For the past three months we’ve been working through Timothy Sanford’s book “I Have to be Perfect” (And Other Parsonage Heresies). If you’re new to this series, you can read the previous posts here:
Part 1: The Little Word That Frees Us
Part 2: “I’m Not Supposed to Have Needs”
Part 3: “I Can’t Trust Anyone”
Today we’ll be exploring the last three lies from the book, and next month we’ll officially close out the series with an author interview. (I’m super excited about the interview!!! I bet you couldn’t tell that, could you??)
“I have to be perfect”
I grew up hearing sermons about the “goodness and severity of God” and about God not hearing the prayer of the sinner. Girls Bible study times were filled with questions like, “If women are to remain silent in church, is it a sin to whisper in church to ask someone the song number if I didn’t hear it announced?” and “How long should my shorts be?” So by the time I entered ministry at the age of 19, no one had to tell me I needed to be perfect; I already knew I needed to be perfect. And not only did I know I needed to be perfect, I knew everyone else needed to be perfect as well.
At the same time, I knew everyone wasn’t perfect. As a teenager, I knew my church friends were being physically and sexually abused at home, but no one would ever dare talk about that at church, where their dads were leaders. This taught me that the families around me weren’t perfect; it also taught me that they needed to appear that way. Furthermore, it taught me that the rest of us needed to treat them as though they were perfect. The appearance of perfection mattered more than actual righteousness.
Those are my stories; your stories will be different. Yet our collective stories may have taught us something dark and devious: that ministry and missionary families are (or should be) holier than everyone else. Our stories may have taught us that in order to serve God, we need to be super human. At the very least, our stories may have taught us that we need to project an image of perfection. Sometimes we extend this expectation to others and become judgmental of their non-perfection; other times we require it only of ourselves.
Of course, none of us is perfect. We all know this very well, because we all wrestle with our own sin natures. So we can become discouraged when we fail to meet our self-imposed (or church-imposed) “shoulds” over, and over, and over again. The pressures placed on missionaries, ministers, and their wives and children are often unattainable and put them at risk for depression. The painful irony here is that since they’re “supposed” to be perfect and not have any “major” problems, there’s shame both in the depression (or other mental health issues) and its appropriate treatment.
To illustrate this, Sanford once took an informal survey at a PK conference, asking for a show of hands of people who had been diagnosed with depression, placed on anti-depressant medicine, or hospitalized for depression. 80% of attendants raised their hands, at which point a woman in the back piped up with “But we’re not allowed to be!”
James says in his letter that “We all stumble in many ways,” and John’s first letter tells us, “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth.” So the truth is, we can’t be perfect, and we don’t have to be. Yes, some of us are better than others at appearing perfect, but nobody actually is perfect. We sin, we mess up, we fail. Regularly. I repeat: we don’t have to be perfect. We don’t even have to give the impression.
Now this is much easier to say than it is to live. All those things I’d learned in church? Well, they had impacted my conception of God and who I was in relation to Him. I hadn’t realized it before, but I had zero theology of Grace. I thought I needed to prove my worth and earn my salvation. It was only about eight years ago that I began deconstructing these harmful beliefs. For about four months that year, I met with a counselor once a week. I spent lots of time in prayer with my Bible study group, and I read lots of Paul: Ephesians, Galatians, Romans. (I’m unabashed about my love for Paul.) Over and over and over again I listened and cried and danced to Chris Tomlin’s cover of Matt Maher’s song “Your Grace Is Enough.” These things transformed my thinking about sin and grace.
That year was a turning point in my walk with God and my understanding of Grace. I relinquished the old ways of thinking — though I confess they still creep back to haunt me from time to time. In those times, I have to return to God and ask Him to renew my mind yet again. (And yes, when I forget Grace, I still sometimes beat myself up by thinking, “I should understand this better by now!”)
Our attempts to be perfect cripple our experience of Christ. His perfection, and His perfection alone, undergirds the entire Gospel. And the Gospel is completely counter-cultural, in every culture. This is why we sometimes struggle to accept it: it seems quite literally too good to be true. Except that it is true! Grace, full and free, releases us from the requirements we feel from church members and supporters (and ourselves) to meet some impossible standard of perfection that Jesus already met. In Christ Alone, our hope is found.
