Recently, I confessed that I was fed-up with sports and was probably going to skip the Olympics this year, even though I love the Winter games. Well, my wife was so enthusiastic about them that I got sucked back in and have watched just about every second of the prime time broadcast. My initial complaint is the same, but one interview has made me rethink my position on sports.
A few nights ago, Apolo Ohno won bronze in a short track speedskating race. Bob Costas spoke to him afterwards and you could feel the tension in the air before the interview because it was a bronze medal around Ohno’s neck, not a gold. But immediately Ohno noted that in his discipline anything can happen on any day; any medal was a great accomplishment, not just gold. And he meant it, too. He was excited to win bronze and you could see it on his face.
You can see that on the faces of a lot of other athletes, too, especially the European skiers. Silver and bronze aren’t considered losses, especially to folks who are out there on the World Cup circuit day in and day out. You’re on fire one day and the next you’re looking to just get down the mountain.
The Wall Street Journal had an intriguing article last week in their sports section (betcha didn’t know they had one), covering the most successful NASCAR racers. Everyone talks about Richard Petty’s greatness, but Petty only won a race every 0.169 starts. Jeff Gordon is the modern leader with a 0.167 winning average. In baseball, a batting average like that would get a you a trip to the minors, but here it’s the epitome of success—one time in six.
We Americans love a winner. Greatness is our national drug. Right now there’s a TV show (that a lot of Christians are commenting on) that takes a couple dozen singers and whittles their numbers down until one is left standing. It’s not called American Idol for no reason, is it? That kind of show epitomizes everything we believe in America. Our attitude is the same as a famous line from the movie The Highlander: There can be only one.
The Bible has this to say:
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.
—Ecclesiastes 9:11 ESV
Apolo Ohno may have been the fastest guy on the track, but he didn’t place first that day. Jeff Gordon loses five races for every one he wins.
One of the disturbing trends in Christianity that I don’t remember seeing growing up is this emphasis on “Christian Excellence.” I blogged about this a few months ago, but wanted to return to it because it’s such an insidious problem. Our emphasis on excellence, in many cases, turns out to be a form of veiled perfectionism, a trait I find in more Christians than in non-Christians.
The late Christian musician Keith Green still ministers to me. One of my favorite songs of his is “When I Hear the Praises Start”:
My son, my son, why are you striving?
You can’t add one thing to what’s been done for you;
I did it all while I was dying.
Rest in your faith, my peace will come to you.
The sad truth in the lives of many Christians today is that striving is what we’re all about. We’re expending considerable energy attempting to win every race, no matter how small, even if that race has no spiritual significance. We not only want to have a gold star on our Sunday School attendance chart, but we want the rest of the box the gold star came in, even if that means no one else gets one.
Our obsession with being perfect can be seen in your average Christian bookstore (and I’m cueing up a “More Cowbell Award” for Christian bookstores in the days ahead.) The bestseller list consists of one tome on being successful after another. Your marriage must be perfect. Your finances must be perfect. Your children must be perfect—and they must be homeschooled because only homeschooling is the perfect way to the perfect college and the perfect career. The irony is that the rest of the bestsellers consist of books consoling Christians when everything doesn’t turn out perfect: the perfect church splits, the perfect daughter dies in a car wreck, the perfect husband’s career goes awry, the perfect wife struggles with an imperfect eating disorder while trying to be perfect. It’s either Your Best Life Now or it’s Every Man’s Battle. God help us!
Can’t we see the snare in this? How many Christians have we known who kept up the illusion of perfection, only to crash and burn in a conflagration that torched dozens of lives around them?
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God….
—Romans 3:23 ESV
I’m not certain the one at the middle of the flaming wreck believed that verse or what comes after it. The ellipses are a clue that there’s more:
…and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.
—Romans 3:24-27 ESV
Did you catch that little word “grace” in there? Five letters, but it means so much! It not only gives life, but it destroys our boasting in any self-righteous perfection we’ve created around us.
