2018 has been a fulfilling year for us at YMI. We launched our very first online devotional, published over 560 articles, produced 39 artspace projects and 7 videos to help you ask the whys and walk out your purpose.
Hi, I’m Raphael, and I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’ve been a perfectionist for as long as I’ve lived. My earliest memory of my perfectionist tendencies was when I was four or five years old. After trying unsuccessfully to assemble Lego bricks into what I had in mind, I smashed the whole thing out of frustration and disappointment with myself.
God surfaced to me that perfectionism was a problem in my life when I was working to complete my final year project in my last year as an undergraduate student. I wanted so much for my thesis to be perfect that I began putting a lot of pressure on myself. Soon, the pressure became overwhelming and I went into a mild depression. That’s when God began to speak to me about my perfectionism. Since then, God has continued showing me some things that are driving my perfectionist streak and how I can choose healthier ways of functioning.
Fear of Rejection
Shame has been a constant struggle in my life. Shame slithers up now and then and hisses at me, “There’s something wrong with you. You’re not good enough.” It almost always catches me unawares and sucker punches me with its lies. Because of this, I’m often afraid that others would reject me because I’m not up to mark. I fear being a disappointment to others.
Over time, God has shown me that it was my shame that has been driving my perfectionism: due to my (often unfounded) fear that people would reject me if they found out I wasn’t good enough, I would try to present them with my best efforts—whether it’s in interpersonal relationships, tasks I’ve been assigned at work, or ministry opportunities God has given me—so that I could earn their acceptance and validation. When I obtained their approval and praise, I’d feel better about myself and, for a moment, I’d be assured that I’m actually not as unworthy as I thought.
However, shame would then steal up to me again and whisper, “You see, they liked you only because of what you did, not for who you are. If they knew what you’re really like, do you think they’d still approve of you?” Whenever I believed these words, I’d allow shame to drive me again to perfectionism, so as to ward off the fear of rejection. It was a vicious cycle.
In this way, I’ve often tied my sense of self to the work of my hands. I’ve found myself striving for excellence, not purely out of love for God and people, but from an anxious desire to quell my insecurities and shore up my self-esteem.
Something else God wanted me to address was an unhealthy thought pattern I had that fueled my perfectionism: black-and-white thinking, also known as all-or-nothing thinking. I would see life in extreme—only positive or only negative—terms. For instance, if something I did wasn’t one hundred percent as successful as I’d envisioned it, I’d immediately see it as a total failure. Or if someone complimented me, but also included some criticism, I’d perceive that the person actually had an absolutely negative perception of me.
Because of this black-and-white thinking, everything I did was a high-stakes endeavor that permitted no room for failure. I felt I had to reach for perfection in whatever I did. Even if my attempts were almost, but not quite, perfect, I’d perceive them as utter disappointments.
God revealed to me that, whenever I equated my work (what I do) with my worth (who I am), my perfectionism would feed procrastination in my life. I often delay starting a task, because what I want to accomplish appears to me to be an incredibly risk-filled activity. My false belief would say, “Produce the perfect work and you will be rewarded with love and validation, which would elevate your self-worth. But fall short in any way and you will suffer disfavour and disapproval, which confirms that you’re not good enough.”
And so, my fear of failure—so deeply connected to my fear of rejection–would lead me to put the task off; as long as I don’t start on it, I won’t be risking rejection. But the flipside is that procrastination undermines my aims of perfection. If the task is not even produced at all, it guarantees failure. (Ironically, I procrastinated for two months on writing this article!)
Knowing My Belovedness in Christ
Because the root of my perfectionism is a false sense of shame, God has to continually assure me of His love for me and how He sees me.
One day, I asked God what He thought about me during a prayer meeting. I received an impression of a waterfall. I wasn’t sure what exactly to make of it, until four days later. As I was listening to a sermon by UK pastor Sam Allberry, my heart almost stood still as I heard him say,
For eternity, the Father has been pouring His love into the Son—there’s been this eternal Niagara of love from the Father to the Son—and Jesus says as we come to Him, as we become united to Him, we begin to step with Him under that same love. . . . That’s the reality. Jesus is saying [in John 17:22-23] the Father has loved us, even as He has loved His own perfect, eternal Son. (emphasis mine)
I knew then that the picture of a waterfall was God’s way of reminding me that He loves me, and the measure of His love for me is as abundant and extravagant as the love He pours into His Son.
Wow. I was floored beyond words.
Since this is true, then surely, the voice of shame has no hold over me. I may not be perfect, but I’m handpicked and beloved by God (Ephesians 1:3-6). I don’t have to chase after perfection to gain the acceptance of others, because I’ve been eternally accepted by Christ (Romans 15:7).
