Four Lies of Perfectionism that Rob You of Joy

We all want joy and contentment. Much of that desire is God-given; before things in the world went terribly awry, we were created to live in perfect peace and harmony with our own selves, the world around us, our role in the world, and our relationships with others. It’s a longing for heaven, which means it won’t be fulfilled until we get there. Living in a broken world, there is then a danger in pursuing forms of perfection as a means to joy in the here and now. If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself exhausted, frustrated or discouraged from this pursuit time and time again. It’s important to recognize the lies about perfectionism so that we don’t sacrifice our hearts pursuing what will never deliver; instead, we learn to look to and rest in the Perfect One who alone can be our sufficiency when all else fails.

1.) Lie: The reason you lack joy and fulfillment is because you have not achieved as much as those “ahead” of you. Attaining to perfect life achievements is what will bring you joy.

Truth: The place where you believe you will feel you have “arrived” is an illusion; it will never be enough.

We live in an age where the charmed life seems to be all around us. Even for Christians, we can fall into a subtle trap of boasting about “blessings” without realizing we’ve simply thrown a Christian label on our charmed life posts. The result is the same: falling for the “best life now” illusion, hook, line and sinker. Once I achieve that level of success in my career. Once I become that Instafamous. Once I move on from singleness to marriage. Once I enter into (or get out of!) that season of parenthood. Then I’ll feel fulfilled. We don’t realize – or fully believe – there are challenges and new issues of discontentment tied to the role “ahead.” This is why Ecclesiastes tells us,

“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” Ecclesiastes 2:9-11, 24-25

As I wrote in an earlier post about experiencing restlessness in the pursuit of our dreams, nothing is owed to me, but grace is given for today to enjoy what is before us here and now.

2.) Lie: If people around you sing your praises with enough quantity and consistency, you will find lasting joy. Being perfect in the eyes of others is what will bring you joy.

Truth: The praise of people really isn’t all it’s cut out to be, and it can’t keep up with the neediness of your ego.

When we fall for this lie, we are always looking for something new, something better, something funnier, something flashier, to keep the stream of praises flowing our way. We should sense a red flag if we feel unsettled when there is too quiet a pause in the praise. The praise of people can be addicting; beware of placing the weight of your self-worth on its shoulders. It can rise and fall with trends, attention spans, moods, and others’ own insecurities and issues. Its supply often has more to do with others and less to do with you. Truly, the only One who is more than able to bear the weight of all of your self is Christ.

3.) Lie: Having perfect harmony and avoiding conflict in relationships will bring you joy.

Truth: We have to come to grips with the fact that healthy relationships, particularly the closest ones, will inevitably include conflict. It’s learning to work through the conflict – while guarding a safe place for one another – that brings about deeper love, a fuller experience of grace and forgiveness, and stronger character.

While it’s true we need general health in our relationships, we need to be careful not to equate “healthy” with “conflict-free.” I’ve never felt so much ongoing ‘conflict’ in my relationships as I do now that I am navigating the parental authority role with two toddlers whose job it is to constantly challenge me as they grow into themselves. It is impossible to avoid a clashing of will or personality, and for this peace-loving people-pleaser, it can be relationally confusing and exhausting. That is, until I come back to the realization that it’s not the absence of relational conflict that will bring me true joy. Because in my core, what I really want in my relationships is not to be conflict-free, but to be loving, patient, godly, self-sacrificing, renewed in spirit. These attributes are gold, but they only come about one way: Through the often-painful refinement experienced in working through the relational conflicts, big and small.

4.) Lie: When you are at your worst, you cannot be truly loved. Being a perfect self is what will bring you joy.

Truth: When you are at your worst, it is the most profound time to realize how deeply, unconditionally, and perfectly loved you are.

This lie encapsulates all the others, because we tie up our life achievements, our public image, and our closest relationships, with our very selves. So fundamentally, the perfectionists in us will be tempted to pursue perfection of self in the pursuit of joy.

