I grew up in a military family. For my siblings and I, this meant lots and lots of moving, developing the ability to adapt to change and newness very quickly, growing accustomed to being the outsiders, and outwardly presenting perfect behavior. I remember my dad making us do his version of drills as punishment, and these drills ranged anywhere from doing laps around an outdoor football stadium followed by pull ups on the monkey bars at the nearby park to marching in a circle repeating, “tick, tock, I’m a clock,” when we were late in starting our school day, as all of the moving necessitated a homeschool education. We wore uniforms during school hours, on occasion were awakened from sleep to the sound of my dad banging pots and pans at the foot of our beds, and, for fun, we listened to Army and Air Force Cadence tapes and took Navy Seal-like cold showers. While I can share this part of my childhood with humor, I want to home in on something that developed in me as a result of all of this and has affected me deeply in my adulthood.
I believe that many of us struggle on some level with perfectionism. You might not label yourself as a perfectionist, but to one degree or another at some time you have dipped your toe into “perfect waters” so to speak. Whether it’s wanting to have your home spotless for company coming over, or carefully timing a meal so it comes out just right, or pouring hours into a project that will soon be presented for evaluation, or waiting for the “perfect” man or woman to come into your life, at some point you have probably wanted something (or someone) to be perfect. Now, I absolutely believe there is nothing wrong with excellence. The Lord, in fact, encourages and exhorts us to excellence.
“Whatever you do work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24, ESV).
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31, ESV).
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16, ESV).
These are just a few from many, many verses that talk about how we, as Christians, are called to live a life of excellence in the Lord. The difference between excellence and perfectionism is that excellence is doing a job well for the glory of the Lord and to point people to His greatness while perfectionism is doing a job well for our own glory and to point people to our greatness. Can you see why this is such a fine line that can be so easily crossed? I have found that I can even start out with the intention of excellence but, left to my own sinful nature, the end result is perfectionism.
Growing up the way I did, I learned very early on that my worth was closely tied to my performance. Behave a certain way, and I wouldn’t endure the wrath. Behave the wrong way, and the shaming felt endless. Have all of my chores done by the set time that was laid out on my daily schedule, and I was a success. Failure to do so meant I was a failure. I do understand that my parents were trying to teach me responsibility, discipline my wrong actions, and, for lack of a better word, parent me; however, when grace is not in the equation, what is left is a recipe of performance-based parenting, and, for me, I learned that I needed to have my act together at all times and in every way imaginable. A slip up, a falter, a mistake meant I would not earn their approval and love for that day. Earning a B+ on a test meant that I was a B+, not the straight A that my parents were raising. Even into my college years, there were several times I threw up in the bathroom prior to an exam because I was so terrified I wouldn’t get that “A” on my test. I allowed my fear of failure to physically make me ill. My identity became so wrapped up in my perfection. For anyone who has struggled with this even on a minor level, you know how heavy the weight of this burden is.
When I came to know the Lord, He finally was able to start breaking down the stronghold perfectionism had on my life. He showed me that this perfectionism I was trying to attain was impossible for me, but in Christ, I was perfect. He showed me that my worth being tied to my performance was a lie; He loved me while I was a sinner, before I accepted Him as my Savior, while I was His enemy, and even when I said the words out loud: “If there is a God, He hates me and I hate Him.” He showed me I could never be good enough or do enough to earn His favor and His love; but He gave it to me anyway. He showed me that He disciplined me because He loves me, and when I fail (on the daily and by the minute sometimes) He shows me grace and urges me to lean on Him for His strength because He already knows I can’t do anything on my own.
Now, here is the thing with strongholds: sometimes they are conquered for good and we might not struggle with them anymore. Other times, they keep rearing their ugly heads and sneak back into our lives. Perfectionism is the latter of the two for me. When I don’t continually remind myself of my sin and my desperate need for my Savior, this is one of those things that creeps back into my heart, very quietly mind you, and over time, takes deep root and whispers in my ear like a friend so that I don’t even know it’s playing a role again. It’s not until I get myself back under the umbrella of the Lord’s sovereignty that He is able to shed light on this and continue sanctifying me and purging me of sin in my life.
