Idolatry and the Pursuit of Perfection

New Year is a time for new beginnings. If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent some time reflecting on the last year and made some decisions regarding things you’d like to approach differently in the coming months. This type of “taking stock” is human nature. Though we tend to focus on it more intently as one year rolls into the next, we actually live most of our lives in this evaluative state. We have a phone conversation and think through everything that was said a dozen times afterward. We make a parenting decision and then reconsider our actions after the fact. We make a commitment then reevaluate the cost. Sometimes we even reassess and decide that we did a good job handling the situation! And “sometimes” is the key word.

In a culture that glorifies perfection, it can be hard to look at anything we’ve done (at least if we’re looking honestly) and feel that there isn’t room for improvement. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with making such evaluations, I’d like to start out this new year by challenging the idea that “perfection” should be our end goal.

To begin with, “perfection” implies that an objective standard exists. While one might argue that there are some situations in which this is true, even in those areas of life that require a degree of accuracy or precision there is usually a tolerance range. The bolts manufactured for a particular application must have a variance of no less than 3nm and no more than 5nm. Which number within that range represents “perfect”?

In other cases, “perfection” is even less objective. Just ask an artist. One of the reasons new artists often become paralyzed and quit producing (or even practicing) is that their art doesn’t look identical to someone else’s. It represents the same technique but applied in a different way. It depicts the same subject matter but from a different perspective. This may appear to be the absence of “perfection” yet this is how art evolves. Not all Cubists painted like Picasso. Not all Impressionists’ work looked like Van Gough. This isn’t a bad thing; the differences alone don’t suggest that any one artist’s work was inferior to another’s. They were just… different.

For this reason, when I evaluate my past decisions or set goals for future work, I try to bypass this idea of “perfection” all together. Does this mean I don’t set goals? Hardly! But when I do, I try to do so without artificially elevating the bar for success. Yes, sometimes there is a range into which I need to fall. I do need to make efforts to stay healthy, but does my blood pressure always need to be 120/80? Not really. 110/70 also works. Sometimes I set the bar for myself higher than I would for other folks just because I know that with a little stretch, I can reach it. And sometimes… sometimes, I don’t set the bar very high at all.

While there are some areas of life in which the pursuit of excellence is important, making excellence our goal in everything is actually a form of idolatry. (Wait? What?!) Yes, you heard me correctly – when our highest goal in life is to achieve perfection, excellence, or some variation thereof, we’ve actually slipped into sin.

Now, I can hear you asking – doesn’t Jesus say “be ye perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect?” (Matthew 5:48) And the answer is yes… sort of. The Greek word used here is actually teleios which means “complete, mature, adult, initiated, whole.” In other words, we are to be as God created us to be – living all aspects of life in relationship with God as unique individuals created in the image of God. It is this relationship, extended to everyone – rich or poor, educated or uneducated, able bodied or disabled – throughout the whole of humankind’s existence that offers wholeness. Not our ability to live up to subjective standards or even to “be like God.” In fact, it’s of note, that the lure of “being like God” is what started the world on the track to the messy state it’s in, to begin with! Whenever our relationship with God is supplanted by the self-centered pursuit of personal perfection, we’ve slipped into idolatry. We’ve removed God from their rightful place and put ourselves, our goals, our self-perception, our reputation with others in God’s place. This is sin.

So what can we do to prevent this? First, we can accept the reality that sometimes “good enough” is in fact good enough. When I was at Princeton, I taught and tutored Hebrew. As you can imagine, this was a pretty scary subject for some and even scarier for those for whom their future was dependent upon their ability not just to pass the course, but to put what they’d learned to use on an ordination exam. As we came up to tests, there were always a number of highly anxious students losing sleep as they pursued the perfect score that many of them knew simply wasn’t within reach. I’d stand at the front of the class and remind them that eventually no one would care what grade they’d gotten in the course – as long as they passed. In other words, “C’s make degrees.” Study – yes. Memorize – yes. Practice – yes. But don’t skip meals, lose sleep, or become a jerk with your friends and family in pursuit of perfection. If achieving the mark means disobedience to Christ (in this case, abuse of self and others), you shouldn’t be striving for that mark to begin with.

Second, when we find ourselves striving to be “good enough,” we can ask ourselves the question “good enough for what?” My students and fellow classmates needed to be good enough to pass… but sometimes we don’t even need to be that good. For me “good enough” is often tied to whether I’m experiencing joy in the pursuit. If you want to see this play out, come to the ladies’ knitting group. I taught myself to knit years ago and continue to do so – but only because it gives me something constructive to do with my hands while spending time with people I care about. A close examination of my work reveals something peculiar: I only know how to knit. That’s right; I know exactly one stitch. I can’t knit one, pearl two because I don’t know how to pearl. And I can only knit in a straight line. No socks, no beanies, just scarves. An endless supply of scarves. Could I become more skilled and proficient? Yes. Do I need to? Nope. I’m perfectly happy with this.

And this is my encouragement to you – it isn’t a sin to be perfectly happy with “good enough.” It’s okay to run every 10k in the neighborhood and never train hard enough to place. There’s no crime in taking a welding class just because it interests you and not because you have professional aspirations. You don’t have to become Pavarotti or Picasso to find joy or release in music or art. This year, instead of striving for perfection, instead of comparing ourselves to others, instead of failing at impossible goals – let’s keep our focus on Christ. Let’s build the relationship that matters and enjoy the process.