What then, when we have bad moments, as everyone does? I mean, really bad moments. I mean, your worst moments when you’ve totally lost your rational mind and you’re throwing the tantrum of a 3.5 year old, but you lack the excuse that this behavior is developmentally appropriate in any way. Your worst moments when you’ve given into that sin once again and the voices of shame and hypocrisy are deafening. It’s easier to think that God and any other human witness to your behavior are merely tolerating you, because how could this mess merit any love?

When we find ourselves in the shoes of the prodigal son, clothed in rags of unrighteousness and still a long way off from the God we at some point wished dead, that’s when we find He has already run to us and said, “Yes child, I died, and my death was for you – not for you to be free of Me but for you to be restored to Me for joy. The best robe has been prepared for you; welcome home.” When Jesus took the sin of the world upon His holy self and suffered the horrific consequences for them, the Father still loved Him, and eventually raised Him to new life. Now that we have received His forgiveness for all our sin, past, present, and future, and have been donned with the robe of righteousness, how could the Father love us any less? It is profound, and it is our healing.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8

To pursue perfection in achievements, in the opinions of others, in our relationships, and in ourselves is to chase an illusion. When we can identify the lies of perfectionism for what they are, we can take our first step towards freedom from their entanglement and the subsequent exhaustion. As we run to Christ, the Perfect One, allowing Him to cover and fill us as only He can, He receives the glory and we receive the true and lasting joy.

Miracles of Spring

I seem to be in the business of heavy topics. Between my work as a nurse in a pediatric ICU and my marriage to a pastor, I get what can feel at times like too much of the inside scoop on the lesser known sufferings of many people, much of the time. This week in particular seemed to be the week of choice for a disproportionate amount of unpleasant news. A friend’s suicide. A bad code at work. Extra drama all around.

I also attended the annual Ethics of Caring Conference this week, geared primarily towards nurses, and while I deeply appreciate the courage that this group of people has to tackle the hard issues and reflect on them for a prolonged period of time, my internal response was conflicted. I needed to go there in a lot of ways, to remember that the ethical core of nursing has to do with caring deeply and persistently about situations and issues and people that many choose not to care about. It can be exhausting, but choosing the road of a hardened heart is certainly no better solution, at least not the one that I ultimately want for my life. Many speakers at the conference mentioned how the general public still doesn’t truly, fully grasp what a nurse does in the year 2013. We don’t just hold the patient’s hand, throw on an occasional blood pressure cuff, and deliver a small paper cup of pills, though that is part of our job description. We manage critical situations, enter into complicated conversations, and we clean up secretions, blood and sloughing bowels to try to preserve the dignity our patients. Maybe that’s why the public doesn’t really know what we do. Maybe they don’t always want to. Sometimes, we ourselves need to forget a little of it too.

I’m in the business of heavy topics, and quite honestly I seem to have a strange and morbid draw to them at times. But in weeks like this when I recognize the signs that a healthier sense of balance has been lost, I take a walk outside and remember that even still, this is the first lovely week of Spring, and the celebration of Easter, the resurrected Christ, is just around the corner. I went to water my somewhat neglected herbs only to see that my mint and lavender plants have grown and flourished despite me, and their resilience brings a comforting reassurance. My baby kicks me in my womb, and I marvel at the growth of this peanut who at nine weeks had only limb buds, but now has arms and legs and fingers with which she can jab and kick and punch. I feel the dryness of my soul, but then she kicks me again and I remember that where there once was no life in me, new life has begun and it grows over time, strong and sure. She reminds me that miracles still happen, and my mourning is turned into dancing again.

a letter for my soul

I am in tears over Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Oh, my soul.

