Room For Error

Delivered February 4, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Theme: The effects of perfectionism and learning to forgive ourselves. Why? As the church takes risks, we need to be supportive, not critical.

Sermon Text:
Philippians 3:8-14
and Isaiah, Chapter 12

Hear the word of the Lord as it comes to us from Isaiah, Chapter 12.

In that day you will say: ‘I will praise you O Lord. Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.’ With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. In that day you will say: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy one of Israel among you.

May the Lord add his blessing to this reading from his Word.

I like the more intimate feel of the size of the congregation. It is good to not have anybody looking or sitting behind anybody’s head. I can watch all of you now. I am grateful as people are coming in today, I just think that this is so great, that the pews that are empty now, are going to be filled in a few months. That’s the beautiful thing about this move we are making. We believe that. Let’s look at Philippians, Chapter 3, and verses 8-14, to be found on page 832 of your pew bible.

What is more I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ, Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to obtain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold it, but one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me, heavenward, in Christ Jesus. Amen.

When you think of the term perfectionist, what or whom comes to your mind? Does a perfectionist happen to live in your house? I have a confession to make this sermon is coming to you today from a recovering perfectionist. Just today for instance, I tied my tie three times because I didn’t like the way it was in measurement to the belt buckle. That’s the kind of neurotic things that perfectionists do. A particular incident comes to my mind. On a few occasions back in grade school, my mother would try to enroll my brother and me in Greek school. So, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, after regular school, we would be taken to Highlandtown to the Greek church and there in the basement have to go through Greek lessons. I kept dropping out, this happened about three or four times. You can imagine how unenjoyable it was, after a whole day of regular school. But the highlight of the day was when we came in and there on the board, was a big letter. It was a perfectly formed ornate letter that the teacher had probably taken hours to do. It was total perfection of a Greek letter and we just stood there and looked at how wonderful it was. Well at night when I would practice my own alphabet, I would be trying to get one particular Greek letter exactly right and I kept having trouble with it. It wasn’t just what I wanted it to be, and my mother saw that I was having this frustration so she came and tried to help me, but still it wasn’t happening at all. Until finally after 10 or 15 minutes of this, she said to me “George, it doesn’t have to be perfect.” And at that point I threw down my pencil and ran crying to my room.

Much later, many years later, I heard a counselor on the radio make a statement something like this about this subject. He said, “Those who constantly seek perfection may be trying quite hard to control or cover that which is very much an imperfection.” and I wondered if that overreaction in that incident was any way a perfectionistic attempt of acting out my pain over my parent’s divorce. Things that were still not clear to me, getting kind of transferred into a perfectionist way of living and being. Thus the saying, “If we don’t work something out, we will act it out.”

Sandra Wilson, author of the book Released from Shame, states that “perfectionism is an unhealthy pattern of thoughts and behaviors we use to conceal our flaws.” All of us probably have a little bit of a perfectionist or compulsive controlling part of us, but perfectionists major in this stuff, okay. They are always thinking or acting in ways that try to cover flaws or are trying to tell themselves and others that they don’t have any flaws. And it’s not to say that we shouldn’t have high aspirations, we should. But perfectionists constantly focus on getting things right. Somebody once said that the closest any of us comes to perfection is on a job application or in a job interview. But the fact of the matter is that people who struggle with this overcompensating behavior try to present themselves like that all the time. Ever seen or know anyone who absolutely hates to lose? That was me, I hated to lose. I mean even now there’s a competitive part of me that really gets aggravated, but I mean before, younger, before growing up a little bit, I hated to lose at anything. Sports, marbles, you know Parcheesi, anything. Have you ever lost something? A perfectionist says, “It wasn’t that the other team was better, it’s that we stunk!” “We did not do well enough.” There are some other possible clues, now don’t let any of these clues throw you off and make you think you’re a perfectionist, if one or two apply, but these are the kind of things that sort of indicate that somebody might be struggling with this sort of overcompensating behavior. Their yards are like the Garden of Versailles. Clothes closets perfectly arranged with hangers always facing the same direction, and if one is not facing in the same direction, it’s an issue. And those who happen to live with people, who are thus oriented, find that they can be hard on them, too. Perfectionists are not only hard on themselves, but they can be hard on others, because nothing ever seems to be complete, nothing ever seems to be done. It’s hard to relax. And appreciation is rarely expressed because they are just so hard on themselves. Perfectionists see the importance of getting things right, but they have a hard time living gracefully with the imperfections of others and themselves.

