Stop Being Perfect, Start Being Holy

Written by Janel Breitenstein, USA

I remember a time back in high school, running hard after God. I thought if I could have one thing in the world, it was holiness. Maybe it sounds to you like it did to me: Intently focused on God. Uber-spiritual, even.

But looking back, I actually think what I wanted was to be perfect.

I am some form of a perfectionist. WordPress says I revised my last blogpost no less than 13 times. I am often obsessive, in fact, in my attempts to please people. (One of my friends laughs because when she arrives at my house, I always run to place a hand towel in the bathroom—all because she asked me for it on one occasion.)

This year, about two decades after my high school quest, I finally realized this: The only reason I wanted to be a perfectionist was that I detested my own failure. But I didn’t hate sin and weakness in me because it grieved God; I hated it because I thought I was better than that. It was a chip in my façade, a chink in my armor. I didn’t hate sin because I loved God; I hated sin because I loved myself. I loved my own achievement, my own goodness, my own . . . righteousness.

Maybe you’re wondering: Is there anything wrong with wanting to be perfect? Doesn’t God say to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”? Shouldn’t we have zero tolerance for our weakness and sin?

But you see, my craving to be unchained from weakness was cleverly cloaked in the right lingo of “holiness.” And the god of my quest was myself. Insecurity oozed around my failures. It leaked out when I didn’t meet my ideal. My husband pointed out that pride and insecurity are actually the same sin. Both place my sense of value—or lack thereof—in my ability to achieve my goals on my own.

When I don’t meet my ideals, I feel inferior and insecure. When I’m meeting my standards? I’m on top of the world . . . and likely feeling a bit superior. Neither pride nor insecurity is based on God’s acceptance of me or His value of me, apart from what I bring to the table.

But now, I have started to see holiness less as being free of wrong and weakness. I no longer believe that it strictly lies in the perfection of my outward behavior. After all, my heart’s kind of a rotting onion: the further I peel into knowledge of myself and God, the more underlying junk of my own is flayed open.

American Pastor and author J.D. Greear writes: “There are only two kinds of religions: those that teach you to obey in order to be accepted; and those that teach that you obey because you are accepted. In every story . . . from the Bible . . . God confronts attempts at self-salvation.”

Jesus earned my verdict. He says I’m accepted. I’m cleared. American pastor and theologian Timothy Keller writes that in Christianity, “the verdict leads to performance. The performance does not lead to the verdict.” When I accept Jesus’ verdict of “innocent” for me, God says to me what He did for Jesus: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Rather than motivated by fear—of failure, weakness, not being accepted—holiness is now motivated by faith that I am unconditionally, overwhelmingly loved, accepted, and thankfully not in control. It means I’m no longer trying to save myself. Instead, I’m allowing God to save me. My holiness flows from acceptance rather than insecurity.

Rather than strict control of my outward performance, holiness now feels like an act of worship, a jealousy for my life to be only His. True holiness, I think, has God as its source and object; perfectionism has myself as its source and object. You could say my behavior now emerges (yes, through self-discipline) from a genuine love for God, rather than a feverish clawing for His acceptance.

This means that when I really bite it bad—snapping at my husband, say, like I did the other night—I don’t have to be devastated because I acted like a “bad wife”, or because I behaved in a way inconsistent with my good character. If my mouth speaks out of the overflow of my heart (Matthew 12:34), I need to acknowledge that this is who I am: a sinner. I can confess to my husband without trying to blame-shift or deny or justify my tacky talk. I can ask his forgiveness. And I can lay my head on the pillow knowing that God’s changing me from the inside out. But my worth can remain super-glued to Jesus’ verdict for me in God’s courtroom.

Honestly, His performance is a lot more reliable than mine. My ability to achieve seems to melt away in the presence of that kind of perfection. Ultimately, I’m less and less focused on me and my rather sketchy (hand-towel-deprived) performance.

Holiness is, in fact, an utter reliance on performance—on perfection. Just not mine.

God is Not a Perfectionist

“Another morning and I wake with thirst for the goodness I do not have,” writes the American poet Mary Oliver. This was a line that resonated with me for several years.

For the longest time, I wrestled a lot with guilt and shame. I wanted badly to walk right before God, but I felt I was failing Him all the time, and no matter how much I told Him I wouldn’t sin in the future, it wouldn’t be long before I fell into sin again.

I tried to deal with these unwanted feelings by being a perfectionist. I thought that if I just did and said all the right things, people would approve of me and like me. I felt I needed their validation to assure me that I wasn’t bad, and that I was good enough.

