On Being Perfect
Be ye therefore perfect,
even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect
The call for perfection that Jesus included in the Sermon on the Mount seems to ask the impossible of us. How on earth can any man ever achieve perfection? One explanation is that perfection is the goal, and we will reach it only in the resurrection. We strive for perfection in this life, but there is no way we can achieve it in the flesh. But if that is what Jesus meant, there were many ways he could have said precisely that.
There is an odd thing about this passage. Jesus did not actually say, “Be you perfect.” Jesus, of course, spoke these words in Aramaic and Matthew rendered them in Greek. What has come down to us is this statement: “Be ye therefore teleios, even as your Father which is in heaven is teleios.” With all the wonderful Bible study programs now available, anyone can consult a Greek lexicon and do his own word search. The definition of telios in the lexicon is “complete.” You can do a word study through the New Testament to see how the word is used, and you will find that “complete” works in every instance. Jesus said, “Be you therefore complete.” And there is a world of difference between “complete” and “perfect.” The word “perfect” is defined as “being entirely without fault or defect.” I am sure that is an accurate description of God. I am equally sure that it is an utterly inaccurate description of any man or woman alive.
“Complete” is a different idea entirely. I am a private pilot with instrument, glider, and multi-engine ratings. When I completed my instruction for the last rating, my instructor signed me off, shook my hand, and said, “Congratulations. Now you are a complete pilot.” I didn’t know exactly what he meant, because no one knew better than I how far I was from perfect. I think he meant that I now had a full set of the ratings available for a private pilot. Of course, the fact is that there is no such thing as a perfect pilot. There are simply too many variables that can arise in that complicated pursuit for anyone ever to claim perfection. In a way, it is a nice analogy with life.
One of the biggest problems we face when tackling a subject like this is getting our semantics right. What do we mean by the words we use? For most of us, the definition of “perfect” I offered above is perfectly accurate. Now I have to explain where “perfect” misses the sense of what Jesus intended to say.
Imagine a pianist in recital, performing a difficult Chopin etude. It is possible for him to do a flawless performance, getting all the notes right, using the pedal as indicated on the page, following the instructions for loudness and softness. I have heard people, listening to such a performance in recital, comment on its perfection saying that he “didn’t miss a single note,” (a high compliment for a novice). They were defining the performance in terms of what did not happen. There were no errors.
Can we agree that it is possible to do a perfect, flawless performance, and yet have a performance that is mediocre and uninspired? You can have a flawless piano solo by one pianist, and a performance of the same piece by a genius, and even the untrained ear can hear the difference. Perfection and excellence are two entirely different things. Once again, we fall back on the meaning of words. Excellent means “eminently good, first-class.” Perfection means “being entirely without fault or defect.”
It dawned on me out of the blue one day that the idea of perfection is a negative idea. It is negative in that it defines a thing in negative terms. The thing does not have fault. It does not have a defect or blemish. All perfection describes is what is not there. It says little about what is there.
Once the idea had taken root, I had to find out more, so I headed off to the Internet where you can find out anything about everything (or is it everything about anything?). The word I chose to search for was “perfectionism.” I found two starkly opposing views on the subject. One held that perfectionism is a good thing if it’s managed properly. That view acknowledges that the perfectionist can be neurotic, but by and large, it’s a good thing.
The other held that perfectionism is entirely a neurotic condition and is harmful. The difference between these views is superficial and arises from semantics, but it is instructive, nonetheless. I found a helpful paper on the Web by Dr. Carol Peters which outlines the various ways of approaching the subject. It seems that scholars in the field describe two types of perfectionist—the normal and the neurotic. Normal perfectionists are people who derive real pleasure from painstaking work. Neurotic perfectionists are those who are unable to find any satisfaction because, in their own eyes, nothing they do is ever good enough.
So Carol Peters is persuaded that perfectionism can be good or bad, it all depends. But she also notes that, “A number of researchers . . . have linked perfectionism with depression, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, migraine, personality and psychosomatic disorders, Type A coronary-prone behaviour and suicide.” Is it a good thing? Or is it harmful?
Peters cites another author who lists five characteristics of perfectionist teachers and students:
2. Fear of failure.
3. The all-or-nothing mindset.
4. Paralysed perfectionism.
These characteristics are said to contribute to underachievement. Procrastination affects all of us from time to time. The fear of being less than perfect, of not living up to one’s own expectations, can produce overwhelming feelings that lead us to put things off. I don’t think many of us consciously go through this line of thought, but the fear of making a mistake, of having a fault, can prevent us from starting a project in the first place. This probably lies near the root of what we call “writer’s block.” Successful writers have come to understand that the blank page has to be assaulted with words, so they just start writing. They can always come back and rewrite. It is a curious thing that most drafts of papers, books, or novels, can be improved merely by cutting off the first few paragraphs. Once the block is passed, the work gets better.