Now there is a way out of this trap, that’s the beautiful thing. And if you can relate in great or small ways to any of this then the Apostle Paul has some great news to share with fellow strugglers. And to all who may be trying to be perfect anything’s, whether that be fathers, mothers, spouses, teachers, Christians, elders, employees, bosses, whatever, let’s listen again to this text. Now in the text that I didn’t read for you from verses 1 to 7 of Philippians, Paul was describing himself as a perfect religious person. He was describing his past history and in verses 1 to 7, talked about how he was a Hebrew of Hebrew’s. How in every aspect of religion he called himself faultless. And then in verse 8 he says, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus, My Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain him.” You see, he said that thinking and living the way he was trying to be perfect, he now puts all in the loss column for the sake of knowing Christ. He went from trying to be the perfect religious person, to coming to know the perfect religious person in Jesus Christ. And he says everything in all of life, this is a nice translation, it says “I consider all these things, all these perfectionist attempts, I consider them rubbish.” You know the real word, you have probably heard this before and you can’t really say it in church; the euphemistic word would be “dung”. That’s how intense Paul is about putting away from him the perfectionist ways that he had of trying to reach God. He says “I count them now rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law. But that which is through faith in Christ the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”

Let’s look at the rest of it, he says “I want to know Christ,” v10 and 11, this passionate part of Paul, just takes over and he says “I want to know Christ and the power of resurrection, the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death and so somehow to obtain the resurrection from the dead.” It’s almost like that same thing that drove his desire to be so perfect religiously was now driving his desire to know Christ. But then he catches himself in verse 12. . It’s like he stops thinking about all of this, thinking about how he is trying to be so perfect and how he’s trying to know Christ even to the nth degree and then he says, “Wait, I haven’t already obtained this or have already been made perfect.” You see that, he says, “I haven’t arrived yet, I’m not there yet. I’m not a perfect Christian”. It reminds me of a Charlie Brown moment. Charlie’s at bat, strike three. He struck out again, he slumps over the bench and he says, “Rats, I’ll never be a big league player. I just don’t have it. All my life I have dreamed of making it to the big leagues, but I know I will never make it.” Then Lucy turns to him and tries to console him as only Lucy can, and she says, “Charlie Brown, you are thinking too far ahead. What you need to do is set for yourself more immediate goals.” He looks at her and says, “Immediate goals?” Lucy says “Yes, start with the next inning when you go out to pitch, see if you can walk out to the mound without falling down!” Now, that’s not the best advice, but there’s a kernel of truth for perfectionists or for people who have the bar set so high through Christ you can lower your expectations of perfection and your frustration when you realize the two important truisms that are the rest of that text. Paul says, “I’m not perfect, I haven’t arrived.” In verse 12 he says, “but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” You see, Jesus takes hold of us through faith. And so the first point is this: That God is the reference point of our worth, not our achievements. This is wonderful isn’t it? He says, “I’m not a perfect Christian. I used to think I was a perfect Pharisee, but I’m not a perfect Christian. I press on to take hold of the one who’s taken hold of me.” See, before Paul was trying to do it all on his own. Now he lives by the love and power of Christ. His worth has been affirmed by Jesus, because Jesus has come and taken hold of him and grabbed him and said, “I want you to be mine.” We don’t have to be on a mission of constantly pleasing people or performing to prove we are okay. Jesus has made us okay. It’s as though someone took the Mona Lisa, and you can imagine if somebody vandalized it, and put a gash with a knife through the Mona Lisa. No one would say, “Lets get rid of that painting, it’s ruined.” We would call in the greatest preservationist that we could find to do exacting detailed work, hour after hour, to restore that beautiful masterpiece. And that’s exactly what God has done through Christ. We’ve sinned, we’ve blown it, but Jesus didn’t say, “Okay well then get rid of them.” His work on the cross was the work of restoration. He’s taken hold of us. And this is so important because most perfectionists see worth with performance. They think it’s their performance that makes them pleasing to other people and sometimes even pleasing to God. Imagine if you would a high jumper in the Olympics, every time they raise the bar he clears it, until he finally wins. But then instead of going to the center platform and receiving the gold medal, he gets down off the platform and he raises the bar even higher. And he keeps raising it until he fails. And then he walks away dejected thinking that he has lost the contest. That’s life in the world of the perfectionist. Always setting the bar so high until finally we fail. Constant sense of pressure, frustration, and anger, but the Lord breaks into that scene and he says, “Stop, I have taken care of this need, you don’t have to keep trying so hard. I died for you so that you could come to know me.” That’s the beautiful thing about Christianity. There is a perfect standard. We will not see God apart from that perfect standard. But Jesus has met the perfect standard, and when we trust in him we have met it too.

