Naomi’s God is her God. In this life of a widow, a daughter-in-law of this caliber is a great gift.

The Lord has brought me back empty, she said. But does he? Naomi cannot see it. She cannot see that her life is not completely empty. She fails to acknowledge Ruth by her side. She fails to account for Ruth’s sacrifice on her behalf, for Ruth’s loyal love, for Ruth’s kindness.

Likewise, she fails to account for God’s loyal love, for God’s kindness.

Are we so consumed by our own hardships that we are failing to see God’s loyal love? God’s kindness? It might be through the words or actions of another, or through the gorgeous sunrise, or through the peace that comes only from him (Is. 26:3). It might be through the spiritual growth we can feel happening, the development of endurance, of character, of hope (Rom. 5:1-5). It might be that through these hardships, our faith is becoming stronger, more complete (Jam. 1:2-4). Can we take a moment, or more, to step back and consider the love of God from which absolutely nothing can separate us (Rom. 5:31-39)? The kindness of God, which is ultimately found through the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross, for us?

In the rest of the Ruth story, we will see that through this great hardship God brought upon Naomi’s life, an even greater kindness will emerge.  

And today, as we face various hardships in our own lives, God’s kindness is ever present.

Let us have eyes to see it.