I am a perfectionist. Anyone who knows me even the slightest iota can probably tell you this. I have an almost compulsive urge to be exacting and precise in everything I do. My desk is arranged at 90 degree angles, I alphabetize my movies, and have been known to organize my closet by color according to spectral order. I haven't seen a therapist, but I know that there are traits in me that point to OCD, and if not that then a strong case of perfectionism. I've been told that our strongest strengths can become weaknesses when they become overblown. My experience would corroborate that statement. I need for everything to be perfect.
I have gotten myself into serious trouble as a result of such perfectionism. There have been things I could not complete in the course of my job because I refused to accept it was good enough. There have been stories I could not finish writing because I was so bogged down in the details of sentence structure and diction. In fact, my favorite paintings have all taken years to complete. Seriously. Years. I get out my finest brushes and my liquin and laboriously paint until the trace of every brush stroke is all but erased. I love the smooth blending of one color into another. I love the seamless progression of light into shadow. I love the smoothness of a three-dimensional object as it slyly leans off of a canvas. The feeling of success in achieving what I want in my paintings is addictive. Conversely, the sense that I somehow underachieved my own expectations is defeating. This is the internal chain that keeps me glued to my easel for hours without eating, fully engrossed in refining paint into perfection. It is also the lock on the door of my mind, preventing me from opening up, preventing me from trying something I'm not already sure I can achieve. It's a niggling fear and an inspiration- that I COULD do something amazing given enough time, but this time I might not. Today I don't FEEL inspired. Today I am average. Today is the day the ruse is up an everyone will know that I am not, in fact, incredible. I merely aspire to be.
I have gotten myself into trouble with this a lot. I'm harder on myself than most others, and I frequently put my fears into the mouths of those I respect. I see others through perfected glasses and then measure myself unfairly against that. If something goes wrong I assume it's my fault and it has often been devastating to my very footing in life. This has affected my career choices and probably hindered my relationships. What could be more discouraging to someone who is afraid they aren't good enough than a frustrated person telling them they've gone too far, that they aren't living up to the standard, that they're under-performing? Nothing, I tell you. Nothing. Why do I do this? I'm still on the road to discovery, but I'm suspicious it has something to do with Jesus.
Humans are created in the image of God- a beautifully perfect image without any semblance of stain. Nevertheless, we as humankind are the hot dog in the sand, the table cloth with the coffee ring, the painting that the cat walked through. We are fallen beings. Sin surrounds us on every side and it is also at work within us as our flesh wars with our spirit and our wills aspire to deification. I will be the first to admit my brokenness, my imperfection, my utter lack. I need a savior as much as food, water, and sun. Without my guiding light I am lost. Jesus is my beacon, my anchor, the hand that picks me up when I fall. He is patient and kind and true and He carries me when I cannot stand (and if we're being honest, that's incredibly often).
Ok. Good story. Great news, I'm not perfect and Jesus is, but He totally understands and is cool with my messed up nature. Lesson learned. End of story. Golf clap.
C.S. Lewis once said that God is very easy to please but very hard to satisfy. It's true. The moment we find growth and feel we have overcome THE obstacle, we look up and see another. I'm starting to understand this more and more. God really does celebrate our victories. He does give us a couple mountain top moments, but the moment we finish our trail mix, He sets us back on the path. I’m starting to get it. We never arrive. We never finish. It is the entire LIFE that is the journey. We will NOT achieve perfection in this life. In fact, we will never ACHIEVE it at all. Perfection is conferred onto us under the blood of the perfect savior.
So why the struggle? Why does God goad us forward, and push us to be better? Why does He demand of us to be perfect? Simply. For He is perfect. Every step we take of growth brings us that much closer to Him. Our proximity to God requires the death of sin and the growth of character. And one day, freed of our fleshly desires and carnal nature we will be with Him- for to be absent from this body is to be present with God. One day we will see and know fully even as we are fully known. Wow.
