I know I’m not perfect, but if I’m really honest, I want you to think I am.
I want to learn the language well. I want to serve my neighbours well. I want to relate to my team well. I want to communicate to my supporters well. I want to write well.
I want to be the best missionary I can be. That’s a good goal, right?
“I can tell. You’re a perfectionist, aren’t you?” my colleague commented. While I certainly knew I wasn’t perfect (sinner saved by grace!), pegging me as a perfectionist felt like something to be proud of. Like you could trust the quality of my work because, well, I did it.
I think perfectionism is born out of the misguided belief that if you are careful enough, virtuous enough, perfect enough, then whatever it is you fear, won’t devour you. Better yet, it won’t even exist.
My deep down darkest fear is rejection. I’m afraid I’ll always be making language mistakes and never be taken seriously. I’m afraid my neighbours and teammates won’t like me, my supporters will move on to more exciting missionaries, and you’ll think my writing sucks.
So I bank on perfectionism because if you like what I do, maybe you’ll accept me as well. With the language I pretend to understand more than I do, jumping to conclusions instead of asking for an explanation. I try to impress my neighbours and teammates with thoughtfulness and conjured spirituality. I try to impress supporters with engaging newsletters. I try to impress you with thought-provoking and inspiring blog posts.
The truth is: Perfectionism is no saviour. It’s a prison.
Last Sunday at our expat fellowship a long time missionary talked about a conference he recently attended. While all these big and important people gave talks at the front on the mission work of this particular group, in the back sat a quiet row of older national men. A generation ago, at great cost to themselves and their families, these men opened whole areas of our island to the gospel. They were pioneers, enduring even the martyrdom of family members for the sake of the cross.
While I’m busy grasping greedily for your approval and acceptance through perfectionism, in the back row sit the quiet faithful.
At fellowship we read the famous passage from Philippians 2:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the very nature of God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!
Jesus, the God-man with the whole of heaven at his command, used none of it to his own advantage. He humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death.
Throughout the gospels we see example after example of Jesus doing something radical, even distasteful, every time the favour of the crowd turns towards him.
Jesus feeds 4,000 but doesn’t stick around. He is transfigured in the presence of his disciples and makes them promise to tell no one. He calms the sea, and when they reach shore, He goes to heal the strong man tortured by demons — and the people drive him out of town. Immediately after the triumphant entry to Jerusalem, Jesus enters the temple and in a fury throws over tables.
About the people who praised Jesus, even those who believed in him, it’s written in John 2:24-25, “But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to bear witness concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.”
How is it then that I, as a Jesus follower, perfect my talents and abilities to my own advantage with the hope I will receive crowd approval?
If perfectionism is the prison, proof of my enslavement to the thoughts and opinions of others, then dying is the key. Embracing the cross, counting myself as dead with Christ, is the only way out of the cell. It’s the only way to really live.
The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.”
Rejection is my deepest fear, and while I embrace chains of perfectionism holding out for fleeting approval from the world around me, Jesus is calling out, “Don’t look to them, follow me. I love you. I gave myself up for you. You are accepted not because of who you are or what you do, but because of who I am and what I did.”
As I wrestle with this truth, I’m still learning what it means to live it out day to day. I know I can be more honest in my conversations and ask for help when I don’t understand. I can look for ways to serve my neighbours and teammates with no strings attached. I can write my supporters newsletter stories focusing on what God is doing in others, rather than what I am doing for others. I can write to you with honesty and vulnerability, even if it isn’t perfect.
I’m learning that doing well doesn’t depend on how capable I am, but on who holds my gaze.
“let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
A final word: Ditching perfectionism doesn’t mean settling for shoddy work. We still do our best. Ultimately, all of this is about who gets the glory – Me? Or the Lord?