December 8, 2008

The bane of perfectionism

Those of us who are perfectionists eventually realize that perfection is unattainable. No matter the field of endeavor, just when the standard is reached, the bar is raised higher.

The root of perfectionism is probably human pride. In my flesh, I want to be the best, but I also want to please my mother. She had the habit of praising people, but never to their face. I didn’t know how much she praised me until a sister-in-law told me. Mom praised that same relative to me, and as a result, both of us wondered if we measured up to her standards. Even though I discovered this as an adult, the pattern of trying to elicit praise from my mother had been established and has driven my behavior all my life.

This desire to please an authority figure is also at the root of religion. People do strange things or go to great lengths to please their god. The God of Israel added to that effort by giving a multitude of commandments to show His people what He expected from them. Yet the harder they tried, the more they failed.

Trying to please a parent who is no longer living is challenging enough, but trying to please a perfect and holy God is a greater challenge. To do it requires either rewriting His demands to make obedience possible, or going to Him on bended knee asking for mercy and grace, a hard option for a proud human. Most opt for the other choice.

As a senior, I find echos of my mother’s standards in my own life. Reflecting on what she did show pleasure in explains why I am pulled toward certain activities. Even though I really don’t want to paint pictures or train horses, those things pleased my mother and still tug at my heart now and then. One good thing from seeing this motivation in my life is that I realize the importance of telling my children how they are admired and appreciated rather than telling everyone else but them.

As a Christian, I find echos of the Law of God that pull me away from grace and mercy. In Christian circles, it is called legalism, trying to please a holy God by rules and performance. The Bible is clear; this is not how it works.

The Law of God was never given as the means to pleasing Him. It was given to show how far short we fall. Like that bar that is continually raised, the Law keeps lifting me above what I can do. From it, I realize that I need more than my own resources.

Today’s Scripture reading is this: “Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20-21).

These verses add meaning to a section in Galatians that explains that God added the Law to reveal our sinfulness. It says, “Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:21-24).

Knowing that some of my behavior is an effort to please my mother is not enough to change me. In the same way, just telling me that I cannot keep the Law of God is not enough either. As today’s reading says, knowing these things must come from “the depths of a troubled heart, by God’s own teaching.

I didn’t know the depth of my sin in a way that moved me to my knees until God Himself applied that truth to my heart. This is different from learning it through the words of a preacher or even from the Bible. When God put this one truth deeply into my heart, He also offered my soul the consolation in that grace and mercy is greater than my sin and shortcomings. God the Father sent His Son to die for my sin. By knowing Him, I am set free from the demands I could not meet. That is mercy and grace.

Not only that, by grace He also offers me His perfection. In Christ, I learn to live by His power and not my own, and as I do, He assures me that pleasing Him is not my job at all. This is done for me by my Lord and Savior.

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