The hope of glory

I’ve written previously about the dangers of being an idealist, but today I want to focus on a related illness – that of being a perfectionist.  I write as someone who is still recovering from this illness and as someone who has great concern for the way this illness is developed (often unintentionally) and manifested in educational settings.  My hope is that these words will somehow break through the perception that perfectionism is an any way good for educators or for students.  I have heard too many beginning teachers say, “I’m a perfectionist“, with the assumption that this is good news to me, that I somehow hope that they are perfectionists.   I don’t.   Instead, I want to do all I can to interrupt this discourse because these words can reveal a hope that outer light/glory will conceal inner darkness and can become a road that is eventually very damaging.

My experience as a perfectionist has taught me the following:

Perfectionists come to believe in their own capabilities.  They are so strong in themselves, they have no need of God.  If they are Christians, they are Christian atheists.

Perfectionists are preoccupied with their own glory and crave recognition for that glory.  Their greed for glory is never satiated.

Perfectionists think about their own accomplishments – a lot!  They dwell/live in their accomplishments.

Perfectionists hate hearing about any glory given to another (although they would never admit this).

Perfectionists are irritated by imperfection and those less perfect than them.  That irritation can easily explode into anger.

Perfectionists are usually not content or grateful or joyful or peaceful or gentle…They don’t have the fruit of the spirit because they haven’t actually recognized their need for the Holy Spirit.  They may be good at pretending these things in order to preserve an image they have of themselves, but their mask keeps slipping.

Perfectionists see only what is imperfect in others or in circumstances.  They obsess about fixing things.  Their lives are full of ‘picture frames that need straightening‘.

Perfectionists are frustrated with any ambiguity or complexity that prevents them from getting the right answer quickly and then getting recognition for having gotten the right answer quickly.  They want to know what and how more than what if or why.

Perfectionists use others to make themselves look more perfect.  They are the opposite of relational and personal human beings.  They are atomistic, fragmented, self-centered individuals.

Perfectionists crumble when they are shaken by circumstances beyond their control.  They have no inner strength, no unity between their inner and outer lives, no way of reaching beyond themselves.  They are often deeply sad.

Perfectionists don’t teach, they impose, control and manipulate and then produce mini-perfectionists.  We always offer who we are.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we are confused about the aims of education.  We confuse learning to live well with God and all others, with correctness and rewards.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we start to view them as ‘pictures needing straightening‘.

We teach people to be perfectionists when education becomes more about individual hoop jumping and rule following than a shared, joyful and challenging journey.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we tell them that their only hope of glory is to win a competition, to be the best.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we tell them salvation is an event rather than a journey.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we praise them with too many words that they come to understand as defining them – words that eventually enslave them with the pressure to continue to be what others think they are.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we are cruel and merciless, rather than gentle and patient.

We teach people to be perfectionists by immersing them in a culture that focuses on image and presentation of image.  Facebook was made for perfectionists.

Perfectionism can become a serious illness, one that is easily caught and taught, but also one that can be healed – with time and help.  Healing usually requires significant shaking – especially if you’ve been a perfectionist for a long time, and your mask has hardened.  It requires turning away from yourself and towards others.  It requires learning to let go of….well…almost everything.  It requires coming to the end of yourself (and you will) and seeing the abyss in front of you, within you.  It requires a ‘cat’ that will turn your most beautiful piece of ‘furniture’ into its scratching post. It requires recognition of the quality of spirit that is infecting all of the ‘good‘ you do.  It requires seeing how little true life you have to offer others.  It requires gratefulness for your contingency, for your complete reliance on God and others for any good that is given to you to do.  It requires teaching yourself to forget any good you do immediately after you do it.   It requires understanding that the only hope of glory you have is Christ in you, transforming you, helping you become like Him, helping you become human.

To be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect is a good thing to want.  It is not wrong to have a telos, it is wrong to have an idol.  Perfectionists eventually turn themselves into idols.  Our Father is perfect in love, perfect in goodness, perfect in mercy, perfect in peace.  We are judged by His absolute strength, but saved by His willingness to share His perfect life with us.  God is the one who perfects ( 1 Peter 5:10).  To be perfect like our Father, is simply an invitation to keep ourselves in the love of God, before His face, looking for His mercy (Jude, v. 20).