Once, I shared with a group of Christians that I felt life was an unending and exhausting pursuit for a goodness that always eluded me. The group leader said, “You can either hold on to God’s Word or hold on to your feelings.” Over the years, I saw the truth and wisdom of what he said.

God is Not a Perfectionist
One day, many years ago, this truth occurred to me: “God is perfect, not a perfectionist.”

Perfectionism says, “Every single thing must be perfect and good all the time, and any flaw—however tiny—would cause the whole thing to be imperfect, and therefore, ruined.”

I realized that if God were a perfectionist, He would have instantly wiped out humanity the minute Adam and Eve sinned, because He would not have been able to tolerate any flaw existing and persisting in His creation. He would have created us with no room for choice, because that would eliminate any room for error. He would be a controlling, micro-managing God, unable to permit any possibility of imperfection.

However, God is not like that. Instead, He is “patient with [us], not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). He gives us the dignity of the freedom of choice, even though there’s no guarantee we will always use it to love Him.

God isn’t intolerant of mistakes. True, perfection is an ideal we are to aim for (Matthew 5:48), but God knows we won’t get it right all of the time. What He values is our devotion and desire to keep trying to walk right before Him.

God Looks for Devotion
We all admire King David as the man whom the Lord Himself described as “a man after [His] own heart” (Acts 13:22), but his life was far from perfect! He had committed adultery and murder, and conducted a national census in disobedience to God.

I remember being struck by what God said about David’s heart being fully devoted to Him (1 Kings 11:4) and how “My servant David. . . kept My commands and followed Me with all his heart, doing only what was right in My eyes” (1 Kings 14:8).

Seriously? Even after all David had done?

It occurred to me in that moment that God sees perfection very much differently from how I see it. I would not even have come close to saying anything like that about David’s life. And yet that’s how the Lord sees his life.

Although David’s life wasn’t perfect, he was willing to confess his sins before God each time he sinned (Psalm 51; 2 Samuel 24:10). That was a sign of his wholeheartedness to God, which God valued.

God Looks for Desire to Walk Right
To be sure, no one is sinless. 1 John 1:8 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The Word of God tells us plainly that everyone has sinned. If God were a perfectionist, this would have disqualified all of us once and for all from being accepted by Him.

However, the Word also tells us to “walk in the light, as He is in the light” (1 John 1:7). How is it possible to acknowledge that we will fall short, yet still be able to walk in the light? I believe this is only possible because God makes provisions for us to get up and walk right with Him again when we fall.

It’s like being a runner in a race. The runner may fall several times, but just because he falls, it doesn’t mean he’s disqualified. He can still get up and keep running to finish the race. I believe God values our desire to keep getting up and running towards Him.

God Forgives Us through Jesus
We can get up again after falling only because there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The Bible assures us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

In the past, I always struggled with accepting God’s forgiveness. When I fell into sin, I felt guilty, condemned, and worthless. I felt so much shame that I didn’t dare or want to approach God because He is holy and I felt tainted. But whenever I hid from God—like Adam and Eve did when they sinned—that always caused me to backslide for a period of time.

I have since learned that the first place I need go to when I sin is actually “God’s throne of grace,” so that I can “receive mercy and find grace to help [me] in [my] time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). It is there that I can find relief and freedom from my guilt.

Hence, whenever I fall into sin now, I immediately go to the foot of the Cross, at which I can receive total forgiveness by Jesus’ blood. Instead of trusting in my own feelings, I choose to believe in the reality of God’s promise that when I confess my sins to Him, God, in His faithfulness and justice, will not only forgive me but also purify me from all unrighteousness, making me “clean” and “whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7).

God is Always Good
Because of this, I am continually filled with gratitude to the Lord. What kind of God would sacrifice His only, beloved Son for you and me because He wants to be our Father? (2 Corinthians 6:18) That blows me away each time I think about it.

I will not always make good choices, but I can anchor myself on the truth that God is always good. In response to shame, which says, “There is something wrong with me,” I remember that because of what Jesus has done on the cross, the Father has accepted me in His beloved Son (Ephesians 1:6 (KJV)), lavishing His great love on me, His beloved child (1 John 3:1).

In response to guilt, which says, “I’ve done something wrong,” I remind myself that there is always forgiveness of sin by the blood of His Son. Now that I am a son of the light (1 Thessalonians 5:5), though I may stumble from time to time, I know that the Father of the heavenly lights (James 1:17) gives me grace to keep walking better in the light.

Therefore, I can say with the Apostle Paul, “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

So I no longer identify with the line by Mary Oliver. Sure, there are some days when I still struggle with trying not to counteract my shame and guilt issues with perfectionism. But as I grow in this journey, I am now more able to say: Every morning, I wake with thirst for God, who is always so so good to me (Psalm 42:1).