God also told me to stop struggling and striving, and to just rest in Him. He assured me that His delight over me will never fade, nor can it be haggled for. He reminded me that He was pleased to give Himself to me even before I knew Him, and that my worth is not to be bargained for, but it’s an unchanging thing that He—the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8)—has bestowed on me.
Valuing Growth Over Perfection
As for learning how to avoid all-or-nothing thinking, I’ve had to take note of how God sees perfection. Even though King David committed adultery and murder, and conducted a national census against God’s will, He said that David’s heart was fully devoted to Him (1 Kings 11:4). God characterized David as a man who kept His commands and did only what was right in His eyes (1 Kings 14:8).
This was extraordinary to me. I realized that while David wasn’t perfect, he readily confessed his sins to God whenever he was convicted of them (2 Samuel 24:10). It seems that God’s idea of perfection isn’t so much a life without sin, but a heart that’s willing and eager to come clean and be made right with Him.
This new paradigm helps me to avoid seeing my life, or the lives of others, in black and white terms. It tutors my eyes to see as God sees. I understand better now that God’s grace permits room for mistakes in my life. When I’ve fallen short in any one area, it doesn’t mean I’m a total failure. Rather, His grace empowers me to keep getting up and running with perseverance the race that’s set before me (Hebrews 12:1-3).
In light of this, God taught me to value growth over perfection. I’ll never forget the day when I read this verse: “For by one sacrifice [Jesus Christ] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14; emphasis mine).
I must have stared at those words for several moments. The Bible was saying that as a Christian, I have been made perfect in the eyes of God! I still have to work out my salvation through pursuing holiness (Philippians 2:12). But what an astounding thing it is to know that God doesn’t look at me as a wreck who can’t get his act together. Rather, He sees me as having been “made perfect forever” because of Jesus’s sacrifice for me!
This knowledge frees me up to value my growth journey in God, rather than having to feel ashamed for falling short of His standards. Before, whenever I obeyed God for fear of being rejected by Him, I had no joy in following Him at all. Christianity was all duty and obligation to me, a heavy burden around my neck.
But now, I’m learning more of what it means to obey God because He loves me and is pleased with me (Zephaniah 3:17; Psalm 147:11), and I want to love my Father back (John 14:15,21). I know His grace is sufficient for me in my failings (2 Corinthians 12:9), and nothing I do can change the way He sees me as His perfect, beloved child.
While I’m still working on my perfectionism, I’m more able to let Christ’s love—instead of shame or fear—compel me in the way I live. I know now that, in Him, I don’t have to be perfect to be loved and accepted. Instead of being bound by a life of perfectionism, I am free to live out of God’s perfect pleasure in me.
Written By Tan Chew Suan
Chew Suan got to know Singapore Youth For Christ in her teens and now serves as a full-time staff in Teaching Ministry. She counts it a great privilege to devote her time to the studying and teaching of God’s Word for the purpose of equipping gospel workers.
“I always seem to come back to square one.”
That was what I said to my leader many years back, while a university student serving as a youth ministry volunteer. I have wept a copious amount of tears in youth camps while listening to preachers or our youth leaders challenge us about our Christian growth.
But, after a few weeks, the tears dry up, the routines of life set in, the messages and challenges become a fading memory, the recently started spiritual disciplines become harder to maintain, and I go right back to where I had started.
These cycles of emotional response, resolutions made, resolutions broken, left me tired and discouraged. It seemed so hard to live the Christian life, let alone grow as a Christian. Even the very basics of reading the Bible and prayer in a Christian life were a constant struggle. There were so many demands upon my time: classes, homework, family, friends, school activities, church activities. At the end of the day, I was just too drained to read my Bible or to pray. Furthermore, even if I did maintain my daily Bible reading for a while, I did not see much growth in my Bible knowledge or in my Christian character. I was back, as it seemed, to square one.
Is Christian growth a hopeless endeavor? Not according to the apostle Peter in 2 Peter 1:3-8. In fact, what Peter wrote in this passage gives me great assurance that Christian growth is not only possible, but unavoidable, if I were to heed what he wrote.
1. Jesus empowers me to live a godly life
“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3).
In my struggle to grow as a Christian, there are times when I think I cannot change, especially when I struggle with the same sin again and again. But Peter’s assurance to me is that I can, but not because of me, but because of Him, who has called me into a relationship with Him. He is none other than Jesus our Lord (1:2). If I look to myself for my own growth, then I must confess I do not have the power within myself to change. But Peter exhorts us to look to Jesus’ empowerment.
