Perfectionism – Part 2

It’s a hard lesson to learn that you don’t have to be perfect. It’s hard to relax and know that if you do the best you can do that’s all you can do. It’s hard not to strive when for the whole of your life up to this point you’ve been working to live up to the unrealistic and unattainable goal that is perfection. And it seems to me that this affects so many people. Fear of being a disappointment to family, to God or others and the possibility of receiving rejection. Often it comes from a root of wanting to obtain parental affirmation that was withheld.

When I started following Jesus, I didn’t get how following the rules laid down in the Bible was meant to free me. I saw God as a spoil-sport in the sky and ready to drop a ton of bricks on me for stepping out of line or making a mistake Not the most fun way to live. But I had decided to follow Jesus after an incredible experience of Him in church, feeling something I’d not experienced before, an emotional connection, a knowledge that I was loved by Him. This far-surpassed the “Angry God in the sky” thoughts and continues to outweigh any of the other feelings and challenges that I’ve tackled in this journey of life. So I persisted. It was a real challenge but I was determined to find out who God really was rather than my unhealthy perception.

The Bible states “This is to love God, to obey His commands” and it was so close to the “If you love me you’ll do what I want” that came echoing through the hallways as a child that it jarred me. Yet the latter statement borne from a selfish place and I’ve discovered that that’s not God. Instead of demands He gives, and He’s already given His best. The most famous Bible verse shows us this: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that none should perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Why is this great? Well, sin entered the world when the first man, Adam, disobeyed a rule that was put in place to protect him. Disobedience also brought death and separation from God. Before that, man and God walked together in the garden. All of us since then have done or thought wrong stuff, which may or may not have repercussions on the people around us. Now, through accepting that Jesus died to carry the punishment for our sin, we can live free of the past, be unafraid of making mistakes, still have closeness with God and be walking with Him through our lives and onwards after earthly death. Brilliant!

Just like we expect parents to give rules for the safety of their children and to advise on the right way to go, this is what God has given to us in the Bible; a handbook for life. Guidelines on the best way of doing things. As I’ve continued on the journey with Jesus I have discovered the freedom that the rules bring. As a child I didn’t always know why I wasn’t supposed to do something but I trusted my parents and so I didn’t question. Later on I’ve learned the reasons for those rules. I chose and choose to trust that God in the same way and have found that it is best. When I’ve done stupid things that got me hurt and realised I’ve gone about things the wrong way, and turned back the right way, I’ve found that God still loves me, I’ve found myself forgiven, I’ve found comfort, I’ve found healing, and found a way to live again more happily. As I’ve gone on I’ve found that instead of my skin thickening to life, I’ve softened and been able to risk more. I want to obey God’s commands because I know He loves me and trust that they are for my own good.

To live trying desperately not to make a mistake so that you don’t disappoint God or others is unnecessary and tiring. To live knowing that you’re loved is wonderful and energising. When you know you’re loved you want to act in a way that would make that person happy. A completely different scenario to thinking that only your perfect behaviour is good enough to earn you love.

Here’s a cracking verse that I often go back to that reminds me of the truth of His love:

But I, yes I, am the one who takes care of your sins—that’s what I do. I don’t keep a list of your sins…” (Isaiah 43:25 The Message)

Or another interpretation:

I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more…” (New International Version)

I love this because it shows me how He doesn’t hold the stuff I’ve done wrong against me, and that He forgets because it means something to Him. I mean something to Him.

Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
(Psalm 103: 2-5, NIV)

There’s just so much more in the Bible that speaks of God’s generousity. Love gives. Love doesn’t demand. You don’t have to try so hard. Just remember that you’re loved and live free.

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Perfectionism is the enemy, the oppressor of the people…” – Anne Lamott

Phew! Thank God for breakthrough. The last few months have been a struggle  for no obvious reason, initially. However, over the last couple of weeks, the causes have gradually become clear and improvement has come.

In October 2011, several of life’s major things changed for me. I got a new job, for which I felt out of my comfort zone. I moved into a new house, which was a lovely place but was with a couple of people I didn’t know terribly well and I entered into a new relationship with a lovely man. Lots of change, but also very lovely things that are an improvement to my life. I gradually became more stressed and anxious, resulting in tiredness and feeling that I was unable to keep up with the pace of life.

After some prayer and time hanging out with Jesus at church I have realised that the major thing that has occurred is that I’ve slipped back into being too hard on myself and not remembering that God values me above what I do for Him. This was a revelation to me first when I was seeking God for my healing from ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I was sat outside in a flowery garden chair in the early-morning sun after being unable to sleep, praying with desperation to be well so that I could do stuff for God, and suddenly realised that He was desperate for me to be well because He loved me. He wanted me to just love Him and not try to get my value from doing stuff for Him. After this I had a much better relationship with Him and even though I remained ill for several months before a dramatic healing (see About for more of the story), I was able to rest in Him and it was a beautiful time that I treasure.

When I returned to university and busy normal life with less time to hang out with Jesus in a lovely, comfortable garden chair, I soon slipped back into working for value. I was on the student leadership team, the host team, led prayer for the Christians Against Poverty centre run by the church, and also took on leading a small group. In my head I felt I was doing a lot of church stuff because I was indebted to God for my healing. While the latter may be true, there is no way I can ever repay Him for what He’s done for me so mine was not altogether a healthy response, especially if the personal connection is lost. We do, however, have to hold all things in tension; I am not saying that I should never do anything for God because I am loved, for this also is not the right way to go about things; James 2:14-25 clearly argues that faith without some action is not true faith. I needed to learn the lesson again and had the opportunity to travel, something that I’d hoped to do for some years but felt I had too much I was doing for God that couldn’t be dropped. I was encouraged by my church leaders to drop them and go! So I did. For three and a half years! I’m glad to report that travelling helped, and I learned to have fun, just for me, and to enjoy the company of Jesus while riding my bicycle across New Zealand!

Back to the recent struggles. The new job brought with it my nasty habit of being too hard on myself. I also began to worry a lot about whether I was doing the right thing about this or that, rather than letting myself enjoy life. Last week I dedicated some time to contemplation while enjoying a lovely pint of cider in a riverside pub at dusk. I started reading a book about writing, Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life” and stumbled across the chapter on perfectionism. What a cracker! It describes how perfectionism attempts to protect our previous wounds or keep us from being wounded but ends up limiting us. How it keeps us moving in tight, worried ways, standing back or backing away from life. Even before reading the solutions I had already been helped and already felt some relief from the weight of anxiety that I had been struggling with for months. One particular solution for perfectionism that struck me was the encouragement to be more compassionate on oneself, as if you were somebody you were fond of. This was described in regard to critiquing a first draft of a friend’s writing, how it is likely that you would say some thing encouraging about their first attempt rather than picking out all of the problems. I realised that this applied to the way I do life, not just writing. I firmly believe that if you pray, and are open to hearing an answer, that God will be faithful to bring resolution to your problem, in many and sometimes surprising ways! I can’t tell you how much more peaceful I felt at the end of this chapter than at the beginning. Not only this but I have continued to feel much more peace and sense Jesus more closely since this revelation, my health is better, the random aches and pains have gone, I’m sleeping better and am back enjoying my boundless energy again! I am going to protect this one with all of my might!

In conclusion, self-encouragement is better than self-criticism! When I have the thought pop into my mind “I am not doing enough for God” it’s probably sent to make me feel bad in front of God, to shame and separate me from Him, rather than be a real and useful thought. I will remember to grab life with both hands, to enjoy it and to hang out with Jesus because there’s nothing like it.

Here’s to doing life with less limitations!

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