Try harder. Achieve more. Make no mistakes. Produce perfection. These are the messages the world screams at us in the 21st century.
It’s not a purely secular message either. The desperate attempt to be perfect has seeped into our churches. Worship bands seek to pull off the perfect set, spending hours tweaking musical concepts that will most likely go unnoticed by most. Creative teams spend weeks on video promos, handouts and lighting to compliment a service. Pastors labor for hours over the perfect soundbite for their congregations to tweet.
There is nothing wrong with working hard to achieve good results—in fact there is every reason to work hard and give our best to what we do. God loves when we use the gifts He has given us for His glory, whether that’s by preaching, teaching, learning or building a business.
In the Old Testament, the word avodah is often used to mean both work and worship (see Exodus 34:21 and Exodus 8:1). Working hard is no bad thing, and many good things have come out of situations where people have worked furiously hard to achieve brilliant results.
But things have escalated. Society today places expectations upon us that are not only unhealthy, but ungodly. Mistakes are no longer lessons to learn from, but public humiliations, which serve only to knock our confidence and thwart our passions. Achieving anything less than perfect is considered a failure. Employees in some of our biggest firms slave well into the early hours only to get up at the crack of dawn, all in an attempt to avoid failure. It’s perfection or nothing.
The problem is that by striving to be perfect, we are relying on our own strength, not God’s. That is why people who spend their lives trying desperately to achieve perfection often burn out.
The human desire to be perfect means we push God to the side, opting to tap into our own limited power resources rather than drawing from the fountain of life. In many ways, the shift in society to achieve perfection is a shift that says, “God, we don’t need you anymore—we’ve got this one covered.”
God never calls us to be perfect—but He does call us to be holy. In his first letter, Peter echoes the book of Leviticus when he writes, “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). Holiness is messy. Holiness calls us into situations where what matters is our obedience, not our success rate. God doesn’t judge us with a performance chart or a strategic review. He looks at our hearts, looks for our obedience and takes delight in that.
In his book East of Eden, John Steinbeck writes: “Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” Being freed from the burden of perfectionism releases us to focus on being holy, on being obedient to God and doing His work. Rather than simply looking at the end result, we focus on the journey and transformation that takes place along the way. As a result, our mindset shifts from one of all or nothing to one of recognition of the work of God in our lives.
Abandoning the quest for perfectionism also frees us from seeking and gaining our affirmation from the world. Perfectionism is not a standard set by God, and so is not a standard by which we should live. Recognizing this, and turning ourselves away from this, frees us to find our worth and acceptance in God alone. We seek not to please those around us—our bosses, friends, families, co-workers—but God.
We seek to please Him by offering Him a willing and contrite heart, ready to learn from our mistakes and delve into the messiness that is the realm of holiness. As a consequence of this, there is every chance we will see our work results improve, as the pressure is lifted and we begin to do what we do for the glory of God.
True perfection is only—and will always only be—found in God. While we are called to be like Jesus, we must acknowledge that we can never be perfect as He was perfect. Attempting to be perfect is a vain human striving to play God, to bring things under our control, to maintain a vestige of power that we should otherwise surrender.
Does any of this mean we should cease to work hard at what we do? Not for a minute. Does this mean we need to realign ourselves so we no longer spend our days slaving away for unnecessary perfection and instead look to please God? Absolutely.