■ Michael Falgout / Contributed
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17)
More than once, in a job interview, I’ve been asked that tricky question, “What do you consider to be your greatest weakness?” or “What are some areas of improvement for yourself?” With questionable sincerity, I have too often fallen back on the confession that I am a “perfectionist,” because it has always seemed like a forgivable, if not acceptable, fault in that context.
Defined as a refusal to accept anything short of perfection, perfectionism is usually treated as a venial sin, a lesser evil, the kind of problem that society smiles and winks at. Some even praise it as a virtue. After all, Mozart and Monet are a couple of history’s best known perfectionists. Maybe it is just a part of the particular gift and burden of genius.
But, more and more people are finding today that perfectionism is a potentially serious problem – one that is on the rise in our society today. According to a recent study, “as many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists…it’s heading toward an epidemic” (BBC 2018). To be sure, most of us have experienced our fair share of frustration over projects that didn’t turn out like we wanted or sentences that wouldn’t come out right. But the ill effects of perfectionism go far beyond a few temper tantrums or crumpled wads of paper in the wastebasket. In clinical studies, it has been linked to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, insomnia, chronic headaches, even early mortality and suicide. There may be some good kinds of perfectionism, but there are enough bad effects that many are calling it “a public health issue” today.
Voltaire may deserve credit for the proverb: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Still, the wisdom behind it is thoroughly biblical in proportions. Most of the examples in the Bible fall more than a few cents short of perfection. From Adam and Eve to David and Bathsheba, to Peter and Paul as well in the pages of the New Testament, there are countless examples of good, but less than perfect saints to follow. God gives their stories to us as commendable figures of faith even though those same figures have had yet to “be made perfect” with us (Hebrews 11:39-40). Does that mean that “nobody’s perfect” – that we’d only be foolish to set our sights so high?
On the contrary, the scriptures plainly present the possibility of the exception, a clarion call to perfection in the midst of an imperfect world. In the Hebrew Bible, God calls the people of Israel to become such an exception: to “be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). In the New Testament, Jesus, who himself is called “the perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), plainly instructs his disciples “to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Is such an astonishing, seemingly impossible calling partly to blame for what ails us today–the self-defeating, chronic perfectionism that pervades our society? Not, I say, if we don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
The book of James tells us “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). Not everything given to us in this life is promised to be perfect. We do not live in a perfect society. Sometimes our relationships and works of art will fall short of perfection. We must learn to appreciate those gifts that are not perfect, but can still be called good. This comes with practice as we “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). On the other hand, we should not let the good become the enemy of the perfect. All of God’s gifts, even imperfect ones, point to God’s perfections. They remind us not to settle for “good enough” when we have been given to reach higher. (Philippians 3:12-14)
Insofar as perfectionism is a kind of ingratitude in us, a failure to appreciate all the good that God has given, it can be considered a menace to society or even a mortal sin. But, if perfectionism is so dangerous, so is its polar opposite: complacency. Settling for less than God’s best for us, for “good enough” when we are gifted and called to be better, is just as much an ungrateful rejection of the God who is perfect – the God who has blessed us that we, who are called “good” from our beginning (Genesis 1:31), might, in his time, “be made perfect” after all (Hebrews 1
Michael Falgout is pastor of the Church of the Nazarene at 42655 E. Florida Ave. in Hemet, recently returned to the valley after 10 years teaching and pastoring congregations in the midwest. He graduated from San Jacinto High School (‘03), earned a bachelor’s in biblical scholarship from Point Loma Nazarene University (’07), a Master of Divinity degree from Nazarene Theological Seminary (’11), and a master’s in English education from Rockhurst University (’15). With the steadfast support of his wife, Sarah, and three beautiful children, he tries to focus his attention on the things that matter most: following Jesus, praying for others, building relationships and communities that reflect God’s kingdom, and sometimes playing tennis with friends at Valley-Wide.