I am a recovering perfectionist. A repeat offender. I live on a success/fail basis. A need to look good, and while I may not to tell you how right I am, I need to know I indeed have the right answer (especially if you do not.) My life is performance oriented. I feel condemned, guilty, and unworthy before God and yes, especially before you. I labor tirelessly under a sense of unlimited obligation and often burn out under the pressure. I, in short, live like a slave – shackled to a chain of lies that scream
control your environment
out perform your neighbor
My sense of duty, my need to control others, and my desire to perform well in front of others – they all act like a drug – an addictive substance promising so much more than they grant.
Duty, control, and performance entered my life like a chick hatched inside a cage – I was born into captivity. The bars blocking blue sky greeted me upon arrival. In fact the space between the iron walls and the cold, hard floor were freedom compared to the cramped shell of birth.
I quickly learned if I adhered to my family’s laws of duty, demands of control, and standards of excellence, I was granted freedom to fly around that cage. If I ate off the plate of busyness (for idle hands are the devils playthings), hid my real emotions (and caused no scenes); if I preened my feathers faithfully and stayed out of trouble, I was free to explore the confines of their carefully controlled coop. I could soar up to the bars, peek my head between the slats, and gaze upon the blue sky. Duty, control and performance promised freedom, right?
Well, maybe. If one can actually fly under the weight of the fear, guilt, and shame that duty, control, and performance produced. The law of duty, the restriction of control, the standard of excellence – they all clung to me like ID bands around my ankle. Weighed me down, interrupted my flight, identified me as a captive. I not only wore the law around my leg like a burden, I wore fear, guilt and shame around my neck like dog tags.
- As a child I feared failing so intensely I actually swiped a 3rd place ribbon off the judges stand, so I wouldn’t have to return home empty-handed.
- At only 10 years old, guilt hung heavy around my neck at the mere sight of a bountiful buffet table. “You are what you eat, you know.”
- And in my teenage years, shame overshadowed everything after a short stint into the arena of petty theft.
Ironically, after graduating from high school , I headed straight for…can you guess? Another, albeit more beautiful, birdcage with even higher standards of duty, control, and performance. If I couldn’t fly free under the restrictions of childhood, then clearly I needed even improved restrictions.
- As a young mother, I shook desperate at the thought of spending an entire afternoon (with four children) with NO AGENDA. Gasp! What was I to DO?
- If family life ran wild, I wasted no time tightening the reigns of order and control. I mean zero-tolerance here, people.
- I even just recently caught myself competing to win the next aerobic video star contest (in my mind). I couldn’t even enjoy my daily exercise torture without the added pressure of performance. Where in the world was Grace?
Apparently Martin Luther and Erasmus debated this very question.
“Grace,” Erasmus explained, “is like one parent on the far side of a room encouraging and cajoling his child to walk towards the parent waiting on the other side of the room.”
“No,” Martin Luther countered. “Grace is like a caterpillar in a ring of fire. The only help is from above.”
Grace was not in the cage. Grace did not offer up the plate of busyness, nor create the buffet table as a test of self-control, nor set the bar of excellence out of reach. No. Grace is not the parent encouraging the child to, “Try harder!” or “Reach farther!” or “Watch your step!” Grace was not inside the cage at all. Grace came from without.
Galatians 5 tells me that when I attempt to live by my own religious plans and projects, I am cut off from Christ. I fall out of Grace. Grace – that privilege of intimate conversation with God. That personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In Christ alone I find myself in good Grace. Christ is Grace. And Grace is found in Christ.
Grace is a God who lavishly provides you with His own presence, His Holy Spirit, working things in your life you could never do for yourself. There is nothing I can do, no evil impulse I can control, nor any standard of excellence that I can meet to earn Grace. Grace is finding that I am that caterpillar in a ring of fire – my only help is from above.
Christ came to set us free to live a free life. The moment anyone of us submits to any rule-keeping system, at that same moment Christ’s hard-won gift of freedom is squandered. All the advantages of the free life in Christ has been traded for all the obligations of the slave life of the law.
Instead of living on a success/fail basis, in Grace I can learn to live in daily partnership with Christ – the author and perfecter of my faith.
Instead of needing to look good, in Grace I can look to Christ alone to clothe me in His righteousness.
Instead of wallowing in feelings of guilt, condemnation, and unworthiness, in Grace I am free to feel clean, forgiven, and even loved beyond measure, God’s beloved – all on the basis of Christ’s merit, not my own.
Instead of laboring tirelessly under unlimited obligation, in Grace I am free to look up. To seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. To cry out, “Abba, Father! Save me from this ring of fire.”
In short, I AM now free to live a free life. But the question remains. Will I believe I am free? Will I think and act in that freedom? For I am a recovering perfectionist. And a repeat offender at that.
Might I Pray for Us?
Dear Jesus, the One in whom we find Grace. Forgive us for turning to all manner of idols for acceptance. Forgive us for striving to save ourselves by our own standards. Thank you that you offer Grace freely, sufficiently, and without finding fault. May what you give freely be deeply and personally ours this day. Amen.
Notes of Encouragement