ODJ: Stop Painting Your Bucket

August 21, 2016 

READ: Colossians 2:1-10  

So you also are complete through your union with Christ, who is the head over every ruler and authority (v.10). 

A friend who worked for a Christian organisation was known for his perfectionistic work habits. One day as he was finishing some work on a backhoe, a large piece of excavating equipment, he began preparing to paint its large metal bucket. This was an unnecessary part of the job, as the fresh paint would scrape off as soon as the backhoe began digging into rocky soil. As my friend raised his spray gun for the first coat, his boss called to him, “Don’t paint the bucket!”

My friend put down his spray gun, but he couldn’t let the idea go that he hadn’t finished the job. All through the night and into the next day, he wondered why he felt it was so important to paint the bucket. Then it came to him. Later, he went to his boss and said, “When you said ‘Don’t paint the bucket’, what you were really saying is that I shouldn’t find my value in my perfectionism. My value doesn’t lie in my work, but in Jesus.” His boss slapped his desk and exclaimed, “Yes, you got it!”

The only thing that can ever satisfy in life is Jesus. He’s the fullness of God; and if you’re a believer, you’ve been made “complete” in Him (Colossians 2:9-10). Who you are is who you are in Jesus (v.2). Full stop. We can’t add one bit of worth to what we already are in Christ. And it’s a sin to try.

How many of us need to stop ‘painting our buckets’?

We pin our hopes for security and significance in accomplishments that can’t provide either. We think we’ll be satisfied if a certain person will go out with us, if our toddler will behave or if we get that new assignment. The reality? We already are a “new person” with a “new life” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

C’mon, don’t paint that bucket!

—Mike Wittmer

365-day plan: Luke 17:20-37

Read Phil. 3:8-9 to see where true worth in life can be found. 
What is your bucket? What does it mean for you to stop painting it today as you find your value in Christ alone? 

(Check out Our Daily Journey website!)

It’s Time We Stop Being “Perfect”

Written by Michelle Teo, Singapore

Perfection. It’s in a frozen smile and windswept hair. It’s in soft, brown hair or slim, toned legs. It’s when someone has everything together. We see perfection—but only when we are not looking closely enough.

I used to envy other girls for their beauty and popularity. I used to be jealous about how “perfect” they were, because I was sure they had no worries. Surely, I thought, their lives were just as perfect. Even if there was anything wrong in their lives, I believed it had to be something really small. Perhaps she had a bad hair day. Maybe she scored 98 instead of 100 in a test. Maybe the most charming boy in school didn’t fall for her, and she would now have to settle for one of the other 99 mediocre guys vying for her attention. Whatever it was, it was definitely nothing as big and bad as the rest of us had to go through.

Sometimes, this desire for “perfection” affects the way we view our own lives. Before we realize it, we want others to view us in the same light. We want others to think our lives are “perfect”. So we pull you into our arms and tell you little stories of our lives, whispering as though they were the truth. We brush the hair away from our faces and smile as we assure you that nothing is wrong.

We create the illusion of perfection when we see judging expressions for our mess, our chaos, and our bleeding hearts. We create it when we keep on talking about how holy we should be, how a sinner can never glorify Christ. We create it when we expect believers and non-believers alike to be holy—because God is—without thinking twice about their hurt and shame. We create it because we want to believe we are worthy and accepted and loved. We create it, build it, refine it, and solidify it, when that becomes all that’s expected of us.

But three years in university made me finally realize that the perfection I’m so obsessed about simply doesn’t exist. For the most part, it’s merely a front that no one can hold up forever. I saw “perfect” people fall; I saw them embarrass themselves in front of crowds. I saw them getting drunk and crying when morning came. I saw “perfect” students find no meaning in life, and the “perfect” couple fighting and looking to break up.

It can be the same even for believers. Sometimes, the crosses we wear on our necks fail to hold us back from making a snide remark, and we do something wrong before we can stop ourselves.

There is imperfection everywhere. We don’t have to demand perfection from others, neither do we have to demand it of ourselves. It is tiring, agonizing, and ultimately, disappointing. When we accept that we make mistakes, that no one is perfect in this huge world, that’s when we start living in reality. But if we’re always striving for “perfection”, we never will experience life the way it deserves to be experienced. There is no perfection, save for God.

Sure, we were meant to be perfect; this entire world was. When God created humans with free choice, He knew there was a chance we might stray from His perfection. Eve made a choice, and she ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam made a choice, and jumped right into sin with Eve. The moment Adam and Eve chose to live their own way, we walked away from perfection.

And this perfection can never be restored without Christ—so let’s stop making our own version of it.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Read “Bidding Farewell to Little Miss Perfect