“That would be perfect!” How many times have I uttered this phrase or something very similar? At some point in my journey, perhaps at the intersection of realizing the freedom of choices and decisions that I have as an adult and wishing that someone would just step into my life and tell me what to do, I started to believe that I longed for perfection. Perfection in ministry – to serve in just the right position, using all of my gifts and skills to their full potential, seeing the fruit of plans well laid, and being recognized for each of these things. Perfection in relationships – to be the right person at the right time for all the people in my life and to do this with an unwaveringly sweet spirit, avoiding all hints of conflict. Perfection in life – to avoid all criticism and know that all choices I have made have been the absolute best in any given context.
Essentially, I started to believe that I longed for my story to go as I always imagined it would – linear, tidy, and perfect. Somewhere, perhaps at the same point where I started to believe that my longing was after those ideals and circumstances that were flawless, I also started to experience the despair of recognizing that, within the bounds of my influence, perfection did not exist. My despair wore many masks: anger, discouragement, procrastination, cynicism, numbness, and bids for control.
And yet, perfection continued to lure me. The idea of perfection seemed safe. Something without flaws or rough edges or mended pieces was something that I could imagine wrapping my arms around, containing and controlling. The idea of perfection seemed beautiful – how could something without blemish by its very definition be anything less than beautiful? Perfection even seemed measurable. It was all or nothing. Either something was perfect or it was not. Strangely, the ability to measure, even with these polarized extremes, was tempting.
The temptation was particularly alluring in ministry settings where “success” seemed so elusive. If I equated success with perfection then at least I had a definable, albeit impossible, paradigm for ministry success. Under the condition of perfection, success becomes the well-articulated, partially told story of life on the field that I held proudly before my friends and supporters. It’s the story where I explained away pain, heartache, disappointment, and disillusionment and instead, presented a picture of ministry triumph. It’s the story of a beloved friend who seemed to walk away from the faith after being loved and prayed for by fellow believers for years. But it was presented as a well-packaged example of a seed falling into thorny soil rather than the heartbreakingly unexplainable story that it was.
“Success” looked like a PowerPoint presentation full of the significant numbers of a growing ministry without any mention of the wounded hearts of a team whose relationships had deteriorated like that of a dysfunctional family. Success, under the paradigm of perfection, began to look like statistics rather than relationships – numbers rather than people – accomplishments rather than faithfulness.
However, as my story and the stories of those around me simply did not follow our anticipated perfect storylines, I wondered if perfection would ever be possible. In addition to despair, I began to experience perfection’s antithesis – failure.
Recently, during one of those dreaded moments at the hospital in the middle of the night, God whispered to me about my surface longing for perfection and the deeper longing that perfectionism inadvertently suffocates. As I was watching a tragic chapter of the story of a friend and mentor unfold to the dual cadence of a heart monitor and breathing machine, nothing about his story seemed to make sense. My friend had tried to take his life. This part of the story was far from perfect. I could not imagine how the life before me would ever be okay again – how does one recover from a “failed” attempt at perfectly controlling life by trying to control death? My prayer over my friend took on the same rhythm as the breathing machine – it was simply “Lord have mercy.” At that moment, my idea of mercy would have been to gently usher this person Home rather than permit the shattered pieces of life created by the choices of that day to be faced. In my mind, the only possibility for mercy would have been to save this person from a life that would never be perfect.
It was in that suspended moment that God began to whisper to me. The whisperings suggested mercy might take on the form of allowing this life to continue, to use the broken threads of the storyline in the re-creation of the story – mercy might even take the form of redemption. It speaks of a dynamic rescue mission. It is the promise that the story is not yet over, there is more to be written, and the final word has not yet been spoken. Redemption picks up the broken threads and weaves them into the storyline with the grace and mercy that only our Redeemer could offer. At that moment, the whisperings said that my deepest longing was not for perfection but for redemption. I long to see, experience, and know the dangerous beauty of authentic life. Dangerous because it goes beyond the realm of my control and rarely follows my script. Beautiful because it reflects the heart of our Creator. Authentic because it is broken, imperfect, and unhidden. Whereas the lure of perfection hid and stifled life – beginning with my own – God’s promise of redemption beckons and invites me into life. I can begin to breathe.
As I let go of the pursuit of perfection and allow myself to feel my true longing for redemption, I find that my heart is able to engage in life a bit more freely. Whereas the burden of perfection hung over me, the hope of redemption carries me. The possibility of redemption creates the space for risk. As the author Dan Allender has suggested, risk-taking increases our capacity to hope. As I’m risking and trusting God to weave and integrate the broken threads of my story – ministry struggles, relational pain, poor choices – hope rises to the surface. As hope rises to the surface, I find the freedom to let go of my controlling drive for perfection and instead begin to breathe in the dangerous beauty of authentic redemptive life. Success is redefined once the paralyzing influence of perfection is removed. Success becomes defined by faithfulness and enabled by the very presence of the Redeemer.
Listening to the whisperings of my redemptive longing, I have decided to do a bit of editing in my life. I’m beginning with the phrase “that would be perfect”. Whatever happens, it won’t be perfect – and at my deepest core, I don’t want it to be. I long for it to be redeemed because it is in this that I’m learning to see the fingerprints of my Redeemer – grace, mercy, and life. It’s in redemption that my sometimes aching heart is reminded that the story is simply not over yet.