To summarize, God walks with us through our faults, slowly dusting away our imperfections so that we can continuously grow in our understanding of Him and more fully grow in our understanding of His love for us. God spurs us to grow so that we can be near him. Let me clarify- He doesn’t do this because He needs us and He certainly doesn’t do it to create new deities, peers, or rivals. Trust me, Satan tried that and his punishment is coming. We are not attaining to divinity as some world views may aspire. We are not becoming gods. Rather, we are drawing nearer to the only God, a process which requires we admit our smallness and look to the only living savior. By His grace alone can a sinful thing even stand before Him, for we are all unworthy. “Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.”
Again, why the struggle with perfectionism?
If perfection is a godly characteristic, then it must follow perfectionism is Holy, right?
No. It really doesn’t.
I find it likely that perfectionism is the result of an epic battle between pride and insecurity. I can attest. I want so badly to be like Jesus, but I want to do it alone. I want desperately to be a master painter, but I want to do it naturally- based on talent alone. I wish it was in me. I wish I was just constructed perfect and left that way. I want to exude greatness without trying. I want to be amazing without the struggle. After all, aren’t there already a scad of others far younger who have already surpassed the maximum of our potential? Beware the downfall of comparison. This is all sin and striving. This is my spirit warring against my flesh, my imagination warring against my limited hands. I resent the imperfection yet despise the the process of purification. Why can’t I just be what I want to be? Why can’t my fingers create what my mind envisions?
How I hate practice.
How I hate criticism.
There is this little trigger that goes off in my mind every time I get feedback (Oh how I pray it will fade). When a certain flaw is pointed out to me, be it character or artistic or otherwise, my initial thought is usually one of 2 things:
I already know; stop attacking me
WHAT? I disagree. How dare you.
I am ashamed to admit it, but I might as well.
Here’s the funny thing about perfection. I am motivated to improve and to be better and to grow by this internal desire to be more like my Lord. Daily I walk with Him and He whispers to me. He leads me onward and we have an incredible friendship. Yet, the moment another party is introduced, my ever increasing knowledge of my own failings comes to the forefront and I become like a different creature. It’s alright for me to grow when it’s just me and God. Maybe it’s because I know He’ll never hurt me and that He knows my limits. Oh but others- they are the wild card. Other people can take me off my happy path of obliviousness. People upset the order of things.
But you know, it might not always be a bad thing. Certainly those who love me can help me along. Those who love me can see into my blind spots and point out things I might never have noticed. People can also be used as instruments of God, to push and to prod each other onward toward godliness. I have generally found that anyone who would point out a flaw in me usually thinks they ARE sent directly from heaven. And often they come without the grace, without the patience, without the fullest understanding of my inner thoughts and struggles. They don’t know my goals, my thoughts, or the many times I failed attempting to fix the very thing they’ve brought before me. But am I any different?
Pride and Insecurity. Pride and Insecurity. Pride and Insecurity.
Improvement requires practice. I must keep going. I have to push myself to brave the blank paper and to try. I have to be OK with a seemingly unending series of oddly shaped sketches. It’s from the mistakes that I learn. It’s in looking back through the long march of time where the progress finally emerges. In the same way, I must also accept that holistic transformation involves collaboration. We are people made for community and I am not an Island. Critique doesn’t necessarily equate to disapproval. The presence of a flaw doesn’t instantly mean rejection- or am I not covered in the blood? I cannot fear that those around me will serve me with the just punishment of death that Christ’s intercession has already stayed.
Oh how we creatives love the word "I". We love standing out in some unique way and being recognized for our difficult achievements. We write our names on our creations so as to claim them and distinguish ourselves. Yet even in so doing we are merely mimicking, for in the same way God has put His image upon us. He has marked us as His own. I am His. People may come and make comments and tell Him things He already knows. People may throw dirt in His paint, but I am still His. I am not creating myself, for I am not my own. As every painting requires differing amounts of time to create, so does every lifespan vary. I may not always enjoy God’s variation of brush strokes, some gentle and some rough. I may HATE that the things I love most get erased or covered over, but I must allow the master to paint. I must allow the potter to reshape me. He’s making me into perfection. Who am I to protest?
Paint on, my master, My Lord.