Putting things off until the last minute, when a deadline is bearing down, is called procrastination. It makes life harder on everyone connected with a project. But some people cannot bring themselves to start until they absolutely must.
Apathy also keeps the writer from starting, but that may be merely another manifestation of perfectionism. He knows his work will never measure up, so he just never starts. And thus, never has to face the lack of perfection.
I recall a sermon I gave years ago in England. It was one of those fire and brimstone sermons that people strangely seem to enjoy (mostly, I think, because they are sure I am talking about someone else). After the sermon, and after the usual round of congratulations, which I always take with a grain of salt, a gentleman came to me and said something that shook me to my roots.
“My, Mr. Dart,” he said, “when you preach like that, I just feel like I am never going to make it.” He meant it as a compliment, but it woke me up to one of the major errors of young preachers. The last thing I wanted was to make people feel like they could never make it.
I have thought about this encounter a great deal, and I have come to see it in an entirely new light. When you hold up unrealistically high standards for people, the end result is likely to be apathy. When a man comes to feel that he “can’t make it,” the natural response is “Why try? I can never measure up to this standard. I can never do this without making a mistake. I can never reach the faultless plateau, I am too flawed, I just can’t reach this level. I might as well give up.”
Those perfectionists who can’t live with apathy tend to become workaholic. According to Peters, they are “dependent on performance since self-esteem is tied to external rewards.” Too often, it is tied to how we think others look at us. We can’t find satisfaction inside ourselves.
Workaholics don’t delegate well, because no one can achieve their high expectations—not even themselves. They also have a hard time saying “no” and get over-committed, losing any sense of balance in their lives. Sometimes people don’t like letting go of something because they are afraid of failure on the part of the person to whom they have delegated the job. Perfectionists have a hard time allowing someone else do the job and then accepting the job when it is finished. Sometimes the person performing the job simply cannot do the job as well as the perfectionist would like.
So we are left with a person who either cannot delegate, or having delegated cannot let go. A person who can’t say no, because, “If I don’t do it, who will?” or “Nobody can do it the way I think it ought to be done.” This hardly seems to be what Jesus was advocating in the Sermon on the Mount. But there is another side to the story.
At the end of our Internet search, we find one theorist telling us that perfectionism is a neurosis and another telling us that it is not. Now how can this be? The answer? Semantics. Read this paragraph carefully:
Students can be helped to cope with perfectionism by accepting it as a basic part of their giftedness, by emphasizing its positive aspects, and by acknowledging the anxiety and frustration it provokes (Silverman, 1995, p. 4). Difficult challenges generate anxieties which require inner strength and a great deal of persistence to overcome. Gifted learners need support to persist despite constant awareness of failure. Excellence takes more time and hard work than mediocrity. (Emphasis mine.)
Did you catch it? The author switched words on us in mid stride. What is he talking about, excellence or perfectionism? The author uses these words interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. Excellence transcends perfection. Excellence can be imperfect, even flawed. Excellence may not be exactly what is written in the score of a piece of music. It is possible, after all, to improve on Bach.
A story is told of an organist in a German cathedral who, one day, encountered a stranger who was examining his organ. Learning that the visitor was also an organist, he proposed that they play together. The cathedral had two organs, so there began a kind of contest, dueling organs, if you will. Each would propose a theme which would be answered by the other. Step by step, they ascended into ever more complex themes and variations. Finally, the visitor proposed a theme that the other could not answer. The organist walked over to the stranger and said, “Either you are an angel from heaven, or you are Johann Sebastian Bach.” Bach was a genius at the organ, they say, a greater performer than he was a composer. Genius transcends perfectionism, it goes beyond the music that is on the page. Yet genius may be flawed. So we have to be sure we know what is at issue here. Is it excellence, or perfection?
And it is here that a major issue can be addressed in Christian theology and Christian conduct. Excellence can be flawed. One can be complete without being perfect. This is true even when it comes to the Law of God.
Peters had this good advice: “Maintain high standards for yourself but don't impose them on others—they will run the other way fast!” Then she adds this admonition: “Maintain high standards for yourself, but don't impose them on others lest you become a tyrant.”
That last sentence underscores what too many Christians have had to endure. I recall preaching sermons when I was younger in which I held up a standard so high, that no one could hope to measure up to it—certainly I could not. I was asking the congregation to be, well, perfect. I think not a few preachers become tyrants because they are perfectionists and they are demanding things of the people that they themselves cannot measure up to. Not only that, their standards and God’s standards may not be the same. Imagine how terrible this can become if the preacher creates an organization that thinks it must enforce his standards. This is the stuff that cults are made of.
God’s standards (and you can always count on this) are administered with grace. Men’s standards, unfortunately, are too often not. And that is precisely where the divide came between the disciples of Jesus and those of the Pharisees.
