You know that icky moment when your phone rings and the caller id says it’s the school calling? Generally speaking, one of your people is either sick or in trouble, and neither one of those is happy news. The first week of my oldest son’s third grade year I got one of those calls, and though it came in the afternoon, it was truly a “wake-up” call.
The teacher explained that my son had been chosen to work a math problem at the board in front of the class. He had started the work and then become confused, then tearful, and he couldn’t finish. She was convinced he knew how to work the problem, and she didn’t think he was intimidated by being in front of the class. “Here’s the thing, “ she said, “I am thinking he’s a perfectionist, and we got to nip that right now. No reason for him to put so much pressure on himself. It’s third grade!”
I knew she was right. I had seen this kind of thing at home, but I had no idea how to help him.
“Here’s your homework, Mrs. Harris, “ she went on. “Tonight, I want you to burn the dinner.”
“Burn dinner? What does that have to do with math?”
“When you are cooking tonight, burn dinner and laugh about it. Then take the kids to Moe’s and have a big time. And from now on, every time you make a mistake in front of your kids, I want you to take it in stride. Laugh about it, handle it calmly, whatever. Show your son that no one is perfect, not even mom. Failing or making a mistake or not knowing what to do isn’t the end of the world. It’s just an opportunity to do differently next time. The only way he is going to learn that is if you show him it’s okay to be imperfect.”
God bless that wise, wise woman. She knew that she wasn’t just teaching my son a lesson. Where did the little guy learn to be so hard on himself, anyway? From the mom who held herself and everyone around her to impossibly high expectations. That homework assignment taught me more than anyone.
So I burned the dinner, setting off the smoke alarm for maximum effect. We left the messy kitchen and piled into the Suburban. I cranked up the tunes (probably “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” or some other family favorite) and when we got to Moe’s, we splurged and everyone got Sprite and his own side of queso. I think my kids thought I was nuts, but we had a blast.
Sometimes God works that way. I don’t know what my own problems really are until I see how my behavior impacts the people I love best. I didn’t know I struggled with perfectionism until God, in His mercy, used a very wonderful teacher to open my eyes to see my son acting just like me.
I want to be perfect because I do not want to need grace, mercy and forgiveness from you or God or anyone else. Let’s face it: if my behavior towards you is flawless, then I never have to apologize and you never need to forgive me. If I do everything well, then I don’t have to ask you for help. If I succeed at everything I attempt, then you will just have to admire me. I can mask perfectionism as “doing my best” or “pursuing excellence” or even, piously, “glorifying God,” but if I am honest, my perfectionism looks a whole lot like pride.
Men and women set their standards, but God’s standard-bearer is Christ. When I need a cure for pride, then I can get to humility pretty quickly by looking at the way Jesus lived. Here is what Jesus says: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) To be sure, Jesus isn’t talking about math problems or Tuesday’s dinner, or ceremonial handwashing laws and Sabbath rituals that the Pharisees enforced. When God tells us to be perfect, He has something completely different in mind. In His Word He talks about perfection in these terms:
- compassion (Luke 6:36)
- loving your enemies(Matthew 5:43-48)
- absence of fear (1 John 4:18)
- unity of faith within the church (John 17: 23, Ephesians 4:13, Colossians 3:14)
- dying to self (Matthew 19:21)
- maturity (Philippians 3:15)
- holiness (1 Peter 15-16)
- obedience (1 Kings 8:61)
- self-control (James 3:2)
- worked in us through patience (James 1:4)
- Jesus was perfected through suffering (Hebrews 2:10)
Paul demonstrates how this works. God transformed Saul into Paul as he gave up perfectionism to seek the perfect love of Jesus. Saul had once lived about as close to earthly perfection as he could get. Born with all the right credentials, Saul grew up to be a real MVP- Most Valuable Pharisee. Practically dripping with righteousness, he persecuted the budding Christian church with vicious zeal. Confronted on the Damascus road with the transcendent and complete excellence of Christ, Saul became Paul and realized how far he really was from God’s ideal. Paul exchanged the pursuit of perfection to pursue Christ Himself: “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised Him from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10).
The goal is still perfection, but getting there happens only through Christ. Writing to the Philippians, Paul says, ‘I don’t mean to say that I have already … reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it but I focus on one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” (3:12-14)
Paul quit chasing earthly perfection- whatever that looks like anyway- and went after Jesus Himself. By getting to know Jesus, the man was remade. His zeal remained intact, but his heart was revolutionized. His perfectionism was no longer about himself, but about worshipping Christ. The more I get to know the winsome grace of Jesus, the further He draws me in to a new (and far more glorious) idea of what it means to be perfect. Empowered by His Spirit rather than my own worthless efforts, He transforms me into who He intends me to be.
So burning the dinner was a brilliant assignment. That night forced me to examine my heart. I don’t want my kids to see me trying to do everything perfectly because frankly, I can’t, and that sets us all up for failure. I do want them to see me accepting God’s grace and then sharing it lavishly with others. That night I let go of being “perfect” and grasped grace. But then that grace overflowed, as grace is wont to do, and my kids got to celebrate a ruined dinner.
Maybe some nights grace tastes a lot like queso.