As a kid, I loved to do pencil drawings. I received so much affirmation from my sketches that I decided that I should learn to paint and become a professional artist when I grew up. But the problem was that for every drawing or painting I completed, there were 10 I abandoned part-way through. They just never looked right. I became unsure of my ambition to attend art school once I realized that I couldn’t distinguish certain shades of color. My younger brother burst into hysteria one day over a self-portrait that I thought was perfect. He pointed out through howls of laughter that I had painted myself green. That pretty much ended my dream and at the same time assured me that I couldn’t trust my own abilities.
I realize now that my idea of a perfect drawing or painting was so narrow that I could never fulfill it. In my belief system at the time, there were only two ways to create a picture, the right way and the wrong way. Unfortunately, my understanding of art wasn’t mature enough to question any unarticulated definitions of right and wrong. And so, my old sketchbooks are littered with abandoned and incomplete drawings.* I’ve often wondered what could have been if I had learned to relax, appreciate the process, and creatively discover something new rather than fixating on a specific end product and the fear of not attaining it.
What is it that lures people into the perfectionistic trap? I’m sure there are many answers to such a question, depending on the specific task at hand. Some might say they just want what they do to be the best it can be. Others link their personal value to achieving specific goals. What they accomplish, however, rarely matches what they believe ought to be.
For me, perfectionism has always manifested when I narrow down success at a task to a razor-thin definition. If I don’t see how my expectation can be attained, I usually stop trying. And when it comes to making decisions, my greatest concern is to avoid making the wrong one. Therefore, I tend to procrastinate. Putting off a conclusion as long as possible feels like a better option than failure.
Thinking Outside the Box
I recently finished reading an old classic titled Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. It’s a strange story, written in 1884, in which the narrator, a square, describes what his life is like living in a two-dimensional world. There is no such thing as up or down in his reality, only right, left, forward, or backward. All that can be seen of others are single lines since there’s no understanding of height. It’s all he’s ever known, and he’s perfectly fine with it until a three-dimensional creature, a sphere, enters his world and tries to convince him that there’s a whole other way of experiencing reality. By jumping, the newcomer can suddenly disappear in the eyes of the flat square. And depending on which part of himself is in the two-dimensional world, the sphere can change the length of the line that represents himself–all to the utter amazement of the two-dimensional creatures watching.
I’ve heard this story referred to multiple times over the years. It has stimulated the imaginations of mathematicians and scientists to press beyond the obvious boundaries of their fields. It has also been used as a religious or spiritual allegory, showing how we can be blind to realities and possibilities outside our personal experiences.
As I was reading, I thought of my tendencies for perfectionism. A perfectionist, after all, is stuck seeing options at a binary level: left or right, right or wrong, good enough or not good enough. It’s up to me to make the right choice so I don’t screw things up. I typically cannot imagine any other way of tackling a problem. My understanding of God easily narrows to seeing Him as concerned only with whether or not I do things correctly. And God’s standard of correctness can feel so overwhelmingly beyond me that the temptation to not even try is quite strong.
A Perfect Follower of Jesus?
For a Jesus follower, however, there is more to consider than just doing something good enough or not good enough, the right way or the wrong way. Jesus has opened a path for us to connect into the heavenly dimension. We can look up rather than merely to the right or left when we run into an obstacle across our path. The dimension that Jesus has opened for us is God’s presence in each moment of each day. Because I can now live in intimate connection with Him, even “wrong” decisions can be turned for good as they reshape me.
From what I have read, the biblical use of the word “perfect” is better understood as “mature” or “complete.” I, on the other hand, have almost always interpreted it as “without mistakes.” The only way I can grow to maturity and completeness in my faith is by learning to live in His presence–the upward heavenly dimension. That, however, does not guarantee a mistake-free existence. But it does offer the daily opportunity to learn and be humbly shaped into the image of Jesus. Some of my most profound seasons of growth have come out of what appeared, on the surface, to be a poor choice. By looking upward, I was able to access a dimension that offered heart transformation rather than merely being correct.
Complete through Intimacy
You and I must surrender our fears of making mistakes and not presume that error-free perfection is what God expects of us. By recalibrating our vision to see the ultimate goal of life as growing in intimacy with Jesus, a “perfect life” is then one that walks with God at the center no matter what may come. What joy there is in believing with confidence that the heavenly dimension is now open to each of us. Perfection is not dependent on what you and I can accomplish. Intimate union with God through Jesus is what frees us to take on His character qualities: love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). True perfection comes through being united with Him.
I can see now that my problem as a wanna-be artist was that I couldn’t appreciate the process. Instead, I behaved like a two-dimensional creature and looked within myself, and nowhere else. My conclusion was that I didn’t have what it takes. There was so much to learn and new creativity to develop if I had only lifted my head to look up. But rather than having three-dimensional growth in mind, I was stuck in my narrow definition of perfection. And that’s where the dream died.
Thankfully, I eventually learned to see myself through heaven’s eyes. The “perfect” drawing or any other accomplishment was never meant to define me. There’s so much more to having a relationship with God. I have been given what I need in Jesus to be complete.
What about you?