A Still More Excellent Way
For all of the attention and importance I ascribe to keeping a clean and organized house, you’d think there was at least one chapter in the Bible devoted to it, or at least a commandment — You shall not allow food or toys to remain on the floor for more than an hour. Newsflash to myself; tidiness is not a spiritual discipline. Nowhere in the Old or New Testaments do we see any person of the Trinity commanding anyone to make sure all the dishes are done each night before going to sleep. Even Proverbs 31 fails to mention keeping the house immaculate as one of the noble wife’s admirable qualities. Solomon writes that she “looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness” (v.27), but not a single word is devoted to the excellencies of her pantry organization. No, rather we see Jesus rather tenderly calling out his friend Martha for her failure to love Him first and her propensity to let serving and meal preparations distract her from fellowship, for her fixation on the salad when the Bread of Life was sitting in her living room.
Before going to the cross, before He sweat blood in Gethsemane, the commandment Jesus did give to His disciples was to love one another as He had loved them. In Jesus’ mind, this is foremost — for them then and for us now. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, as my four year old would say. Except that keeping my life properly prioritized in this fashion and my heart on task seems to be the hardest thing of all.
When I find myself angry because a child didn’t put back a pencil in the allocated drawer, irritated because someone put the toilet paper roll on the springy thing upside down, adjusting the place settings my seven-year-old just set because the silverware is crooked, leaning towards not having that person over because the house is a disaster, or interrupting my sweet mother who has generously offered to sweep my floor or fold my laundry with, “That’s not how I do it, let me show you” (all of these may or may not have actually happened), it becomes pretty clear that there is something afoot in my heart.
What is driving this obsessive tidiness, this need to wipe off the counters when I am already ten minutes late to school? In one annoying little word: control. A clean counter makes me feel capable and in charge, while a sink full of dishes makes me feel like I’m going down with the Titanic. Food and toys on the floor and clutter on the dining table make me feel like my head is going to explode, and I’ll never accomplish anything in this life. A made bed keeps the darkness at bay. These are, of course, out-of-place overreactions, but my husband’s dirty clothes on the floor next to the hamper instead of in it interferes with the way I bring order to my world, the way I keep my kingdom’s borders protected and my throne room secure.
Such perfectionism is the fruit of a fearful heart. It reveals an identity rooted in performance, works, and in other people’s opinions rather than in who Jesus says I am. Perfectionism, really, is about maintaining control of our surroundings and people’s perceptions — if we are liked and things are in order, then we are safe. We dart this way and that like frantic squirrels weaving a nest, but we are so preoccupied with collecting sticks and string that we fail to notice we are building these nests within the jaws of a beast. Like in some old predictable cartoon, we stand on his tongue and admire our handy work as he smiles with glee, waiting for the perfect moment to swallow us whole.
We even call ourselves perfectionists as though it were a good thing, a cute flaw, the way we answer in job interviews that our greatest weakness is being too conscientious or too punctual. We say it proudly to really mean that we have higher standards than most. But perfectionists have a “People-are-too-big and God-is-too-small-problem,” which is neither charming nor inconsequential. This warped vision is often born from hurts and traumas in which hard, damaging, and heartbreaking things happened to us — when we were controlled, manipulated, lied to, betrayed, abused, ignored, assaulted, devalued, insulted — raised in environments that reinforced the message that we were worthless and unlovable, that God is far off, untrustworthy, and has forgotten us.
Fear boils and sputters within the perfectionist’s unsettled heart; the ground we stand upon shifts and shakes. That beast in whose mouth we are building our nests whispers to us that yes, if there were just more fabric, more twigs, more mud, we would never be hurt again. Our nest is good, but it could be better. Don’t rest. Don’t stop. Beneath all our effort and busyness is a huge lie: if everything is just so, we will be happy, we will be loved, and we will be safe. We must please those around us or face rejection, which for the perfectionist, is tantamount to being burned alive. And so all the while, we are staring at our selves in the mirror disapprovingly, driven to do better.
Perfectionism, in direct opposition to the gospel, strangles off the channels of grace by which the Lord intends to nourish us and bless others. It keeps our eyes turned inward and focused on ourselves rather than on love. It leads us off mission and makes us the little gods of our lives. Jesus says that He comforts us in order that we should comfort others in the same way (2 Cor 1:4), that we are to go and make disciples (Matt 28:19), that we are to bring flavor and life to the world around us and shine brightly so that people know who has sent us (Matt 5:12-16). He says that what will set us apart in this world will be how we love (John 13:35). It takes such energy and self-focus to keep up appearances and wage an endless PR campaign. I am not about my Father’s business when my true concern is how I am being perceived. Love is snuffed out, and all of my interactions with people become mere manipulation. The noisy gong and clanging cymbal of my lovelessness are deafening.
