All our lives we’re told, “Do your best. If you do your best, that’s all anyone can ask.”
And what, exactly, is our best? How many times can we have a do over? When and how do we draw the line between “our best” and OCD? And who ultimately gives us the final grade? Friends? Lovers? Bosses? Ourselves? Society? Or God?
These are such hard questions I’d better stop now and have a cup of tea. I hope you’re having one with me…
Several events have precipitated these musings on perfectionism.
The Color of my Kitchen
I spent (or wasted) hours poring over paint samples. After purchasing a sample jar of Benjamin Moore Blooming Grove, I fell in love. There were even signs to let me know I’d chosen well: On the way to pick up our kitchen countertop in Eastern Pennsylvania we passed the exit to Blooming Grove. It was a big green sign on the interstate that couldn’t be missed.
Delighted that I’d finally made my decision, I bought a gallon at a store that shall remain nameless. I do have to say that when the mixologist opened the can to show me the paint, I said, “That’s too yellow.”
“No,” he assured me. “This is Blooming Grove. It will dry darker.”
It didn’t dry darker. I painted half of a cabinet door from the sample can, and the other half I painted from the newly purchased gallon. It was a striped cabinet door. One half was lovely spring green, the other half was a not-so-lovely yellowish-green. I struggled with this: I didn’t want to be the whiny-perfectionist-lady-customer who demands a new gallon of paint because it isn’t exactly right.
Nevertheless, it was clearly Not Exactly Right.
Does God want me obsessing over a paint color? Paint color just isn’t that important in the scheme of the universe. I know this. Where does the line fall here?
The Last Glitch in the Kitchen Window Process
Two weeks ago we were ready to put up the windows in the kitchen. The left side just had to be finish coated and we were ready to go. As I sat down to paint it (the paint was poured and the brush dipped) I could see that the primer was not sticking to the glazing. So instead of finish coating, I spent the next three hours peeling little strips of paint/primer from the window muntins. (For those of you who are not old-window-experts, the muntins are the vertical and horizontal strips of wood that hold the panes of glass in place.)
Instead of putting up windows, we were back to priming/drying/painting/drying. It was discouraging. And I wondered as I was sitting on the floor in the late afternoon sun peeling off little strips, “Is this normal?” Would other people say, “Oh for goodness sake, just paint the stupid windows and be done!”
I wanted to do that. But I knew it was peeling. Done poorly. Where does the line fall here?
Life in General; Rehabbing a Cottage in Particular
I don’t mind little imperfections in wood or paint or people; I myself have little imperfections. I am not a complete dorky perfectionist all the time. (The jury is still out on the contractor husband.)
I have buried uncleaned paintbrushes in the bottom of a garbage can because
A. I didn’t want to clean them, or
B. I did clean them, but not good enough and they dried out stiff and I didn’t want any other perfectionist who lives in the household to find them.
Did you know that one could spend hours cleaning a paintbrush? Or peeling paint from an imperfectly primed window…. Or redoing a board because it is a quarter inch off…. Or choosing the right color of paint…. I don’t have any answers here folks. The age old question—blessing or curse—is still a question. But I can tell you that just last week I read a quote from Thomas Merton (much wiser than I…) who said this:
That gives me hope. So does the saying from my wise contractor husband who says to me all the time–there’s nothing perfect in this world.
And just yesterday I read a quote that said: You can never be perfect. You can always be better.
Now I have to go demand a new gallon of paint. (Nicely, of course.)
Post Script: The clerk at the paint store was truly gracious. She saw the difference in color and looked up the formula to make sure it was mixed correctly. It had been. She was puzzled for a bit, and then she realized that I had purchased a new Benjamin Moore brand of paint and even the uppity-up corporate mixologists hadn’t come out with the correct color formulas yet. She then hand mixed it, showing me the paint every couple of minutes asking me what I thought. She dried the sample with a hair dryer and, to make sure I was satisfied, told me to bring it back again if it wasn’t right. Yes. God is the only perfect creator.
Last night I was reclining in bed, surrounded by pillows, books, notebooks, and reading glasses, writing a blog post on my iPhone. The mobile app is very handy when one has a thought and doesn’t want to lose it in the quagmire of daily living (or nightly dreaming). I was about to save the post when my finger accidentally hit the publish button.
There’s something very ironic and humbling about accidentally posting a post on perfectionism… It wasn’t ready. I hadn’t said it all yet. Hmmm…well, maybe I had, but I certainly hadn’t gone over it twenty-three times to make sure it was as perfect as I could write it.
Hence, more thoughts about perfectionism. But this time I’m thinking about the blessings of it—because God asks of us our best and our best can be a blessing, not only to those around us, but also to ourselves.
Artists and writers and musicians and craftspeople particularly know the struggle here. How does one know if the piece is finished and finished well? Madeline L’Engle says that inspiration usually comes as you are working, not before.2 So if one keeps working, one will continually be inspired. Perhaps when the inspiration stops, the piece is finished well?
That might work for pieces of music or writing or art, but it doesn’t hold up so well for paint or wood or refinishing windows. The wood of those windows that we have renewed isn’t perfect. It’s old. There are dents and nail holes. One could work on them forever, and the wood would never be perfect. Yes, that is a metaphor…
We all have our imperfection tolerance limits, and the more talent one has, the higher the limit. That’s as it should be. The contractor has higher expectations for his carpentry skills than I do for mine. Except…
God, the perfect one, should have absolutely no tolerance for our human imperfections. Yet he does. Rather, he loves us in spite of them. And no amount of our own striving can help us achieve that perfectionism that is God. He has given us that striving, made it part of us, so we would desire to be like Him. In that way it is a blessing–His gift to us. It only becomes a curse when the world, (or the evil one, if you prefer) keeps whispering in our ears that we aren’t good enough or didn’t do it well enough.
Lysa TerKeurst says in her book It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way that because we once lived in the perfect Eden, we remember the perfection and long for it.
“This is why our instincts keep firing off the lie that perfection is possible. We have pictures of perfection etched into the very DNA of our souls.”3
Perfection died when we were banished from the garden and we have been struggling with its loss ever since. This struggle between the blessing and curse of perfectionism is just one more tension of the Christian life. We can embrace our perfectionism as a God-given gift, but we must draw the line when we no longer feel the blessing or the inspiration of it. Instead of yearning for our own perfection, we can (we must) lean on the only one who is perfect. He has offered us His perfect self as a substitute for our imperfectness.
When God looks at us, He sees the perfection of Jesus. If only we could see ourselves that way. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:20-21: We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
God, the perfect creator, is calling us to perfection again, through His perfect son. Jesus paid it all. For me. For you. For us. Don’t let that perfection slip through your hands…
For further study, read Psalm 8.
Questions to think about:
- Where is your striving harming your peace with God?
- Psalm 8 asks: What is mankind that you are mindful of them; human beings that you care for them? Yet look at the next verses and just see what God has ordained for us to do. Is your perfectionism keeping you from doing what God might want you to do?
- I think that sometimes we all fall on both sides of the line, because my next question is: Or is your careless attitude keeping you from doing it well? It might depend on what it is we are doing and our talent/aptitude for the project. Thoughts?
- Our need (or desire) for perfection is really about control, isn’t it? Where can you give up your desire for perfection and trust God?
1 Thomas Merton. AZQuotes.com, Wind and Fly LTD, 2021. https://www.azquotes.com/quote/371657, accessed May 27, 2021.
2 L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water, p. 176.
3 TerKeurst, Lysa. It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way. Nelson Books, c2018, p. 6.