Christian growth is not only possible, this verse says it is unavoidable if we continue to stay in relationship with Jesus. There is no excuse for not growing. Jesus’ divine power has given me everything I need to live a godly life; He has not left out anything, but has given us everything necessary for our growth. While Peter did not list for us what these things are, we can have a sense of what these things may include by looking at Ephesians 6:10-18. In the passage, Paul begins by urging the Ephesians to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Eph 6:10). So what has the Lord provided for the Christians to make them strong? It is the armor of God which includes: belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, gospel of peace, shield of faith, helmet of salvation, word of God, and prayer.
If I am to grow, first and foremost, I need to put my trust in Jesus, not just for salvation, but for sanctification—my becoming holy—as well. I need to know that my power to change comes from Him and not from me, and thus I need to constantly depend upon Him in prayers and He empowers me.
2. Jesus expects me to put in the hard work to live a godly life
“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness . . .” (2 Peter 1:5)
I wish Jesus would just zap me and grant me instant godliness. I want to increase in my knowledge of Him, but I am not prepared to put in hours of studying the Bible. I want self-control, but when temptations come, I fall right in. I want perseverance, but I try to get out of a difficult situation as soon as possible. I want to be loving, but I avoid people I dislike as much as possible.
I want godliness without having to make the effort to be godly.
I would have thought, since Jesus empowers me, I could let go and let Him do the work. But Peter tells me otherwise. For the very reason that I have Jesus’ empowerment and His promises to enable me to live a godly life (2 Peter 1:3–4), all the more I should make the effort to live a godly life.
Knowing that I have Jesus’ empowerment becomes the motivation to exert effort, because my effort by His empowerment will not be futile, but will produce a godly life. Why am I so stuck in my Christian growth? I want the growth without the growing process; I want the results without the effort.
But that is not how Jesus’ empowerment works. When He empowers me, I exert effort to grow. In fact, His empowering includes enabling me to exert the effort that is crucial for my growth. Philippians 2:12–13 captures this balance well, “. . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose.”
I know that when I trust His word and pray for His help, He gives me a yearning for His word that makes me keep to the discipline of reading the Bible despite my tiredness, a greater willingness to set aside time for it, as well as a growing love for others and willingness to serve despite myself. I attribute it to the work of the Spirit, or as in the verse, God working in me to will and to act.
3. Jesus ensures my life will be effective and productive
“For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8).
Christian growth is for the long haul. The qualities of goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love are to be worked out in my life over and over again and as Peter says, in increasing measure. This will take time.
Recently, I met my distant niece whom I had not seen for about seven years. I marveled at how she had grown, from a young girl to a young lady. This was because the lapse of seven years had made her growth very evident. The youth ministry leader whom I cried out to said to me that though I might move up and down in my Christian growth—three steps forward, two steps back—I would not go back to square one. The growth might not be very evident in a particular year, since it would just be a step forward, but now that I have lived for another twenty-five years, I would have grown twenty-five steps forward.
From my vantage point now, my growth is a lot more evident. Peter’s assurance is that as long as we keep working on these qualities and growing in them, we will be fruitful and productive. There will be no end to our growth until we reach the end.
How do I become unstuck in my Christian growth? I believe that when Jesus said He has given me everything I need for my growth, He has. Based on this confidence, I work hard at the qualities He told me to. I am going to struggle many times, fail at many points and seemingly get stuck at ”square one.” But I am going to keep trying, so that I may keep growing.
The Christian life is not a joyless and fruitless struggle. The growth may not be perceptible at a particular point in time, but I know when I look back years from then, I am going to discover my life has been useful and fruitful, because He has promised so (2 Peter 1:4).
Title: Seek, Nurture, Flourish
Materials: Digital Collage
Artwork by: Rachel Summers (www.rachelsummersillustration.com)
Description: This series is inspired by a collection of verses with a united message: growing comes from knowing. At its simplest, if we want to grow in faith we must keep filling ourselves with God’s word. Faith is not passive, and each image shows the figure acting in response to God; seeking, nurturing, bearing fruit.
“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13)
Faith is not passive, blind or without reason. It is a choice that starts with seeking God’s word, and it leads us to him. The more we know, the more our faith grows.
“Seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7)
God’s word is often described as a seed planted in our hearts, and we nurture it daily through prayer and Bible reading. The more we know God, the more our faith grows and flourishes.
“Blessed is the one… whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.” (Psalm 1)
“Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5)
Just as a tree is known by the fruit it produces, we are known by our fruit: our actions show where our heart belongs. As we remain in God, our lives will bear good fruit, “fruit that will last” (John 15) and we can rest in his provision.
YMI (which stands for Why Am I?), is a platform for Christian young people all over the world to ask questions about life and discover their true purpose. We are a community with different talents but the same desire to make sense of God’s life-changing word in our everyday lives.
YMI is a part of Our Daily Bread Ministries.
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