In Christ and in Him alone do we find that protection and safety we so desperately try to manufacture on our own. He offers us warmth and sustenance there beneath His wing and whispers to our erratic hearts, “Enough!” We can stop trying so dang hard to earn His and everyone else’s approval because we are now His children, the apple of His eye (Psalm 17:8). And as such, we are fully accepted in the Beloved (Eph 1:6). We are known fully and loved, regardless. Our thoughts and our secrets are not hidden from Him (Heb 4:13), and every hair on our heads is numbered (Luke 12:7). Jesus promises that our longing for this fallen world to stop bloodying and abusing us will one day be fulfilled when we close our eyes here and open them in heaven. Until then, we have work to do, and it is not the work of keeping ourselves adored and safe. It is not the work of pleasing others but of peacemaking, which we do by sharing with people the most valuable thing we possess: Jesus Himself. And we do this by loving them with the love He pours out in our hearts through His Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). He does not promise prosperity and painlessness. No, for the time being, He promises trouble and difficulty. But to the fear that rises up within us at these things, He applies the poultice of His presence to empower and comfort us as we follow Him through the flames.
The still more excellent way Jesus shows us is the way He himself walks, the direction in which He leads — always towards laying-down-your-life love, love that pours out and love that draws near to those in need. Perfect love casts out fear. If my fear controls me, then I cannot love anyone with God’s love. And who should be more loving than a child of the Most High? Whose life but a Christian’s should be turned outward, emptied in sacrifice and therefore in worship? When the lawyer asked him which was the greatest commandment, Jesus answered by reiterating the heart of the law that had been misconstrued since its reception in the wilderness. The greatest commandment, Jesus said, is still to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:37-40).
I often make following Jesus complicated, but how am I doing on these things He explicitly said were the most important? Are the first things truly first, or have the cares of the world moved them to the bottom of the list as He warned can so easily happen (Matt 13:22)? Do I obsessively wash the outside of my cup while leaving the inside stained (Matt 23:25)? Loving God and loving others are what mattered most to Jesus. Are they what matter most to me? Or am I so afraid of being hurt and of losing my illusion of control that I don’t even love the people in my family well, let alone the world around me? Am I so busy seeking perfection, order, a sense of accomplishment, attention, or praise that I fail to selflessly, truly love anyone?
Walt Whitman penned a particularly memorable line in Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” To apply this thought in a way that old Walt certainly never intended, our God contains multitudes; we are full of contradictions, but He is not. We don’t have to struggle so feverishly to hide the inconsistencies, the loose ends and messy closets. Everyone has a junk drawer. We can let people in behind the curtain, let people see the ugly truth, because what matters most about us is not our performance but to whom we belong, the new heart He has placed inside our once-hollow chests. Honesty and integrity create a bridge for relationship, which leads to the spread of the gospel — His kingdom coming and not ours. If people never see the wounds the Lord has dressed, the broken bones the Great Physician has set, how will they come to know the Miracle Worker who has done the healing?
I no longer invite you to sit and watch my performance and applaud loudly, I ask you to come sit with me at the feet of the One who is the good portion and can never be taken from me, to come meet the man who told me all that I ever did.
Rather than be frozen in a morass of self-reflective, self-focused, self-promoting fear, I am freed to obey His joyful command to look to Him and love. My life slowly becomes more about Him and less about me. The gifts He’s decided to give to me can be put to the use He always intended, and all those promptings and dreams from the Holy Spirit I’ve been too scared or distracted to follow line the pathway on which I’m walking with Jesus. I love the phrase floating around these days: “Do it scared.” Yes! I think that’s right — do it inadequate. Do it weak. Do it even though you still battle sin. Do it worrying. Do it embarrassed. Do it failing. Do it out of faith in Immanuel. Do it out of faith in and love for the God who Sees, the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. We are off here on the side, one-woman circuses peddling old, sad tricks. The stadium is empty, and no one wants to see a juggler anyway. The real talent has arrived across town, and it’s not us. It’s the One who breathes life and makes all things beautiful in their time. We are the understudies, the ushers. He is the lead, the drawer of crowds, the name on the marquee — the showstopper.
Father, You’ve teaching me these things, but You know full well how far I am from living them out. Bring the two together so that my life aligns with Your thoughts. I don’t want to try and hold the planets in orbit anymore. I’m horrible at it, and it’s not my job. I want to love people, not covet their praise. Change me that I would not be so self-centered and so afraid, that I would love You and others more and more with all that I do, think, and say. Amen.