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10 responses

  1. Kim – one of your best! I could hear the pings, a few distant artillary shells, and then, “Kapow!” There’s poetry in ruthless introspection. I’m saying, “thank you”, actually — albeit wiith a hidden face and scuffing my toe in the sand.

  2. heh heh … but then are you not again pandering to (and for) that flawless idol that is all that stands between the imagined attention of the crowd and the naked emperor you know yourself to be? (Not that I’m advocating for those who write from blissful bias and not much mental meat.)

  3. Kim,

    I thought quite a bit about whether I should respond to this post since I have both agreed and appreciated all your previous blogs. But in this case I feel that you are unduly criticizing many who we would label as “perfectionists.”

    First, I believe that there is a spectrum of “perfectionism,” with some (all?) people demonstrating some characteristics of perfectionism at certain times and in certain contexts. I have known many wonderful Christians who fit in this category, and I would be totally amiss in accusing them of never being content or grateful or joyful or peaceful or gentle.

    And even for people who lean much more toward the “perfectionist” spectrum of human conduct, who am I to cast the first stone? Yes, if I have the opportunity I will explore with them what servant leadership is all about. But I also want to give them credit for often working with others to reach desirable learning outcomes, even if I may want to tone down how they are going about it and what credit they take for what is achieved. I do know educators who most would call “perfectionists” who nevertheless try their best each day to commit their life and work to God and who would be seriously hurt to hear that other Christian educators think that they have “turn[ed] themselves into idols – pieces of wood that can’t hear or see or speak.”

    Personally, I would prefer to take the path of not judging others, including perfectionists (Matthew 7:1). I have found many perfectionists to be relational and personal human images of God, even if they are perfectionists in their own work. That does not mean that I condone perfectionism, also the aspects that I have seen in my own life over the years. But I have many other shortcomings as well that I have to bring before God’s altar, as do perfectionists. As you point out, only the Triune God is perfect. I would prefer to work with those who lean toward the perfectionist side of the spectrum. I want to recognize their strengths and, often, their commitment and faithfulness, even as I hope they at some point they will be open to discussions about the shortcomings of perfectionism that they display in their lives.

    Harro

    • Dear Harro,

      Thank you for your feedback. I was judging myself, not others, but I could have been more clear in that regard (I will go back and look at the overall tone of the post again). I certainly wasn’t thinking of any particular person. I was responding with concern to the number of times I seem to hear people say that they are perfectionists, and wanting to prevent them from going down that potentially very damaging road. I wonder why it is ok within a Christian context to say these words without any hesitation. I have also spoken to many teachers and colleagues who have some of the same concerns and questions. I agree that there is a continuum of perfectionism and I was definitely writing about the darkest aspects – almost like a “take heed” warning.

      I was also writing out of a concern for the way schools and schooling inadvertently create the conditions for perfectionism to be “caught”. No one chooses to be this way, but our culture and our schooling and even our churches can be places where this passion is fostered rather than healed.

      I also agree that people who may call themselves perfectionists are often very capable and contribute in very positive ways to their communities – what people often don’t realize is what is happening on the inside to that person. To want to be perfect is at least a positive perspective on what it means to be a person – that improvement can be sought and growth can occur. This is good! I am not interested in conceptions of humanity that say there is nothing we can do – faith without works is dead. We should offer the gifts we’ve been given back to God in ways that honour and glorify Him. The people you describe above, who work with others and commit their work and their lives to God, recognizing that any good they do is because of God’s grace in mercy in their lives, are not perfectionists in my mind, and are not the subject of this posting.

      You might want to take a look at this article as well. It also identifies the concerns and the connection to early parenting and education. What it doesn’t do very well is explain how to move away from perfectionism and towards being truly human.
      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/06/why-perfectionism-is-ruin_n_4212069.html?ir=Women

      Thanks for continuing the conversation!

      Kim

  4. I appreciate the warning you provide here, Dr. Franklin. I know that I have at times been susceptible to the dark side of this ‘illness,’ but I do have a lingering question after reading your article:

    If perfectionism is, in fact, an evil force, where then is the pursuit of excellence to fit into our Christian lives?

