Summary: To be perfect as God is perfect, paradoxically, requires us to understand our own weaknesses and failures the way God does, and to love ourselves, despite those weaknesses and failures, the way God does.
It may sound like a contradiction in terms to have a sermon on the temptation to be perfect. After all aren’t temptations about being imperfect. Doesn’t God want us to be perfect just as he’s perfect? But you know, there is such a thing as the temptation to be perfect. All of us are subject to it from time to time. Some of us fall into it much of the time. It’s the temptation to live perfectly obedient lives in our own strength. It’s the temptation to think we can be like God. Ultimately to think that we no longer need a Saviour.
I’m told that the makers of Persian rugs always build in a flaw because they believe that to attempt to create a perfect product is to be guilty of blasphemy. They realise, you see, that the temptation to be perfect is no minor matter.
Now not many of us, I hope, are like the woman whose husband would get up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night and would come back to find his side of the bed made, and who was so worried about messes that she put newspaper under the cuckoo clock.
You may not be that neurotic about perfection, but some of the characteristics of perfectionists may nevertheless be true of you.
Do you expect the absolute best of yourself at all times?
Do you sometimes put off beginning a project because you don’t have the time or skills to do it perfectly?
Do you have trouble enjoying sports unless you know you can win?
Do you find yourself getting upset with other people because they don’t do things the way you think they should be done?
Are you hard on yourself when you make a mistake? What about when you make the same mistake twice?
Is the idea of being average distasteful to you?
If you can relate to some of those feelings then the temptation to perfectionism may be something you need to watch out for.
Researchers have identified four key characteristics of people who are perfectionists:
1 Perfectionists tend to think in black and white categories.
Everything in life is an either/or proposition. Either I’m perfect or I’m worthless. I’m either a great father or a bad father. If I’m not going to be a great preacher, I won’t preach at all. If I’m not always kind and selfless and loving then I’m a worthless person. If I’m not working flat out, I must be a lazy slob.
2 Perfectionists maximise failures and minimise successes.
So you might say to your perfectionist wife after an enjoyable evening with friends, "That was a lovely evening wasn’t it?" And she’ll say, "No it wasn’t. The casserole needed more salt, the edges of the apple pie were overcooked and the after dinner mints were stale. Whatever will they think of me?" The small, inconsequential things that go wrong far outweigh all the other things that go right. This tendency is also seen in the young executive who feels he has to work late every night because he’s afraid he might not get the next promotion. It’s seen in the woman who can’t enjoy the fact that she got the promotion because she feels she botched one or two of the questions in the interview. It’s seen in the school principal who feels personally responsible for falling enrollments in the middle of a recession, despite the excellent reputation her school enjoys.
This is an easy trap to fall into, because it’s always easier to notice things that go wrong than to see things that go smoothly. (It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.)
3 Perfectionists set unrealistic goals for themselves and others.
The perfectionists world is an "As it should be" world, an ideal world. But because it’s an ideal world, the goals and expectations of the perfectionist are often unattainable in the real world. So the perfectionist is continually set up for failure. What’s more, they tend to redefine life. Average becomes mediocre. Even something well done could have been done better. So their real world successes are robbed of the joy they should have brought.
Similarly they tend to judge others by the same unrealistic standards. So relationships are damaged because others are constantly letting them down or disappointing them.
4 Perfectionists struggle with low self-esteem.
The natural corollary of the other 3 characteristics is that perfectionists end up with a poor self image, because there’s no way they an ever feel good about themselves. This is self compounding because the poorer their self-image, the more they’ll maximise their defects and failures and minimise their successes.
Now you may be wondering at this point how all this fits with the Bible’s repeated exhortations to live lives that are worthy of Christ. How do we understand that command of Jesus in Matt 5:48 to "be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect"?