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INTRODUCTION:

 

There is an emotional malfunction that easily slips under the radar and into the lives of believers and churches. It operates under a number of aliases and is too readily embraced and encouraged as an ally when, in fact, it is a destructive enemy. It sometimes calls itself "excellence", a quality of character and endeavour that is both legitimate and desirable. However, for this session we shall call it for what it is - perfectionism.

 

It is important that we try and distinguish in the first instance the difference between perfectionism and excellence.

 

The Pursuit of Excellence - The freedom to choose to pursue the very best for God based on us being unconditionally accepted by Him without any effort or activity on our part.

 

The Tyranny of Perfectionism - The drivenness that demands we do more andtry harder to be worthy of God's approval expressed in a seemingly endless round of Christian activity and self-effort.

 

[1]  THE SYMPTOMS OF PERFECTIONISM.

 

a. The Tyranny of the 'Oughts'

This is the performance-based life that is constantly dogged by a sense that we are never quite good enough and we are not accomplishing enough. This incessant awareness results in us being in a constant state of the 'oughts' - I ought to pray more. I ought to witness more. I ought to read my Bible more. I ought to love more. I ought to do more. The list just keeps getting bigger and bigger. In fact, it is a form of slavery. It is this form of slavery that Paul had in mind when he wrote his letter to the Galatian believers

 

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1 NIV)

 

b. A Sense of Self-condemnation

Because the tyrant called perfectionism sets an ever-increasing regime of standards that are impossible to meet, a sense of overall failure is inevitable. This results in an increased effort on our part to try harder, do more and jump higher. This, in turn, sets us up for further failure and the inevitable conclusion that "I am no good! How could God love me?"

 

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son…… (Rom 8:1-3 NIV)

 

c. A Sense of Anxiety

Many believers who have become the victims of this tyrant called perfectionism often have (a) a tender or sensitive conscience - in the sense that they are especially prone to self-criticism and (b) they have a strong desire and need for approval and affirmation. Add to these two factors their inability to reach what are unattainable goals and you have the recipe for runaway anxiety.

 

d. A Commitment to Legalism.

In order to have some means of measuring ourselves and our endeavours, we need a list of do's and don'ts. "Religion" and "religious people" require that we have such a list so that we can know what has to be done in order to gain God's approval and affirmation. Even in human relationships there are certain codes of behaviour or expectations that lead to either our acceptance or rejection. The problem is that these lists are never static. They just keep getting longer and more detailed.

 

The whole of the book of Galatians was written to counter this dreadful emotional malfunction.

 

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing — if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? (Gal 3:1-5 NIV)

 

e. An Attitude of Criticism

Legalism and criticism breathe the same atmosphere! Where you find one, you will find the other. People who are caught up in the emotional web of unmet expectations as set out above begin to manifest a nagging, critical spirit or attitude. This attitude of legalism is best seen in the lifestyle and attitude of the Pharisees and the way they interacted with Jesus. Time and again He failed to measure up to their expectations - and they rejected Him.

 

f. A Growing Resentment

Constant failure to meet these unreal expectations together with the constant sense of anxiety ultimately lead to resentment. It begins with resentment towards oneself for not being able to measure up. It flows to others - especially those who enforce the lists! Finally it is aimed at God Himself for being the unreasonable tyrant that He now seems to be. Such resentment leads finally to one of two opposing outcomes.

 

1.  Defection - pulling away, withdrawal and leaving the faith community. In extreme cases it may lead those people to reject God but more often it involves getting out of the setting in which these rules and expectations are taught and enforced.

 

2.  Breakdown - The human spirit is crushed. Our vision is lost and motivation withers. Ministry may continue but love, life, freedom and joy have long gone.

 

[2]  THE CAUSES OF PERFECTIONISM

 

The causes of this emotional disease are complex but three stand out. These usually impact the victim's life in the formative years of both our 'natural' life and our 'spiritual' life.

 

a. UnpleasableParents or 'Significant' Others.

The key factor here is conditional love determined by one's acceptable performance. Usually the home environment is governed by a list of unrealistic expectations. There is little praise or affirmation but a lot of criticism, correction and pressure to do better. The reward is love and acceptance if we achieve acceptable results in that particular instance. But then it starts all over again. The prize is conditional love for success and negativity shown in a range of responses for failure.

 

b. Unpredictable Home Situations.

This factor is similar to (a) above but the key here is the inconsistency and unpredictability of the expectations in the first place and then of the reactions and degrees of discipline following the inevitable sense of failure. This is the classic environment for creating a deep sense of insecurity and an insatiable desire and need for affirmation.

 

c. Unrealistic Image of God.

This image of God usually grows out of (a) and (b) above. The values and expectations of the earthly parents - especially the father - are transferred to the "heavenly Father". It is assumed by the child that their earthly parent is a reflection of their heavenly parent. Our perception of God becomes increasingly distorted. He becomes like the Pharaoh who, in the time of Moses, required the Hebrews to do more and more with less and less. (Exodus 5/6-23).

 

[3]   THE RESOLUTION OF PERFECTIONISM

 

a. A Word

The remedy for this 'slave driver' of an emotional disease is found in one word. It's a word we sing about, we talk about it, we read about it and we thank God for it. But, despite all that, we seem to experience it only rarely. This word represents everything that is contrary to those lists of do's and don't's and makes them redundant forever. It's the word that separates Christianity from every religion. It's unconditional. It's free. It's extravagant.

 

That word is "GRACE". Grace = the empowering presence of God enabling us to be all that God has called us to be and to do all that He has called us to do.

 

b. A Process

God's grace never changes but it frees us to change. This is because grace is never dependent on performance. We can allow change into our lives because it will not effect God's grace towards us. This grace is a re-programming grace. It takes a lifetime to experience and explore the length, breadth, height and depth of God's grace. Although God's grace has an immediate impact when we respond to it (event), it involves a lifelong process.

 

The book of Galatians and much of the book of Romans was written by Paul to expose and neutralize perfectionism and its close cousin, legalism. The great danger is that this perfectionism is like the gravitational pull of the earth. It is the opposite of grace and will always try to draw us into its powerful influence.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Perfectionism and its destructive impact needs the law to achieve its goal in our lives. That goal is to enslave us in a lifestyle of attempting to reach the unreachable, to attain the unattainable, to do more, to try harder, to jump higher. But this perfectionism cannot survive where grace abounds.

 

While ever the law (those lists of do's and don'ts) succeed in demanding that we must win God's approval and love by our performance, we will be victimized by perfectionism and legalism. But where God's grace is let loose in our lives we will be free to serve because we are already unconditionally accepted regardless of performance - NOT in order for us to win God's favour.

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