I don’t know why many Christians feel the need to pretend to be perfect.
Maybe it’s because our culture is obsessed with appearance and performance. Look at magazines: the women always look gorgeous and confident, the men always look capable and strong. Worth is found solely in how you look or what you accomplish. Movie stars and athletes are worshipped. Normal people are losers who never do anything spectacular. So we stick up a confident picture and update our social media sites with exciting, funny, successful (meaningless) moments from our days. We find our identity in the appearance of things. In looking, acting, performing, doing everything…fakely.
Really, we’re all a bunch of fearful, messed up sinners. But we somehow have to prove to non-Christians that God exists solely through our sinlessness. Somehow we really have no flaws because God is on our side.
I just don’t know. But it is a problem for many of us Christians. Perfect, something inside us whispers. You must be perfect. Don’t show them the mess you really are. So we smile and nod angelically at church while the worship team starts their peppy introductory notes…
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My struggle with perfectionism started around junior high. As a kid, I had no worries. Then I started to grow up and become aware that I was the oldest in my family. Being the oldest, there is always a lot of pressure to set an example for my younger siblings. I began to have this underlining thought, “If I failed, I will let down my siblings and disappoint my parents. I will be a disgrace.” I’ve always had dreams of achievement and success. Failure, mistakes were never an option in my eyes.
As my last post mentioned, the kids at youth group called me perfect. They didn’t try and really get to know me. How could I let them know how angry I was at God during that time in my life? How could I let them know how much their words and actions hurt? So I pretended.
My identity became my persona. I learned to hide. Most days at church I would walk in, feeling horrible, and smile as if I hadn’t a care in the world. I learned to keep my face very neutral, never showing what was really going on inside. I learned to lie to my parents, to act as if I was doing okay. All because of this incessant need to appear as if I was perfect, like everyone said.
When I began to follow Christ during my junior year in high school, I didn’t overcome perfectionism. Yes, God loved me, but He loved the good me, right? Good Christians had everything together. Good Christians served God and never felt alone or depressed. Good Christians read their Bibles and prayed and went to church. They were cheerful and full of the joy of the Lord. So my identity became Christian perfectionism.
My senior year, I suffered a heartbreak and a huge amount of depression in the wake of it (which I will write about in the future, I’m sure). Right after this, I began to have health problems that no doctor could diagnose. It was one of the darkest times in my life as I tried to repair a shattered heart and struggled with multiple health problems.
Still, my identity was in my appearance of perfect. I couldn’t be really honest about the pain I was in. I had to have it all together, because that’s what Christians did. As the months passed, I spiraled into deeper depression and darkness. I felt like a huge failure. I dabbled in anorexia because I wanted control of something in my life, and I wanted to punish myself for not being the perfect Christian God deserved.
No one in my church knew. My parents didn’t really know. Some of my close friends had an inkling of what was going on, but I was not even totally honest with them. I isolated myself more and more because I was so ashamed of how broken I had become. All because I had to be a good Christian who never hurt, who never questioned, who never cried or felt weak.
Perfection. A good performance. We can’t ever fail Him. That’s what God wants, right?
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No. That is not what God wants.
It was during that time of depression and heartbreak that my relationship with God became real. God used that time to show me how broken I was without Him. God used that time in my life to show me how much I needed to be honest before Him and with others. It was a starting place of learning I didn’t have to wear a mask of perfectionism over my woundedness.
My journals became real. I didn’t write things like, “God, today is beautiful. I’m just so blessed to be here on this earth. You are so amazing and lovely. And I’m just such a perfect example of how great a person is with God in his or her life. Amen!” My journals became, “God, I am a wreck today. I feel really, really sad today. Why? Where are You in this time? Do You see? Do You care about all the pain? I need You to answer me. I need You so badly to get through the day.”
In fact, voices like this are reflected all the time in the Psalms.
Be not far from me, for trouble is near…I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within me (Psalm 22: 14-15 NASB).
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; My eye is wasted away from grief, my soul and my body also. My life is spent with sorrow and my years with sighing; My strength has failed because of my iniquity, and my body has wasted away (Psalm 39:9-10).
Because of my sincere pouring out my heart to God, I began to learn that God desires our honesty and brokenness far above the appearance of godliness. He is near to us in our weakness. He wants in on those raw, dirty places more than the shining, squeaky clean tombs we hide in. Because when we are honest about the dark places, then He can begin to shine His light in and heal.
Again, the Psalmists say:
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:14 NASB).
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. (Psalm 51:17).
The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth (Psalm 145:18).
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Of lot of this honesty is found in prayer. This is why I love prayer so much. I began to get really into it the summer after my freshman year of college, when a group of friends and I began praying once a week. We weren’t praying to look more holy. We were praying because our lives were all in desperate need of healing. So we poured out our hearts in community, and we lifted each other up before God. That’s not a perfectionism-driven Christian community, and it changed forever the way I view authentic friendship in the church.
In prayer, I’ve learned to cry before God–and yes, in front of others at moments. I mean really cry. When I feel afraid, or sad, or depressed, or confused…I can share those things with Him. Because He is near to those who call upon Him in the truth of the heart’s inner condition. In real prayer, we are completely humble and honest before God, and He meets us there in a deep, intimate way. I’ve been praying like that ever since.
I still struggle with the urge to look perfect in front of everyone. There still are periods I can’t share what’s really going on. Most the time I’m still afraid to cry in front of Christians for fear they might judge. As God continues the healing process, I continue to embrace the fact that I am nothing without Him. In the knowledge of my destitution, then God can truly work miracles. Only in authentic community where believers have the freedom to be honest can healing come. It still grieves my heart to see how many Christians always wear a mask in front of God and other Christians no matter how they feel inside.
Their identity is in perfectionism. Not in the grace and love of God.
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Sometimes we believe God truly is a List-Keeper up there, counting every time we fail, every time we cry, every time we sin. He’s making some kind of case against us that will ultimately prove He shouldn’t love us.
Sometimes we confuse the God with the Devil.
Really, God is just waiting for us to be real with Him. To show Him our old scars, our fresh wounds, and lay them at His feet. Only then can He answer. Only then can He show us just how deeply He sees our imperfections, and how Christ’s blood is the only thing that can cover our sins. For Christ’s blood has “perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). God does not see us through the eyes of condemnation, but of Love.
Yes, He will ask us to change. He will demand that we do not stay there in the mire of our mistakes and sins. Yes, sometimes the cleansing process of healing and refining is excruciatingly painful. But in every moment of imperfection, we are indeed Loved as He patiently continues the process of sanctification.