Jesus & Perfectionism

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Christians have come up with a variety of ways to discount the things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. I've heard sermons that talk about how Jesus' words were not actual commands but rather an illustration of how human beings could never measure up, and therefore are in need of grace. (Maybe that's true, how are we supposed to know? Jesus didn't offer additional explanation.) Don't get me wrong, there are parts of the Sermon on the Mount that are really beautiful and amazing (I'm looking at you, Beatitudes) but, if you take Jesus' words at face value (as we were taught to do as Evangelicals) then there are a lot of problems.

In this sermon, Jesus equates being angry with someone with murder (Matt 5:22), lust with the act of adultery (Matt 5:28), advises people to self-mutilate rather than sin (5:29-30), advises us to turn the other cheek, without asterisk for abusive situations (5:39), and sums up this whole series by commanding us to be as perfect as God is.

Perhaps the well-adjusted among us can read this chapter and ignore the parts they find unrealistic and simply get on with their lives, but this command to "be perfect" was a huge problem for me. I am a perfectionist, and here in the Bible, was justification for it.

Perfectionism is one of those quirks that tends to get laughed at, or even secretly admired, by those not afflicted with it. But, I've learned in the past year what perfectionism really is: a dysfunctional behavior that is the result of intense anxiety. Perfectionism is the driving fear that if something is not perfect, there will be trouble. It's the belief that if I can just control everything, make everything just right, then I won't get in to trouble and people will like me. It goes hand-in-hand with people-pleasing and being controlling. While others may look on in admiration at the amount of things I'm able to accomplish, how clean my house is, how much I read, or do x, y, or z, I know that this is an unhealthy behavior that doesn't lead to happiness.

I'm working now on letting go of control. It's very scary. A friend of mine who also struggles with perfectionism has started a new ritual. Each day she aims to make one mistake, and when she does it, she announces it, and her family have to applaud her. I thought this was silly, until the other week at breakfast, I spilled Cheerios all over the floor and was huffing and puffing in irritation. My three-year-old son looked at me sweeping and muttering and said, "Mommy, you made a mistake."

He said it without judgment, just as an observation. And then I realized that I need to treat myself the way I treat my kids. I need to allow myself to make mistakes, even applaud them. Maybe that's not Biblical, but it certainly feels healthier.