This semester, I met with a group of interns on Friday afternoons (when I was around). Along with developing some musical skills, we read selected chapters from Unceasing Worship by Harold Best. If you haven’t read it and you’re a Christian involved in congregational worship or the arts, I’d strongly encourage you to get a copy.
At our last meeting, someone referenced this quote from chapter 11: “Authentic worship is not perfect worship. It stands in continual need of examination, repentance, increased depth and humility as well as outpouring meekness and humility.” That led to an extended conversation on the topic of perfectionism.
Most Christian musicians, worship leaders and artists I know battle, have battled or will battle perfectionism. A perfectionist can have different names. Overachiever. Compulsive. OCD.
Whatever they’re called, they share common attributes. They tend to fix every flaw, exhaust every possible resource, edit and edit and edit again, occasionally get by on little or no sleep, over-rehearse, anticipate every problem or weakness that might arise, and rarely be satisfied with what they’ve done. Perfectionists can also be highly organized, extremely punctual, overattentive to detail and potentially irritating if you have to work with them.
But perfectionists don’t always succeed. So they can beat themselves up when something doesn’t sound, look or work out the way they planned. They procrastinate because they know what they’re doing won’t be as good as they’d like. They envy others who seem to have it all together. They can find it difficult to celebrate the successes of others, either because they think they could have done better or because they wish they had done as well. We can be frustrated perfectionists.
While musicians don’t always view it as a problem, my guess is that secretly we think if you’re going to have a problem, perfectionism is a good one to have. It’s almost noble. We’re so committed to doing the best we can that we’ll practically harm ourselves to attain our goal. We’re not sluggards or slackards. We care about what we do and we just happen to have the problem of caring too much. Is that even a problem?
Yes, perfectionism is a problem. More of a problem than we’d like to admit.
Perfectionism is a delusion.
When someone says they’re a perfectionist, I want to ask (and sometimes do), “When was the last time you did something perfect?” Last time I checked, there’s only One worthy of the name “perfect” and we’re not Him. No matter how much energy, thought and time we put into an activity, we’ll never actually do something perfect. To think we will is a delusion.
At the very best, “perfectionism” is a misnomer that implies a degree of pretense. That’s not to say we shouldn’t work hard at what we do. Paul said, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). But when we describe working hard as “perfectionism,” it’s very possible we’re disguising the true nature of what’s going on in our hearts.
Perfectionism is idolatrous.
Striving to do things thoroughly, on time and with excellence are great goals. But in the heart of a “perfectionist,” other things are going on. We notice when others don’t keep the same standards. We can be irritated, even angry, when we have to work with musicians who slow us down or make us sound bad. We can’t remember the last time we were really peaceful, contented or satisfied.
We struggle if our life isn’t in order or if our plans unexpectedly go awry. We say we aren’t seeking to please others, that we’re our worst critic. But why? It could be we want the satisfaction of knowing our standards are higher than anyone else’s. We could be wanting to impress more than serve. That’s called serving the idol of man’s praise. We inwardly enjoy the awe that others express for how well we do the things we do, how efficient we are, how intentional. John’s words are ever so relevant: Little children, keep yourself from idols. (1 John 5:21)
Perfectionism is destructive.
In my book Worship Matters, I wrote about a time in the mid-90s when my inner cravings for credit and control drove me crazy. I wanted a perfect world in which things went my way and I received glory for it. My failure to attain my goals led to panic attacks, confusion, thoughts of dying and a constant battle against hopelessness. Because only God is perfect, our deceived attempts to reach perfection are destined to fail. We’ll end up arrogant because we think we’ve come close or despairing because we fail to achieve our goals. In either case, treading the path of perfectionism will destroy us.
The answer to perfectionism is the answer to every sin: the freedom Jesus Christ has purchased for us in the gospel.
The gospel tells us that while God knows our deepest sins, faults, weaknesses and inadequacies, he loves us with an everlasting, unchanging love. (Rom. 8:35-39)
The gospel tells us that the power of sin has been broken and we can pursue good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:8-10)
The gospel tells us that God is infinitely more worthy of glory than we are. (1 Cor. 1:31)
The gospel tells me that whatever fruit does come from my life is ultimately the result of his Spirit’s work in me and for his glory, not mine. (Rom. 11:36)
The only people God has to work through are imperfect, but fully redeemed, sinners. What a joy to give up our pursuit of perfectionism, draw upon the immeasurable riches of grace we’ve received in Christ, and find our satisfaction in knowing the perfect Savior has purified all our imperfect offerings and efforts.
To God alone be the glory.