Wednesday, February 06, 2008

the evils of perfectionism

Yesterday in leading our weekly "devotions" at work for our team at RBC Ministries, I did something different, sharing two readings from Eugene Peterson's outstanding book, The Jesus Way, each from the chapter entitled, "David: I Did Not Hide My Iniquity." Since Peterson wrote the contents of the study guide we're using, and since we're on Psalm 51, I thought this was appropriate. My first reading was from pages 78-79 on the evils of perfectionism.

I have to give you an idea of what Peterson means by perfectionism. It's something like a high, holy standard set for ourselves and for others, especially for other professing Christians, by which we judge ourselves and others, and which we strive to fulfill ourselves.

Peterson decries the division that has been made between "carnal Christians" and "spiritual Christians" (a misreading of Scripture, I believe, by the way, which I used to believe in for years), as well as the sad reality that many a Christian has been waylayed from the Jesus way because of their own discouragement in not meeting such standards. Along with my reading of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together, how we should see ourselves and then live in Jesus, has been stewing some in my thoughts.

I think both Peterson and Bonhoeffer are right on this, though I don't know well how to think of this yet, and therefore how to express it in words. But I post on this today, to see if any of you have some thoughts on this.

I was raised in a pietistic church which emphasized externals such as dress, though we were the moderates among this spectrum of God's people, specifically among the Mennonites. This is not meant at all to disparage them; many good and loving people among them. Nor is it meant to judge any single one of them. But we did struggle somewhat with this evil of perfectionism.

Perfectionists see rightfully that Jesus walked in perfection here on earth, but they may be off in not noting how radically Jesus identified with sinners, like at his baptism with John the Baptizer. Also in the nuancing of his very humanl life, how Jesus depended on the Father, and was a down to earth creature, yes creature (as well as being the creator). And how our following of Jesus has provision for us in him, that was never needed by him, but is ever needed by us.

For example in John 13 on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus washed all of his disciples' feet. No one washed Jesus' feet. In the picture of salvation and its ongoing reality in our lives in Jesus (salvation is past, present and future for God's people, in Scripture) we are forgiven and cleansed of our sins by faith. Jesus told his disciples that they had already had the bath of regeneration. We are thus cleansed, but living in this world we are defiled by sin. Sin is all around us on every side. And we ourselves struggle with it. So we're impacted by this struggle, and we don't always succeed in resisting temptation to sin. Therefore, as Jesus points out, while we don't need to be born again, again, or born from above again, given new birth, we do need our feet washed which in their case with their open foot ware, became dirty in all the dust they walked through.

Perfectionism says we must, or at least should be always squeaky clean. And usually perfectionists have formulas and/or lists to help Christians get there. The formulas may even be taken out of God's word, though invariably when they do this, they are taken out of context. And added to them may be a list of do's and don'ts. Things you should do if you're going to be perfect, and things you must avoid. This varies from group to group among these folks.

I remember one church I visited, males to males and females to females all greeted one another with a kiss on the cheek. They all had their regulated garb on, of course even with my suit and tie I routinely wore in those days (and probably did that day, though I think I had a white short-sleeved shirt since I think it was summer) I was out of place. At that time, at least, guys never wore shirts that did not cover their arms completely, even in the hot summers there. Now while these people would acknowledge that others knew the Lord outside of their group, they were prone to judge them according to this standard of perfection that was set for them as the standard they should live according to, if they were to be holy.

The sad reality is that we're not going to be perfect as in without sin in this life. This must never mean that we ever excuse our sin. Nor is it saying we have to sin. It's simply helping us to be sensitive and remain aware and open to the revelation of sin in our lives. Over and over in Scripture, and one might say, preeminently in the life of David, a man after God's own heart, do we see this displayed.

I plan to post some more on this. But I'm much interested in your take on this subject. Does anyone out there have something you'd like to share on this?


lorenzothellama said...

Ted, I think what you have written is brilliant! This is why I get so hot under the collar on the bluecoller fundamentalist blog. We all see God in different ways, ways that have maybe been shown to us and we are all different. The trouble with the fundamentalists is that they demand that everyone sees things the way they do, and if you don't then you are 'condemned to the Lake of Fire' and they tell their children that too.

Any, nuff of that or I'll be upset for the rest of the day.