    I find it discouraging to consider living the rest of my life second-guessing my own motives for pursuing excellence, even if in the eyes of some that makes me a perfectionist. I guess in the end, I feel that to hold oneself, with zeal and effort, to a high standard need not equate an inner problem (that is, one beyond the fallen human condition we all experience). Is it crazy to observe that my same old brokenness will still be present, whether I am a perfectionist or otherwise? And that I might be just as broken a person either way, regardless? I guess it’s just hard for me to see how trying to be a non-perfectionist leaves me any better off in the end. When I’m on my death bed one day, I don’t think I’ll regret giving a worthy cause my very best efforts.

    Aren’t we all confined to come to terms with this brokenness as we simultaneously strive for excellence to the glory of Christ?

    I have come to a point in my walk of faith where I have found peace in leaving the ultimate judgment of my motives to God. After all, He lives in me – the very source of my ultimate hope indwells my life. Though I begin and proceed from a posture of dependence on the grace afforded me in Christ, I cannot live continually second-guessing my intentions as I serve. Otherwise, self-criticism would win over the pursuit of excellence in my worship. I lived in that place once, continually beating myself over the head for my impure motives, and it was a fruitless and frustrating way to walk the faith. There will always be an element of human infection in every thought or action, but why should I focus on that? Why cripple the gifts God has given me by allowing my pride to judge and condemn their appropriate use over an over again?

    Weren’t we designed to want to serve with excellence? Didn’t God make us to long to serve him with our whole hearts?

    In the end, I think that, with the Spirit of Christ living within me, I can press ahead into excellence, no longer afraid of my shortcomings, trusting the power of Christ to work through me. For freedom I have been set free, so I’m free to serve with excellence – even if that makes me seem a perfectionist to some. He gets the glory, because He is the source of all that is good in my efforts – even if I come up against other darknesses along the way.

    What do you think?

    • Dear Matt,

      Thank you for reading the post and for commenting so thoughtfully. I completely agree with you that beating yourself up for not having perfect motives is not healthy either. It is almost a reverse form of perfectionism – because the focus is entirely on the self rather than on the love of God and others. It is this focus on self that is always so dangerous. I also agree that God made us to long to serve Him with our whole hearts. There is a zeal that leads to death and a zeal that leads to life. This longing for God is a good zeal, a life-giving zeal, and one of the expressions of this zeal is through our work. When our work is an expression of our love for God and others, it will be naturally good and even excellent. Why would we offer anything that isn’t our best to someone we love? This kind of offering is characterized by joy and peace and kindness and faithfulness….

      The danger is when we start to let our work or any good that we do become our identity. When we do notice that we are impatient or angry or fearful or anxious this is the grace of God, telling us to turn away from ourselves towards the other and Him. We do this again and again, paying attention to and guarding our hearts with God’s help. I think it is healthy to pay attention to your heart with the hope that God will perfect us and is perfecting us, unhealthy to become despairing that we aren’t yet who we are intended to be. We may not be able to clearly sort out our motives, but we can tell when we’ve chosen the better part and aren’t worried or anxious.

      I really love the following monastic story – I think it explains what I am trying to say much better than my words.

      A young man was contemplating Matthew 5:48 and asked an older man what it means to be perfect. The older man took him to a cemetery where they stood in front of a tombstone. The old man looked at the tombstone and said, “You are the worst human being that ever lived; everyone despised you.”
      He then looked at the young man and asked, “What did he do in response to my insults?”
      The young man looked perplexed and responded, “Nothing, for he is dead.”
      The old man looked at the tombstone once again, but this time he said,
      “You are the best human being that ever lived; I am astounded by your accomplishments.”

      He looked at the young man again and asked, “What did he do?”
      The young man once again responded, “Nothing, for he is dead.”
      “Exactly,” said the older man, “He is living exclusively before the face of God. That is what it means to be perfect.”

      Hope this response is a little helpful!

      • PS Even when our offerings aren’t terribly good or excellent (because sometimes they aren’t), the spirit in which they are offered makes them good and excellent. Think of the gifts your children give you. They are just excited to give, to show their love for you. It is their love that is excellent and makes all things they offer excellent because they are bathed in all that is eternal.

  5. Pingback: Idealism, perfectionism, disappointment, blame, rage, etc | power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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