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On Perfectionism

Many of us struggle with perfectionism. It can be a good thing but also not, depending on the context.

When I sit down at home and play the guitar, it’s usually with no one around - no audience, critics, or applause. I’m contented with that because ultimately it’s for my own enjoyment. If it sounds good, I’m happy. If not, I work on it. Playing perfectly, while always a musician’s goal, is an ideal, and has to be seen realistically. What stage are we at? Do we have time to get to “perfection”? Do we have the commitment? Is what we’ve chosen to play within the parameters of our level of skill? Do we need to adjust our expectations? What does “perfection” really look like? The goal may be somewhere in between the first time you picked up the instrument, and a maestro’s performance, but the benchmark will be different for all, and different at different times. It’s about being realistic. In the back of my mind (with music) is the idea that one day I might get a particular piece up to a shareable standard, but if I can’t for some legitimate reason then I’m not worried. I enjoyed learning it and enjoyed playing it anyway.

There’s an old West African pidgin saying that goes ‘Troki wan fait bot i sabi sei i han shot!’, i.e., the turtle wants to fight but he knows his arms are short – meaning, of course, know your limitations.

That’s not to say, however, that we can’t develop – and improve. In fact, the saying itself has limitations – because with God arms can grow!

But is perfectionism something to be aimed for?

I think the answer depends on why we need that perfect result.

No musician enjoys making mistakes and we try to avoid them, but often the perfectionist in us comes out. For example, I used to get a bit down after a concert due to my awareness of a few mistakes I’d made. Then I would talk with my wife or someone I knew well in the audience who would tell me (usually not just being kind about it either) that they couldn’t hear any errors, i.e., they genuinely couldn’t because the mistakes were so minor as to be virtually unnoticeable to the audience. But they were to me, and I would mull over them unnecessarily. I was over-concerned with being perfect! Other times, with a bit of thought or better practice methods, errors which were noticeable could have been avoided. And, of course, there are some people who actively listen for mistakes! But naturally, getting a convincing end product at some point is the normal goal; if you believe in what you do. There are occasions to let go of it too. I would not be posting any blogs at all if I was to be negatively perfectionist!

When it comes to the high standards of Scripture though, where does perfectionism fit in there?

When postulating on an attitude or action, as done in writing or preaching, then making an effort to at least try to live it yourself comes into play. It’s not just theory any more. And it has to come from the heart, just as music played out of obligation or duty doesn’t normally end up having quite the same ring to it as something coming from the heart. So, while some of God’s standards aren’t so hard to keep as a general way of life, like getting regular fellowship for example, we still fall short occasionally in other areas. Hence, the need for daily prayer and guidance by God’s Spirit. We may not feel we’re getting to perfection, yet we know that God’s overall plan is perfect and He can deal with the dross in our lives that sometimes hinders.

Think also about how hard it is to be “perfect” in the way we use words. Again, we shouldn’t let go of the ideal simply because the reality may occasionally contradict it (emphasis occasionally). We keep aiming for that goal as God requires. James wrote, “in many things we offend [or stumble] all” (James 3:2a) but continued, “if any man offend [Gk. patio] not in word, the same is a perfect man”. And Jesus, after talking about some quite practical matters as he did also with the rich young ruler (Mathew 19: 21), told His disciples to be perfect even as their Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

Perfect includes the sense of completeness. While the Apostle Paul acknowledged that he had not already attained, nor was already perfect, yet he kept pressing toward the mark (Philippians 3:12,14).

It’s worthwhile to do a study on the words “perfect” and “offence” in the New Testament.

One of the words for “offend” used especially in the Book of Romans and particularly in chapter five is paraptoma which means a side-slip, lapse, deviation, or unintentional error, or a willful transgression (transgression being a crossing of the boundaries of God’s law). So, while on its own the meaning could be taken as something either light or serious, the Romans references are clearly about the more serious offence, such as that by Adam’s “offence” death and judgement came into the world. The gospel references use one word in two forms – skandalizo (verb) and skandalon (noun). Easy enough to guess which English word is derived from those! In Jesus’s teaching about offenses, it’s clear there are certain ones that Christians should never be guilty of, while James 3:2 seems to indicate that lesser offences may occur, inadvertently or perhaps through lack of thought. (This doesn’t mean he was excusing them.)

But are they lesser?

Considering James 3:2, F.B. Meyer listed three ways by which offence in word may occur:

1. sins of speech about ourselves – boasting, exaggerating, attention-getting, thinking we have clearer insights into truth or closeness to God than others.

2. sins of speech about others – breaking the general laws of courtesy by being insolent or impure, or breaking laws of truth by being insincere or laws of kindness by being harsh or implacable; or trying to ingratiate ourselves with others, servility, flattery.

3) sins of speech in connection with God’s work – disparaging other ministry workers by over-complementing them or belittling them behind their backs, passing “criticisms which take away the effect which their words had otherwise exercised over others”, looking for a single defect to an otherwise perfect achievement, etc. (F.B. Meyer, Great Verses Through the Bible, pp.453-4).

There’s that word “perfect” again!

Being a true perfectionist (in the positive sense) is not always about somehow being able to avoid every mistake. Not every situation requires it anyway, though some do. I’m not perfectionist in cleaning the kitchen bench, for example – it’ll never get to a master chef’s standard! On the other hand, if I was a pilot there’s no question I’d need to be. But the key in our spiritual walk, which is what the focus is on here, is to allow God to do His perfect work in those areas that do call for it.

“Let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” (James 1:4)

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