I’ve been losing sight of the Lord, slowly, subtly, surely. Life has gotten busy and ambitious and it seems my ego has risen a bit too much to the challenge. I’ve been unusually obsessed with control (and if you knew my usual level of obsession, you’d know that’s saying a lot) – trying to control things at home, at church, at work, so that all my raucous ducks are in a row, so that all that is wrong or imperfect can be made right (by me… as if), so that I don’t have to admit that I’m just so terribly uncomfortable with feeling out of control. I can’t get the termites or the fleas or the clutter or others’ opinions or others’ shortcomings or my shortcomings or my patients’ changing statuses or their parents’ anxieties or my anxieties over it all, under control. Oh dear, pour me another cup of coffee. I’ve grown convinced by some deceitful voice that obtaining control means obtaining peace, and losing control means losing peace. The resulting simmering anger and frustration has, with just a minimal increase in heat here and there, occasionally brimmed over and I haven’t been able to put a lid on it.

It is exhausting trying to usurp the place of God.

Here comes Paul. He’s in prison. His life hasn’t gone according to plan, but he’s rejoicing. Because God is in control despite the awful cliché, and so Paul assures his anxious friends in Philippi, “I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel,” “I know that this will turn out for my deliverance,” and ultimately, “to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

His life is complicated, but so simple. He is bound up in chains, but he is so free. He knows the One in whom his life rests and that’s all he needs to know. “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

And of course, because I’ve lost sight of the One who really matters, the good and sovereign and wise King, I’ve been obsessed with my ego. I love my Facebook likes and my blog followers and all my praise. This I confess. I exploit my own self to promote myself. What depths of sin and self-deceit.

Here comes Christ, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God. He made Himself nothing, of no reputation, taking the form of a servant. I nailed Him once to the cross with my pride, twice with my unrighteous anger, a third time with my envy, a fourth with my critical heart. And then He took it all and bled and wept and died from it and got buried with it all. But oh my soul, He rose again above even those depths to show that He who began a good work in me would still be able to carry it to completion. It is He who works in me to will and to do for His good pleasure now, not to make me a slave but to make me free.

And so it’s time for me to relearn how to do all things without complaining and disputing. To count all of man’s praise and approval and promotion as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ. And believe me, my secret heart has counted it all, taliied my points to give myself those big gold stars. It’s time to put that behind me again and press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.

It’s time to rejoice, and again, rejoice. Quell the anxiety. Hallelujah, I don’t have to be in control of it all. Lift up prayer and thanksgiving. Let generosity and gentleness and contentment be mine because He is on the throne and I am not, and so all is right with my world again.

He is the King, and I am His child.

Oh my soul, again I say, rejoice.

Reblogged: Can Grief and Joy Coexist?

I deeply appreciate the honesty of this blog. I have lost my stomach for pat answers laden in overspiritualized vocabulary that invalidate the reality of what people experience when life is just honestly, hard. I have a deeper hunger for something both honest and real when we talk about joy in Christ, because of Christ. The same Christ who knew the Father was good, loving, and in complete control when He was broken on the cross and asked why He had been forsaken. He knew He wasn’t back Home yet, and He knows we are not either, not yet. This is the Savior I love, in whom I hope and in whom I can rejoice.

Clearing Customs

There is a phrase in Mandarin Chinese, bei xi jiao ji (悲喜交集), meaning “mixed feelings of grief and joy.” Grief and joy aren’t commonly thought of as partners, but when faced with loss, cross-cultural workers need to understand that one doesn’t necessarily cancel the other one out.

Expressing Grief

Dr. Steve Sweatman, president and CEO of Mission Training International (MTI), says that the call to take the gospel of Christ to another culture “inevitably is a call to sacrifice, to losses, to things that you will have to leave behind or give up.” This sacrifice takes many forms, and MTI has identified five categories of loss experienced by Christian cross-cultural workers. They are

  • a stable home
  • identity
  • competence
  • support systems
  • a sense of safety

In an audio presentation at Member Care Radio (entitled “Good Grief“), Sweatman also discusses the differences between concrete and abstract losses felt by cross-cultural…

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when my mess tumbles out and God comes in

In all the 20 years that I have been leading worship in music at church, I still get nervous every single time. It’s more than stage fright, though that remains a significant component. It’s anticipation, longing. Wanting more than a sentimental musical experience. Wanting something real, something deeper. Creating a space with the music for people to go beyond words in bringing their hearts, their hurts, their fears, their doubts, their shame, before a God who says to every broken soul, “Come to the cross, I will not turn you away there.” Creating a space where the heart is opened and everything tumbles out in the mess that we often feel we are, and we try so hard to contain our mess and apologize that we didn’t get it together before we came before this Holy One. Only to find ourselves caught up in the embrace of the Father who ran to us while we were still a long way off and says, “Welcome home.”

