Progress over Perfection

In a sense this is true—in an overwhelmingly strong desire for unattainable perfection, one finds oneself ever ashamed of one’s own inescapable weaknesses.  Inevitably, the ostensibly stalwart façade crumbles, revealing a crooked, fragile interior.

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My roof is leaking again, and idolatry rears its ugly head.

With each drip from my bathroom’s ceiling, I can feel the tightening of my grip on the things of this world.

I don’t want to let go of $400 to have the roof fixed.  I trust in that $400. In it is my security.

This type of mundane inconvenience always feels inordinately heavy on my shoulders, and I’m tired of bearing these things alone. I need a husband to share the load. In a potential husband is my security.

I tell myself I surely could have done something to prevent the leak (as if I should be stomping around on my rooftop on a weekly basis, tar and shingles and nails in hand, rooting out and repairing loose shingles and slipped siding). I require perfection of myself, and in my own perfection is my security.

I recognize the lies here. The longer I live, the more clearly I begin to grasp the depth of my heart’s deceitfulness, and the more clearly I realize that I can’t begin to plumb that depth. In this realization, though, is a gleam of hope.  Because where sin and idolatry abound, grace superabounds.

***

The God of this grace chose me before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him (to quote Ephesians 1), and he began to draw me to Himself one evening when I was around four years old.  It’s possibly debatable whether the prayer I prayed that night to “ask Jesus into my heart” was my defining moment of salvation, but I remember enough to know that I had (even in my four-year-old heart) a basic theology of sin, judgment, and grace.  No doubt it was a childlike faith, but it was faith in the right Person.

Equipped with a quick mind and a sharp memory for details, I began to absorb information about this Jesus.  My believing parents took seriously their charge to train up their children in the way they should go, so Christian school education coupled with Sunday school ensured my saturation in the ways and the Word of God.

In elementary school, I memorized Bible verses with my classmates: “A–” we chanted together, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  B—Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved. C–Children, obey your parents in the Lord….”

In middle school I wrestled with making my faith my own and worried about assurance of salvation. I ended up planting my twelve-year-old feet hard on Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”  It was enough to bank my hope on.

When high school rolled around, I cracked open my Bible and began to study in earnest. I prayed for and shared Christ with my unsaved friends.  I showed up at See You at the Pole every year, was one of two there. I was okay with that.

In general, I was a Pretty Good Christian Kid, and I did love Jesus.

But, unbeknownst even to myself, I was also developing a love for perfection.  My own perfection.

Some say it can be construed as a strength and a weakness, perfectionism.  In a sense this is true—in an overwhelmingly strong desire for unattainable perfection, one finds oneself ever ashamed of one’s own inescapable weaknesses.  Inevitably, the ostensibly stalwart façade crumbles, revealing a crooked, fragile interior.

My grades must be perfect, I thought in college. So I lied on the Bible class reading report.

I am condemned by my lie, I agonized. So I confessed to the professor and to God.

My confession is not good enough, I believed. So I served more, read my Bible more, mourned more over my sin.

But I couldn’t shake the feelings of shame and disappointment in myself, and depression followed me closely as months turned into years. A flurry of church activity bespoke my need for flawlessness.  Maybe if I did enough for Him, I could earn back God’s favor, undo what I had done, feel Him smile on me again. I didn’t realize I was worshiping a legalistic idol of my own making—self-righteousness.

It’s too easy, isn’t it?  To lose sight of the intangible, inexhaustible treasure of God’s grace and to turn toward the tenable, futile, temporal trinkets we’re apt to find in the world and in ourselves.  We hew out, as Jeremiah puts it, broken and leaky cisterns.  We stand back and admire our work, simultaneously shriveling up for want of the Living Water that Jesus has never ceased to offer.

Perfectionism left me empty, self-condemning. Strive and fail, strive and fail. I thought God had turned his back on me.

I’m being punished. This is why God has not provided me a husband, even though I’ve waited for so long.  I’ll never be good enough, and I’ll always be alone. God is not good.  My bitterness and anger toward God grew and exploded onto those closest to me, those who loved me in my weakness and anger and despair.

So God removed those who loved me. He literally removed them to other states, and with them, the last vestige of hope in something other than Himself.

I was alone.

But in my aloneness, I found I was not. Unexpectedly, I discovered He was with me; He had never left. He was disciplining me as a loving Father. This was evidence of his grace.

I had only bitterness and weakness to offer Him, not perfection.  He said, I have carried those and will carry them. And I will carry you. You will never be alone, and I am good.

***

And he still says this. Because weakness is still all I have to offer. I still catch myself hewing out broken cisterns and running back to Egypt and forgetting to consider the lilies and the ravens.

Isaiah’s words comfort me, spoken by God to people like me, those of us who are so often bent on carrying the burdens of our idols:

Bel bows down; Nebo stoops;

  their idols are on beasts and livestock;

these things you carry are borne

  as burdens on weary beasts.

They stoop; they bow down together;

  they cannot save the burden,

  but themselves go into captivity.

 Listen to me, O house of Jacob,

  all the remnant of the house of Israel,

who have been borne by me from before your birth,

  carried from the womb;

even to your old age I am he,

  and to gray hairs I will carry you.

I have made, and I will bear;

  I will carry and will save.

Isaiah 46: 1-4

Why carry the unbearable load of your idols into captivity? God pleads. Rather, be carried along by the riches of My grace to salvation.

I’m listening to these words now, and I want to listen more closely still. He is a generous giver, this God who carries me, and His grip on me is tight. He lifts me up and holds me firm, all the while prying my fingers loose from the things that will never satisfy, so that my hands will be open to receive the good gifts that only He can supply.

 

Author: Erin Steelman