Recently, and by recently, I mean probably the last year or so, I’ve been allowing the lies of perfectionism to be as truth in my life again. In my weakness of lack of sleep with my now 14 month-old daughter, continued demanding medical and therapeutic visits for my son, business of normal life things, wanting to be a good friend, wife, daughter, mother, running my online business and attempting to lead a team of women in this, spending daily quiet time with the Lord, keeping up with housework, wanting to feed my children nutritional meals which means having to cook them, writing for a blog, being available to spend quality time in the evenings with my husband and wanting to be able to focus on what he was sharing, craving some personal time to take a shower without two kids trying to get into the tub or just to take a five minute walk by myself….are you ready for this? I was failing. FAILING!!!! Failing all of it. Failing it badly too. It wasn’t just the nonchalant, “Eh, I could have done better today, but I got some things right.” It was ugly failing. I felt the weight of every single one of those failures like I had gotten a giant “F” as my grade for life. It was just failing. I was a failure once more. And what made it even worse is that I looked around at my peers to see them appearing not to fail. They had this thing down, and I wasn’t adult enough to handle it. So not only was I a failure but I was inadequate and incapable.
I started to spiral internally. I lost my temper more and more with my children. I distanced myself more and more from my husband. I pulled back from my business and my team, and I disconnected myself with my friends. It wasn’t until I cried out to the Lord and started prioritizing my time with Him once more that I was able to see what I had allowed the stronghold of perfectionism to do to me again. It wasn’t until I was back under the Lord’s loving umbrella of sovereignty, resting safely in His truths, and listening to what He says about me that I was able to function freely again.
I want to share the process of what working through this looked like for me and to give some tangible applications to help you if you are living in a similar stronghold situation. At the time when I finally cried out to the Lord, that was all I could muster – the crying out. You cannot, I repeat, CANNOT get out from a stronghold on your own. In fact, there isn’t anything you can do except dig yourself deeper into it because that is our nature. There is no being stronger than the situation, there is no “more pain makes you better,” there is no reaching deep inside yourself and finding the answer because the only thing deep inside of you on your own is just more of the sin. If you have been trying to operate like that and wonder why you aren’t free yet, that’s the answer. You NEED the Lord to do the cleansing, to be the strong One, to do the work that only He can do. You have to surrender, admit the weakness and sin, and ask for His help.
Once I finally cried out, the Lord gently reminded me how I had fallen away from prioritizing my time with Him and that this is where I needed to start – getting back into the Word daily and praying. I started a Bible study in my Bible app on my phone, and I chose the same one I saw a dear friend was doing so, unbeknownst to her, I could keep myself accountable by staying up to date with her daily readings. Being faithful in that alone drastically started changing my perspectives about my failings as I was being bathed daily in the Lord’s truths and promises. Reading every single day about how much I need the Lord and how He is so faithful to provide everything I need in addition to all He chooses to bless me was sweet relief and a balm for my hurting heart. Doing just the one study for twenty minutes or so turned into doing several studies with friends, small group, my husband, and my son. As I spent more time with God, I looked for more ways to please Him and make my work excellent for Him, rather than making it about me and people’s perception of me. As I spent more time with God, I had my identity in Christ repeated daily to me through His Word, and I was able to speak that truth to myself when I tried to equate my worth to whether the laundry was done and the house vacuumed.
It seems as though once I had been faithful in the Word for some time, the Lord encouraged me to add some things into my lifestyle that had been missing for a very long time. I did it little by little, because adding a whole bunch of new things to what still felt like a very crazy life would have been too overwhelming! I started reading books again for me, taking a little time every day to enjoy a cup of coffee and pleasure read whether it be fiction or a devotional on motherhood. I added in eating more nutritional meals for myself, again something that I had let slide because there were too many other things that needed my attention. I started working out again too.
Something amazing was happening, friends! As I took time first for the Lord and then a little bit of time for myself, I was so much happier. Like, people noticed the difference happier. And when something didn’t go perfectly, which still happens all the time, it wasn’t a cataclysmic event. I focused more on my work being done excellently for the Lord, I had my priorities set, and since I was being poured into by the Lord and His Word, I was able to give better and so much more to everyone around me! He reminded me that His aim is progress for me to be like Jesus and that my perfection is already complete in Him and by Him. If you struggle in the dark waters of perfectionism, cry out to the Lord. Start there, and let Him speak His loving truth to you as well. There is no need to drown for pride’s sake, and you have so much worth and value because He said you do, not because you have done anything great or special to acquire it. I hope this gives you great encouragement. It certainly does for me!
Much Love, Brothers and Sisters,