I long for this as a worship leader. For this real exchange to happen. For people to find themselves found by God, because of Christ. I am afraid of getting in the way with too many words, not enough words. Awkward pauses. Wrong notes. I’m afraid of a Sunday with a weak voice, an off voice that doesn’t inspire others to proclaim, “I am His beloved, and He is so good.” I used to think that quality and skill in music didn’t matter that much as a worship leader, but particularly after going through John Piper’s series, “Gravity and Gladness,” and reading Bob Kauflin’s book, “Worship Matters,” I am convinced that quality and skill do matter. Quality in music, quality in leadership style, skill and discernment in both. I don’t think I can take the ministry of worship in music too seriously. I am leading people, through song, to come before a holy, loving God. The Creator and King of the universe. Our Life-giver. He is holy, holy, holy. I tremble with this, every week. I don’t want to sing flippantly to this God who sees my heart of hearts. I want to be used by You, God. I don’t want my pride to get in the way. I don’t want my fumbles to get in the way. Give us Yourself. We need You. No one brings life the way You do. Not me, not my music. Give us Yourself and help me not to get in the way.

There is a deep joy I share with my fellow worship team members. I love musicians who offer what they have to worship the Lord. They get it. They get that the backing off with an instrument is a humble expression of worship, a humble act of service to the church family, just as much as the loud strums and beats. I don’t have to play, to be heard, to be recognized, all the time, because it’s not about me. We’re creating a dynamic with our music, the rise and fall of our hearts when we hurt and we hope and we fall and we get up, when our brokenness robs us of our words before God and when our joy can’t be contained so we have to sing and shout and clap. There are certain Sundays when we know that the Lord has been gracious to us in our time of music, He has been there. The weight of His glory lingers even after the benediction has been given. I exchange glances with other worship team members and we just know, He has glorified Himself through our offering, and our hearts are so glad. Sometimes, I have trouble talking with people afterwards because I feel so amazed that He would give us this gift of Himself, our little broken but beautiful church community. He is what we have longed for. We need Him to go with us into our traffic and our housework and our tense relationships and our Monday morning blues. Give us Yourself, God. As you always have, would you now, again, graciously give us Yourself.

clasped

There are moments that come that just make my heart really, truly glad.

There was the moment my patient’s parents finally received news about the MRI’s results. The mom was exhausted from lack of sleep due to nights spent consoling her inconsolable child, afraid of the strange tubes and lines and the strangers who kept coming at her with a mix of unpredictable comfort and pain. The surgeons were able to get the entire tumor out. No translator was needed to explain the cry of relief, that unstoppable strong clasping of the surgeon’s hand from an otherwise shy and reserved family. They could breathe and hope and plan again. Maybe they will see their daughter get married one day after all.

There is the moment every morning when I see my neighbors go for their walk. He with his old, soft, black hat, his hunched back, and his walker. She with her large glasses, soft smile, braided grey hair, hands quietly clasped behind her back. She always walks just a few steps behind him, just to make sure. They walk patiently around the block, no sadness or fear or shame about them, just glad to be out for their daily walk, together.

There is the moment when I’ve pulled into the driveway and open my car door. I can already hear my sweet silly dog barking that particular bark he lets out when he knows one of us is home. It’s so endearing, how he already knows by just hearing our cars. That sweet moment when I walk through the door and he scurries over, tail wagging, tongue hanging like a goof in expectation of me dropping my bags and smothering his furry head with kisses. His collar clasp jingles against his dog tag as I rub his happy round belly.

Sometimes these are all the moments we need.