There’s another application here for the church, especially as we go through all of these changes. We have to distinguish between striving for excellence and striving for perfection. If we do not do that, we will be putting demands on other people that even Jesus does not put on them. God is the reference point of the worth of others as well as us. And even the best churches, even churches like Central church are made up of entirely imperfect people. And everybody whose ever been humbled by his own sense of failure will catch themselves when they are tempted to be too demanding of others. You know it’s possible you came in today and said, “You know, that screen is just a little bit off. I noticed how it’s kind of bending down to the left. What’s wrong with the people who put that up there?” Why, I can tell you it’s still under construction, it’s still not finished. Just like the shirt little kids wear, “Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet!” Well, we could hang that from the sign. But it’s that kind of thing, you know. We kind of let that perfectionist part come out. We can demand things and put the bar too high for others and you know that’s the bad part; that we will always be disappointed. We will always be disappointed with our spouse, disappointed in our children, and disappointed in our parents because we have demanded too much. Our pastor, our staff, so the other part of this whole thing is that God is a reference point, not only to our worth but also the worth of other people. Certainly we want to be excellent, but let’s not confuse that with perfection.

The second important truth here in the text is that since our worth comes from our relationship with Christ, we can be free from dwelling on past mistakes and present inadequacies. And here in verses 13 and 14 he says, “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it, but one thing I do forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal, to win the prize.” He uses the image as a sprinter. A sprinter is not thinking about the last 90 yards when he is 10 yards from the tape. Sprinter is focused on the tape on the finish line, on the prize. And in this case the prize is seeing Jesus, face to face. Of hearing Jesus say to you and to me, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” And in this case as we go for the prize, it doesn’t mean that we have to live in the fear of falling down and making mistakes, making a mistake in Christian living is when we stay down. It’s not falling down, it’ staying down. And Paul says, “I don’t do that, I forget all the mistakes from the past, I forget my inadequacies and I focus on Jesus. And I know if I please him I will please the people that really matter.” And it’s really important for perfectionists to hear this, because perfectionists are majoring in having everybody think well of them. Majoring in what other people think and how they appear, and how they are afraid of criticism or of disappointing people. You know some parents are so afraid of disappointing their children that they won’t discipline them. They are so afraid of losing their love. Compulsively needing to be praised. But a sprinter, a good sprinter, is not looking at what the other runners are doing, a good sprinter is not looking in to the stands to see who is watching. A good sprinter is focused on the tape or on the prize. In this case the prize is Jesus Christ, and again if we please him then we will be pleasing everybody that really matters.

Now here’s the question that we haven’t answered yet. From where, from whence does this crazy behavior come? And my nutshell answer to that (Ken Zeigler would do a lot better job at this than I can) but I really do believe that when we do these overcompensating types of behaviors, and perfectionism is just one thing, I mean there are all kinds of over compensating behaviors, but I believe it comes from deep seeded feelings of shame. Which more than likely came from times when we felt humiliated in the eyes of other people. I mean there’s a party in your house, your three years old, your mother yells at you in front of everybody and says, “What, you wet your pants again? Why can’t you do anything right?” She sends you off into your room. People look, they are standing around, they kind of chuckle and they go back to their conversations, nobody meant to do anything like that, but you’re scarred. Shame is the feeling, not like guilt, guilt is when you’ve done something wrong, okay you can make amends and take care of it. Shame is the feeling that you are wrong. That’s why people who are experiencing shameful feelings say, “I wish I could have dropped through the floor,” “I wish I could have disappeared from the gaze of other people, the disapproving gaze of other people.” So shame is what keeps us from developing meaningful relationships. It keeps us from developing even deep intimacy in our marriages, and our families, because we are afraid of being exposed. We are afraid of being seen at the core as faulty. And this terror is a theological terror. And it began ages ago in place called Eden. With the guilt of disobeying God came shame and the fig leaf method of trying to hide from other people, and the bushes method of trying to hide from God. And God knows that we can’t grow if we are running. God knows we can’t heal if we’re hiding. And so in the most ultimate way of saying, “Adam, where are you?” God sends his own Son to seek and to save those who are hiding. Hiding behind the bushes of perfectionism. Jesus understands all of this. And there are so many stories in the scripture, you know them. Blind Bartimaeus, an adulterous woman, a little cheat named Zacchaeus. Jesus came for each and every one. And always there’s the crowd, “Bartimaeus, shut up!” “Why is she going to be able to be touched by him, she doesn’t deserve that!” Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “I want to stay in your house today.” And people say, “He’s going in to the house of a sinner”. He’s going in to the house of a sinner. There’s always the crowd. It’s the same crowd that’s in our head every time we think that we’re not worthy enough. Jesus comes and says, “Oh no, I am looking for you. I do want you to be a part of my family. I do want you to spend time with me. I do want you to know me the one that took away everyone’s need to be perfect.” Get to know him and you will be perfect in him. And you will also be freed from the bondage of perfectionism.

Let’s pray. Lord, we ask your grace now as we move to the table. We thank you, O God, that in this table that you have set for us, we have a sign and a seal of our being accepted by you, of our knowing you, of our being in union with you so that we, indeed, can relax and know that we are part of your beloved family. Lord for those who are here who keep trying too hard, for all of us, help us to simply receive your loving grace, a gift of taking away our shame and guilt in the cross and in the resurrection. We pray it in your holy name. Amen.