Grace isn’t necessarily easy medicine to swallow for us perfectionists. I would often cry my eyes out in a counseling session and then be so exhausted I could sleep for the rest of the day. A single blog post cannot easily dismantle our beliefs surrounding God’s approval and our efforts. Unraveling our thinking is, frustratingly, not an overnight process. I do believe, however, that it’s a process He is faithful to fulfill.
“I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t”
This phrase reflects the Either/Or mindset that has plagued me for so much of my life. It’s this kind of black-and-white thinking that has gotten me into so much inner turmoil: If I make one mistake, then I must be a total failure. And depression ensues. The “damned if I do and damned if I don’t” attitude also gives way to futility: If I can’t do something perfectly, then I won’t do it at all. This goes for “spiritual” things like Bible reading and also seemingly less spiritual things like interpersonal conflict and offering apologies.
The tragedy of Either/Or thinking is that it doesn’t acknowledge paradox or complexity. It doesn’t acknowledge that sanctification is a process. It doesn’t acknowledge that we are not fully regenerate yet and that no, we are not there yet. These are truths my beloved Apostle Paul acknowledged. (Romans 7 and Philippians 3, anyone?)
Brennan Manning said, “When I get honest, I admit that I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and I get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life’s story, the light side and the dark.” According to Manning, living by grace means embracing all the ANDS of our lives. (Don’t you just love Brennan Manning??)
When AND isn’t a part of our collective vocabulary, we tend to believe we are judged as either 100% good or 100% bad, with no middle ground. We feel stuck. We know everything is not all right, both in our own personal lives and in our families’ lives, but since image is more important than reality (as we discussed earlier), we don’t feel the freedom to tell the whole truth. In a way, this is a consequence of believing we have to be perfect — and if we’re not, we just better keep our mouths shut about it.
I still don’t know why I didn’t feel free to tell anybody about my friends being abused. I wasn’t being abused at home; so why should I have been scared to tell anyone about my friends, whom I loved? Perhaps I had picked up on the idea that the Church is “supposed” to keep silent about these things. Just let the leaders lead; the abuse they perpetrate against their children at home has nothing to do with their reasonable service at church. Just let the teachers teach; the pain they inflict on their children at home has nothing to do with their reasonable service at church. The unspoken rule becomes: Keep these things secret. Don’t ever tell the truth. Speak up, and you’ll be punished. Speak out, and you’ll be judged as rebellious.
It’s hard to keep the ugly truth bottled up all the time, and it tends to leak out in one way or another. One way it leaks out is by escaping into another world. In particular, Sanford says people use food (either binging, binging and purging, or restricting) and sex (mostly porn) as escapes, as some of these can be hidden, at least for a time. He says the truth also tends to slip out in sarcasm, which sometimes seems bitter and angry. However, sarcasm and escapes may not be our main problem: they may only be the mechanism we’re using to tell our stories.
So what is the cure for “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t”? I believe it’s to allow ourselves to say AND. It’s to allow ourselves, as Brennan Manning said, to be honest and admit we are a bundle of paradoxes, and to allow each other to say it as well. It’s when we acknowledge our whole life’s story, the light side and the dark side, that we can begin to live by Grace alone.
“God is disappointed with me”
The lies in this series are all somewhat related, and this last one closely follows “I have to be perfect.” It represents the fear that if I’m not perfect, then God will be mad at me. That if I make a mistake (or several), He’ll disapprove of me. We can spend our whole lives trying to make God happy with our behavior. Working, working, working, trying so very hard to please Him.
This one is listed last in the book because it’s what Sanford calls a “holy heresy about God.” The others lies are about myself and others, but this one goes straight to the heart of God. Sometimes when we grow up in church, we get the idea that God is just waiting for us to make a mistake so He can bring down His wrath, and punish us once and for all. We get the idea that we don’t deserve His love and aren’t good enough to earn His forgiveness. Not that He delights in us and sings over us, not that He loves us with an everlasting love and has saved us by His own Hand.
