The Hamster Wheel of Perfectionism
Ladies, do you ever feel intimidated by the Proverbs 31 woman—the one who sewed like Betsy Ross, volunteered like Mother Theresa, and ran her own business like Oprah? I know I have. And men, do you ever wish you had married the Proverbs 31 woman? After all, who wouldn’t want a godly Superwoman to bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, ever let you forget you’re a man?
I've often felt discouraged while reading that famous biblical chapter . . . and I know I’m not alone. Many Christian women feel beat up when they read Proverbs 31. After all, most of us can’t tell the difference between soufflé and flambé. My friends are like me—they've ruined laundry, sent "belated birthday" cards, and worn pajamas while driving our kids to school more times than we can count. (That’s why we’re friends!)
Christian men are often insecure about their own spiritual shortcomings too. Why? For one thing, in too many of our biggest and most visible churches, we see role models who appear to have everything. These prosperity gospel preachers smile all the time and talk about how God wants to prosper us, no matter what. Taking verses out of context, they spread the poisonous belief that God wants us to be happy, healthy, and wealthy, and there’s something wrong with us if we don’t have that sacred triune wrapped up.
The sad result is that instead of talking about our problems openly and feeling as if church were the perfect place to share our brokenness, we’ve swallowed the lie that we have to get "gussied up" to interact with other Christians. Heaven forbid we look weak in front of our fellow believers!
Christian community should provide a place where broken people get healed, not where we feel wrong for expressing our humanness. The simple truth is, Jesus is perfect—not us. Even the Proverbs 31 woman had flaws. The work of our sanctification is ongoing, and we live on a fallen, messy planet. Isn’t it time to take off our masks and be real?
Laying Aside Perfectionism
A few years ago, after I began to experience panic attacks because of my own perfectionism, I realized God was calling me to a different standard than the one I had erroneously set for myself. Through the wisdom of a godly counselor, I discovered a new truth about the verse I had taken as my mantra—"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48, NIV). In that verse, the word "perfect" can also be translated as "mature."
Becoming mature in Christ means learning that we have limits. We have just one life, and our Savior died and rose again so that it could be an abundant, not crazy, life. When Jesus said in John 10:10, "I have come that you might have life, and have it to the full," he wasn't talking about a day-planner jam-packed with activities or a schedule crammed with "to dos" or a portfolio filled with the right investments. Jesus did not die and rise again so we could be happy, healthy, wealthy, and busy.
Christ was speaking about a life of purpose, contentment, and peace. I've come to realize that we can experience abundant life daily if we get off the hamster wheel of perfectionism, recognize our limits, and nestle close to Jesus.
Dancing with Jesus
In Matthew 11:29-30, Jesus extended this offer to his disciples: "Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly" (MSG).
Don’t you long for a life that’s free and light, one in which we dance with Jesus by listening to the rhythms of grace? I’m not there yet—but I’m on my way. Each day, I try to spend time with God, asking him what my priorities should be. I attempt (not always succeeding) to shut out the world and the church’s opinion about what my duties should be. What doesn’t get done, I leave for another day. And I leave the results in God’s most-capable hands.
And guess what I found after further study? In the last chapter of Proverbs, Solomon is quoting his mother when he recounts the qualities of an ideal partner. It seems the king’s mom was enlightening her son on the things he should look for in a mate. No wonder it’s an exhaustive—and somewhat exhausting—list! What mother doesn’t want the very best for her son?
Do you want freedom from unrealistic expectations of yourself and others? There’s good news—God wants that for you too! When we focus on the fact that Jesus loved us enough to leave the perfection of heaven and soil his feet with the crud of earth, we can see ourselves as he does. We can accept God's mercy and impart that mercy to the imperfect people around us—in the carpool, at a business meeting, around the dinner table.
Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:
- Have you struggled with perfectionist tendencies? How do they manifest themselves at work, home, or with family and friends?
- What do you think of when you picture the Proverbs 31 woman?
- What do you think Jesus meant with the phrase “life to the full”?
- For more, read this Bible reflection on "Patient Living" or this piece on the difference between "Excellence vs. Perfection."
Note: photograph, "Hamster in a Wheel" by captainmcdan, used with permission.