vocation

The Recovering Perfectionist

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I love rules and quality standards. Every field of study — whether art, music, mathematics, science or literature — has agreed upon standards of excellence. These standards reflect shared ideals of what is good, worthy or beautiful. Marks of goodness and beauty point toward a perfect, good and beautiful God. God is perfect in every way—in knowledge, in ethics, in love—and anything that is perfect and good in the world reflects his nature and character.

Worship of a perfect God demands perfection of his followers, or the closest we can get to it. This is why in everything we do, we ought to do it with excellence. Paul exhorted the Colossians,

Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father. (Colossians 3:17)

Everything believers do—whether in work, studies or behaviors—should demonstrate that we live before the face of God and seek to honor him. Excellence means fighting complacency and laziness, and it means being honest and stewarding time well.

Whom do we seek to serve — God or ourselves?

The Consuming Nature of Perfectionism

Pursuing excellence is a good thing. Yet my desire for excellence has often led me down the road of perfectionism. In certain areas of my life I want things to be “just so” in order to maintain personal harmony. As a result, I have taken on jobs that encourage this quest for perfection. The BBC News recently reported on “The Apostrophiser,” a vigilante who goes around at night fixing grammatical errors on store signs by adding or removing apostrophes as necessary without the owners’ knowledge. He calls his mission a public service. This guy is my hero.

But at what point can we demand too much perfection, if there is such a thing? Recently I realized my pursuit of excellence was making me overly-critical of everything. I became frustrated when clients at work sent me reports full of comma splices and typos that I had to correct before entering them into our databases. I was irritated when someone I was trying to contact did not set an away message on her work email when she was out of office. I found myself consistently showing up to events on time, only to have to wait for everyone else to arrive.

After a few weeks of growing agitation I came to see my own selfishness. While I do want everyone to do their best work and strive for excellence, I was frustrated because others’ actions were inconveniencing me.

Perfection as Idolatry

When I think about trying to do everything perfectly, and encouraging others to do the same, I wonder why this is so important. Nitpicking every detail and demanding precision begs the question—which god am I trying to appease? When others fail to act according to my preferences, they aren’t breaking rules or being incompetent or lazy. They are exposing my self-absorption.

An idol is anything that we place above God, who should be the highest object of our worship. When I obsess about minor things and correct everything that bothers me, I put myself at the center and demand others conform to me. God requires obedience of his followers, not flawlessness. If I try to spiritualize this desire by saying God requires perfection in everything, I am deceiving myself into thinking I am holier than others. I am the righteous one, the perfect person everyone should venerate and emulate.

I don’t think most people would admit to idolizing themselves. But I think if we examine ourselves closely enough, most of us are guilty of this. We think our time is more valuable than others’ time and that other people shouldn’t inconvenience us or cause us to do more work.

Excellence versus Perfectionism

The self-aggrandizing nature of perfectionism does not negate the importance of excellence. We do honor God by doing good work and the integrity of excellent work points to the gifts, skills and talents God graciously gave us. One way to assess whether we are striving toward encouraging excellence instead of perfection in others is to consider our motives. Do we want our colleagues to succeed and grow in their skills? Do we care about their personal growth and development? Or do we want our colleagues to perform in such a way that corresponds to our preferences because we like when things are done our way? Do we give others room to rise to new skill levels or do we tell them exactly what to do and how to do it?

Conclusion

Pursuing excellence is a good thing. We glorify God, the perfect creator and sustainer of the world, when we do good works. But in all that we do and in all of our interactions with others, we must consider our motives for pursuing perfection. Whom do we seek to serve—God or ourselves?

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Alysha Clark

Alysha works in clinical trials research in Research Triangle Park, NC. She is currently pursuing a ThM in New Testament Studies at Southeastern Seminary and enjoys exploring the convergence of theology and work in the world.

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