“Friend, go back to that book,” he urges, “search for the promises God offers you in His book.”
I think back to the legacy of my own parents. Dog-eared Bibles, marked with personal notations collected over a lifetime of study. Stacks upon stacks of missionary letters – my Mom prayed over every one, corresponded with most of them and financially supported many. Shoeboxes full of clippings and devotional articles – meaningful truth for spiritual growth – which she often included in handwritten letters to me. I assume she did the same for my brothers. Pages and pages of poems and songs full of hope and promise written by my father over the course of his adult life, many of which still echo in my mind as a source of encouragement during difficult times. My parents relied on God’s promises. They were a primer for their prayers and their life and conduct. They lived by faith.
So how is it that I have spent so much of my life as a discouraged perfectionist? “If I can’t be perfect, then I won’t try at all.” With the example and heritage my parents provided, you would think I would live by faith. But doesn’t the Scripture itself say:
Be ye perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.
Each mistake I make, each human error, each failing, is a frustration. Elisabeth Elliot often states, “In acceptance lies peace.” If I could accept my human frailty (why can’t I?), would my life not be lived more readily in peace and contentment?
So I decided to see what other minds have said about perfection. Brainy Quotes provided some of my favorites. The first one was funny:
Probably the closest things to perfection are the huge, absolutely empty holes that astronomers have recently discovered in space. If there's nothing there, how can anything go wrong? ~Richard Brautigan
“Expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed.” I don’t know when that saying first became a part of my psyche, but it’s been fully ensconced for quite some years now. Even Barry Schwarz, the author of the 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice: More is Less,” states that the real secret to happiness is low expectations.
So that is how I set boundaries so I don’t get hurt by others, but what about my social responsibility. Wouldn’t my perfection benefit others in society? Certainly this quote is a call to action on behalf of others:
To bear with patience wrongs done to oneself is a mark of perfection, but to bear with patience wrongs done to someone else is a mark of imperfection and even of actual sin. ~Saint Thomas Aquinas
But then in the next breath, I see a more pagan view. Ironically, the writer refers to sainthood…
Many people genuinely do not want to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection. ~George Orwell
Oh, but I do seek perfection. I hate to admit it, but if I weren’t seeking it, why am I always so disappointed in myself? Then the next quote slaps me right in the face and says nasty things about me:
Try as hard as we may for perfection, the net result of our labors is an amazing variety of imperfectness. We are surprised at our own versatility in being able to fail in so many different ways.
~Samuel McChord Crothers
Even this Irish playwright agrees:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.. ~Samuel Beckett
But in the next breath - or, rather, on the next web page - nobility raises its head and assures me that I am surely on the right track:
Aim at perfection in everything, though in most things it is unattainable. However, they who aim at it, and persevere, will come much nearer to it than those whose laziness and despondency make them give it up as unattainable. ~Lord Chesterfield
Unattainable? Is it? Am I lazy and despondent? Beckett and Chesterfield say we should persevere. So, I pick myself up and persevere in my faltering attempts. I am comforted by Mumford’s thought that we should, indeed, pursue perfection. In fact, he intimates, not pursuing it might be hazardous to my health:
A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life. ~Lewis Mumford
Failing better, persevering, these sound like comparative terms. The “I’m okay, you’re not okay”, the “holier than thou” syndrome or “I’m Perfect, How about You?” superiority. Do I now discover that this is all about competition? Ah, yes, there’s even a quote for that.
I mentioned the non-competitive spirit explicitly, because these days, excellence is a fashionable concept. But excellence is a competitive notion, and that is not what we are heading for: we are heading for perfection. ~Edsger Dijkstra
So now, here we have a change in terms. Semantics, methinks. The pursuit of excellence is often mentioned in relation to my large church, especially in the area of worship arts. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t for one minute believe we should offer God a shoddy product. But isn’t that how he describes all our attempts at righteousness? They are like filthy rags in comparison the scripture says. So I can’t get by on the “love me for my good works” mantra.
In my less than perfect opinion, neither excellence, nor perfection nor shoddiness have a rightful place in worship. What God asks is not perfection. That’s his business. In fact, that’s why Lucifer fell. He said “I will be like God.” And he was lifted up in pride.
Here I am, back to the thought that perfection is about being able to meet my own prideful standard. So the pursuit of perfection is indeed sin. What God wants is a humble, contrite heart. A broken spirit. Not perfection, but obedience.
Perhaps instead of searching Brainy Quotes, I should have been searching Bible Gateway. Look at our Lord’s disciples. One denied Him; one doubted Him; one betrayed Him. If those who walked with Him, witnessed his miracles firsthand, heard his words, shared food at the same table, if these did not attain perfection, yet he chose them anyway and commissioned them to do His work, why am I so discouraged by my own lack? He knows our frame. He remembers we are dust.
He knows perfectly what His plan for my life involves. He won’t compete for my attention.
“Be still and know I am God,” He instructs. “Let your arms drop. Stop your frantic pursuit of everything except Me.”
Because in the final analysis, He is the Perfection I pursue. So if you’ll excuse me now, I’m going to go search His word for the promises God offers. Three times in Psalm 42 and 43 I read:
Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.
And just look at all the scripture about perfection:
He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.
Do you know how the clouds hang poised,
those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?
As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless.
He is a shield for all who take refuge in him.
It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect.
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth.
To all perfection I see a limit; but your commands are boundless.
O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name,
for in perfect faithfulness you have done marvelous things, things planned long ago.
You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions
and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—
his good, pleasing and perfect will.
2 Corinthians 12:9
But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness."
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses,
so that Christ's power may rest on me.
2 Corinthians 13:11
Finally, brothers, good-by. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal,
be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect,
but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God,
for whom and through whom everything exists,
should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith,
who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame,
and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Every good and perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights,
who does not change like shifting shadows.
But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom,
and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—
he will be blessed in what he does.
God bless you – and perfect you – in Christ Jesus.