But Dan, you say, doesn’t the Bible include this?
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
—Matthew 5:48 ESV
That’s the “life verse” of Christian perfectionists and it’s followed by this one:
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.
—2 Corinthians 13:5a ESV
You have to live in a cave to miss that medical authorities are wild about self-examination. For women there are self-performed breast exams and for men testicular. A sensitive kind of test, for sure, and certainly a good idea to do. But the proper context for them is key. You wouldn’t do a self-exam like that in the middle of a crowded shopping mall, right? You’d wind up in jail if you did!
Too many of us have put ourselves in a jail of perfectionism by improper examination. We have the Bible in one hand—and that’s as far as many perfectionists go—but we also need to have God’s grace in the other. Grace is the curtain around us that allows for proper self-examination. It’s also the chemotherapy we need when the Lord illuminates cancer in our souls.
There are two ways that we tend to react to this examination. We can either “let go and let God” deal with it, or we can start a disciplined chipping away at revealed sin. The sanctification process for people tends to be one or the other. Disciplined people like the idea of “working out their salvation” while others go for the more “without Him we can do nothing” approach that throws more weight onto God to do the work.
Perfectionists tend to camp out on the side of rolling up their sleeves and making themselves better. More prayer. More Bible study. More, more, more. And while they may like it that way, too often they’ve assumed the role of God in the sanctification process. Scratch a Christian perfectionist and you tend to find underneath a person who hates himself one second and loves himself for always being “righteous” the next. I understand that’s a gross simplification, but it holds true for many Christians stuck in a pattern of “it’s never enough.”
The perfectionist Christian struggles in a few areas:
Fear of failure. Remember Romans 3:23. Perfectionists are so loathe to fail that they take control of their lives away from God and never learn from their mistakes. So much for grace! And so much for sanctification, because if God disciplines us through our mistakes, then we’ll never learn any deeper lessons if we never wind up in the dirt once in a while.Fear of non-acceptance. That’s a perfectly legitimate fear for Christians in legalistic churches. While the Church is charged with disciplining the unrepentant, repentance is not normally the issue for perfectionists—it’s accepting grace. If you’re a Christian stuck in a church where you think you’ll be savaged if you confess your sins, then you’re in the wrong church.
Fear of losing control. Who’s in control, the perfectionist or God? Who does a better job? Come to the cross; dying to self is a good thing.
“Should-ing” on others. Perfectionists use the word “should” like a battering ram, always telling people what they must do, particularly themselves. Often that thing that “should” be done is not necessarily in keeping with God’s idea of what must be done.
To all of this God speaks grace. Or as Paul writes:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
—2 Corinthians 12:9-10 ESV
To the perfectionist, there is nothing so humiliating as weakness, but weakness is the very thing that is needful! Perfectionists too often create for themselves a Christianity of rules without the relationship with God. The Gospel becomes a duty rather than the core of a relationship.
What’s the fix? Letting God shoulder some of that load. We know the first part of this next verse by heart, but do the perfectionists out there see that word again?
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.
—Philippians 1:6-7 ESV
We are partakers of grace. Christ speaks grace to strivers, saying that He will be faithful to complete His good work in us if we let Him.
If we’re perfectionists, if only the gold medal is good enough, it’s time to lay ourselves down and let God work. Too much of our own work can often counter what God is trying to do. If we’ve got our future sanctification journey planned out on a timeline, today’s entry on that timeline says, “Burn the timeline.” It’s one thing to be disciplined, which I am all for, and another to let that discipline crowd out the Savior.
Don’t think that happens? More often than not the guy or gal in church on Sunday with the perpetual long face is the perfectionist who lost track of the Lord amid the duty. They’ve become a sort of spiritual Martha running around doing Christian works because they are supposed to; that’s just legalism in a holy disguise. Perfectionists need to slow down and sit at the feet of Jesus.
Sometimes “Let go and let God” isn’t a cliché.