If that’s the kind of angry, vengeful God we know, we might end up walking away from Him.
I won’t even pretend to have all the answers here for how to deal with this lie. It goes really deep and takes a lot of time to shed. What I hope to do is to give you some resources that have helped me deal with this lie. I pray they can deepen your intimacy with God and strengthen your trust in His love.
Beginning to walk in the assurance of God’s unconditional love for us is an intensely personal journey. We walk part of it together, in safe community. We must also walk some of it alone, in the secret places of our hearts. It’s when I close the metaphorical door of my prayer closet and meet with God one on one that He touches me most personally and most deeply. I pray God will grant more and more of those sweet times of fellowship to all of us.
RESOURCES FOR ENCOUNTERING GOD
- I mentioned Brennan Manning earlier in the post. The summer after I finished that four-month stint of counseling was my first introduction to Brennan Manning. My husband led our youth group through the Ragamuffin Gospel, Visual Edition. It’s an abridged version of his original work, with art. It was a balm to my soul and cemented in my mind the things I’d been learning that year.
- This year I’ve been going through the daily devotions in Manning’s Reflections for Ragamuffins. Each day has a Scripture and a selection from his other writings. This year I’ve been on a journey to know God’s love more, and this book has been a big part of that.
- A Life Overseas writer Kay Bruner recommends Abba’s Child. Although I haven’t read it, I love Manning enough and trust Kay enough to recommend it here.
- I’d never read anything from Henri Nouwen before this Lenten season, when a friend of mine in Phnom Penh gave me a copy of Show Me the Way. It’s a collection of excerpts from his many books, and it’s profoundly affected my relationship with God. I loved Nouwen’s Lent book so much that I asked my friend for more recommendations (though I haven’t been able to get my hands on them yet). Again, I love Nouwen enough and trust my friend enough to include them below.
- Return of the Prodigal Son
- Life of the Beloved, which was her husband’s favorite
- Jeanne Guyon wrote a book called Experiencing the Depths of Jesus that affected author Timothy Sanford so deeply that he recommends it in his Parsonage Heresies book. I plan to read it this coming furlough.
- I know I’ve recommended Paul’s letters already, but I love Paul so much, I’ll say it again. Especially Ephesians, Galatians, and Romans. Hebrews is also helpful, but then, we don’t know who wrote that.
- The book of First John. Also helpful is Beth Moore’s explanation of the life of John and his relationship with Jesus. Moore’s Beloved Disciple Bible study rewrote my understanding of the Apostle John.
- The Psalms. I’ve often felt God’s love through the Psalms. (And I’m betting you probably have too.)
- I Corinthians 13, viewed as a letter to you, from God. We know that God is love, and I Corinthians 13 is one of our best descriptions of what love looks like practically. I Corinthians 13 therefore gives us a glimpse into how God sees and treats us. This is an exercise Sanford recommends that made a big impact on me when I first read it a year and a half ago. Write it out in your own handwriting, use your own name, and ask God to show you His great big heart for you.
- Music is a huge part of my connection with God. In particular, worship music from the International House of Prayer (IHOP) has opened up a whole new aspect of God for me: His passionate love for me and my reciprocal love for Him. IHOP music leans toward the charismatic end of the spectrum; two really gentle introductions to their music are listed below.
- Unceasing, especially “Alabaster Box” on Track 5 and “I am Yours” on Track 12
- JOY, especially “Every Captive Free” on Track 5 and “Marriage Wine” on Track 3. “My dad, He’s not angry. He’s not disappointed with me. My dad, He’s not angry. He’s smiling over me”
- And a bonus: a new Chris Tomlin song I just heard at church this spring. Let the words sink deeply into your soul, healing all the cracks in it, the cracks that tell you God doesn’t love you or is angry or disappointed with you. It’s true: Jesus really does love you.
Now it’s your turn to share. What things have helped you accept Grace and receive Love from God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit? This is where we practice Safe Community and help each other along on the road to healing and wholeness, truth and light, peace and hope.