I would love to see photos of your ancestors. It is such fun scanning old photos and making a posting out of it. I am still in grief for my mother even though it is two years now since she died and I find printing these old pictures and writing about her really helps. I don't know how I'll feel when I get to the part where I knew her. So far it was all before I was born.

I will try to do the bit about my father being a prisoner of war, but Maalie is away again at the moment so I am risking telling the wrong story, but no doubt he will put me right when he comes home!

Love and hugs,

ps, havoc at Martins?

Every Square Inch said...

It is impossible for us to truly look at ourselves as we truly are apart from God's redemptive love.

As non-Christians, we were incapable to doing so since our hearts were dead in sin. Even as Christians, we often resist it, because what we see is our lack of perfection before a perfect, holy God. We are averted from fellowship because of shame and guilt.

Yet, when we do so in the light of the gospel, we see our imperfections covered by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus is actually a basis for renewed joy and worship. The essence of Christian life is being able to see ourselves as sinful and culpable yet confidently cast ourselves upon the mercy and grace of God.

I heard John Piper once refer to such a disposition as "gutsy guilt"

L.L. Barkat said...

Or, perfectionism could be a socially acceptable, hidden desire to claim one's god-likeness (not in the positive way, as in "I'm made in the image of God" but in the negative way of "He said in his heart, 'I will be like the Most High...'")

NaNcY said...

good post.
food for thought.

Rachel Mc said...

"We are thus cleansed, but living in this world we are defiled by sin. Sin is all around us on every side. And we ourselves struggle with it. So we are impacted by this struggle, and we don't always succeed in resisting temptation to sin." If you were to sum up your entire post wouldn't the message be "It's all about the journey and what you learned, shared, and came to believe in." ?
I have met a few christians who take the "we are all sinners" too far, I believe. You can't move into the idea that you can stop sinning and win God's approval. I still think it is all about the journey,just like I have started to join this blog more and more.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks for your most kind and gracious words.

I believe what you say about seeing God differently is in many respects true. I also believe that God in Christ Jesus, and in Jesus' incarnation, life, death and resurrection for us, is at the heart of God's revelation to us of who he is, as Father, Son and Spirit.

By simple faith we have to accept God sentence on us that we're sinners, and then by simple faith we have to accept God's gift to us in his Son Jesus.

Unfortunately in this world, just as Jesus said, the gospel and Jesus divides people. It is meant to unite and in the end will bring all people and creation to perfect unity in Jesus. But in this present world that sadly is not the case.

Just the same, Jesus takes us all in. And I'm glad for that. I'm just as needy, and sometimes I think more so, as anyone else. And God in Jesus is the one I entrust all of my life to, and seek by his grace and truth, to follow.

Thanks again, and a hug to you, and hope you have a good Thursday (I know you're up and at 'em, pretty soon now)

Ted M. Gossard said...

Good words and so true. And wonderful how God keeps giving us a freshness as white as new snow, in our lives, through Jesus and his sacrifice for us.


Ted M. Gossard said...


Yes. We do need to get back in the Genesis narratives in seeing that important point. That we want to be god, that we have it in ourselves, apart from God's grace in Jesus, to go that way. The propensity we have is to run our own lives, maybe with God's help, but we want to do it ourselves, and we want our agenda fulfilled, our will to be done.

I can see that as a part of the world's philosophy in how people are to live and be successful, it seems, anyhow, to me.


Ted M. Gossard said...

Oh, Lorenzo,

Yes, your photos and story on your blog are quite nice. Hope others go and take a look (Lorenzo the Llama on my sidebar of blogs).

One of these Saturdays, maybe I'll get some old photos of my parents and of us kids growing up.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Yes, thanks. I need to post further on this, as I'm sure I've opened myself up to some misunderstanding.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Good thoughts.

I used to think we shouldn't call ourselves as Christians, sinners. Sinful at times, yes. But we are, after all, righteous in our standing in Christ, and we're being made righteous by the work of the Spirit.

But after reading some more, and thinking through Scripture, I think it's appropriate to say we're sinners, as long as we keep a Scriptural balance that we're also on a different path in Jesus, that we're on the way of life, and not on the way of death.

This means that we never excuse our sin, and it also means that we confess and find God's forgiveness and cleansing to us, in Jesus.

And like you say, it's about the journey.