In my research, I happened on a publication of the University of Illinois counseling center. I presume it was a kind of pamphlet for incoming students and was attempting to help them adjust to university life. They offered this warning about perfectionism.
Perfectionism refers to a set of self-defeating thoughts and behaviors aimed at reaching excessively high unrealistic goals. Perfectionism is often mistakenly seen in our society as desirable or even necessary for success. However, recent studies have shown that perfectionistic attitudes actually interfere with success. The desire to be perfect can both rob you of a sense of personal satisfaction and cause you to fail to achieve as much as people who have more realistic strivings.
I can see a Christian reading that and balking. After all, Jesus said we should be perfect, and they are telling us that perfectionistic attitudes can actually interfere with success. But that wasn’t what Jesus was saying. He was calling on man to be complete, to strive for excellence. And the person who is striving for excellence will almost always surpass the one who is striving for mere perfection.
Many years ago, I was teaching public speaking at a small college in England. All speeches were evaluated and given a critique. It was my custom to allow the students to evaluate one another which, at times, got downright brutal. But the student evaluators focused on eradicating faults, errors, and mistakes. Unfortunately the poor rascal who had given the speech was often bombarded with a barrage of trivial imperfections. It took some work to get the students to give attention to the really important things. Did you understand what the speaker was saying? Were you persuaded by his arguments? Did he move you to do something about his issue?
It is a point often overlooked, but if you spend your lifetime working on your weaknesses, your faults, your mistakes, the best you can ever hope for is mediocrity. How do you transcend that? You work on your strong points. You work on making your gifts and talents stronger. If you are a teacher, you look at what a student does well, and you try to lift it to the point of excellence. In that way, you have a chance to take a young person far beyond what he thought he could do. He has a chance of excellence that the pursuit of mere perfection would deny him.
There is an unexpected benefit of this approach. A person’s faults and weaknesses get drawn up into the striving for excellence, and they often as not take care of themselves. I am talking in the context of teaching speech, but it applies in every aspect of life. If, when working with your children, all you do is work on faults, weaknesses and mistakes, your kids are likely to grow up to be, at best, mediocre performers. At the worst, they may end up neurotic perfectionists.
But, when working with anyone, children, employees, students, wife, husband, your question should be, “What does he do well?” What are the strengths? How do you make them better and stronger so that the strengths, the things a person is really good at, sweep up and carry along the mistakes and faults?
The University of Illinois pamphlet continued:
If you are a perfectionist, it is likely that you learned early in life that other people valued you because of how much you accomplished or achieved. As a result you may have learned to value yourself only on the basis of other people's approval. Thus your self-esteem may have come to be based primarily on external standards. This can leave you vulnerable and excessively sensitive to the opinions and criticism of others. In attempting to protect yourself from such criticism, you may decide that being perfect is your only defense.
As a counselor, I encounter people in that situation. They value themselves entirely on the basis of the approval of others, never realizing that being perfect will only get them more criticism. You will not avoid criticism by being perfect. You will only get more of it.
Perfectionists tend to anticipate or fear disapproval and rejection from those around them. Given such fear, perfectionists may react defensively to criticism and in doing so frustrate and alienate others.
Sooner or later in life you must learn to avoid being defensive about criticism. The more successful you are, the more criticism you will receive. I have a wastebasket under my desk , and whenever I read a letter that is harshly critical and lacking in constructive ideas, I rarely get beyond the first two paragraphs. From long experience, I can recognize hostility quickly, and the letter goes to the waste basket. I once had a friend who, when he got one of those letters, would systematically tear it up. I don’t even give the letter that much attention. Critical emails should get the same treatment. It is even how we should handle destructive conversations. If all a person can do is find fault, they are telling you that you aren’t perfect. But you already know that, so listening is a waste of time.
Without realizing it, perfectionists may also apply their unrealistically high standards to others, becoming critical and demanding of them. Furthermore, perfectionists may avoid letting others see their mistakes, not realizing that self-disclosure allows others to perceive them as more human and thus more likeable. Because of this vicious cycle perfectionists often have difficulty being close to people and therefore have less than satisfactory interpersonal relation-ships.
I told you all this to explain what Jesus meant when he told us to be “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.” Perfectionism can be defined as an excessive striving to be without fault or defect. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to overcome our faults or defects. But there is an obsessive striving that is unhealthy. Perfectionism, then, is negative because it defines what is not there rather than what is. And when it comes to the Law of God, that is not good enough, as Jesus explained in the Sermon on the Mount.
I have often heard it said that no one can keep the law perfectly. The statement is entirely true, and completely irrelevant. The law is not given to define perfection. It is given as a guide to life. The purpose of the law is stated quite simply by the psalmist: “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). It is there so we won’t fall down and hurt ourselves.
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