Earlier this week, I blogged about the damaging and potentially deadly effects of perfectionism. That explored it as a psychological phenomenon but for some people it can have a theological dimension too.
Christianity is apparently pretty clear on human beings being imperfect. In Romans 3, the Apostle Paul writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and the notion that all humans are impregnated with original sin is widespread. And it’s moral standards are exceedingly enacting: it’s not enough to do the right thing, you also have to do it for the right reason.
Perhaps surprisingly there is a tradition – particularly associated with John Wesley – that teaches otherwise. Wesley believed that Christians could with God’s help perfect themselves and that would mean:
…his one desire is the one design of his life, namely, “to do not his own will, but the will of Him that sent him.” His one intention at all times and in all places is, not to please Himself, but Him whom his soul loveth. He hath a single eye; and because his “eye is single, his whole body is full of light.” The whole is light, as when “the bright shining of a candle doth enlighten the house.” God reigns alone: all that is in the soul is holiness to the Lord. There is not a motion in his heart but is according to His will. Every thought that arises points to Him, and is in obedience to the law of Christ.
And the tree is known by its fruits. For as he loves God, “so he keeps His commandments”: not only some, or most of them, but ALL, from the least to the greatest. He is not content to “keep the whole law, and offend in one point,” but has, in all points, “a conscience void of offence, towards God, and towards man.” Whatever God has forbidden, he avoids; whatever God has enjoined, he does. “He runs the way of God’s commandments”: now He hath set his heart at liberty. It is his glory and joy so to do: it is his daily crown of rejoicing, to do the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven.
It is worth clarifying at this point that Wesley did not think that this was necessary for someone to be saved: God’s love was all that was necessary for that. However, that does not mean one can relax about not being ‘perfect.’ If you can be perfect then don’t you owe it the God who saved you to be perfect?
And that’s an idea that can eat away at people. There is a brand of Christian I’ve come across often working for the church or in the caring professions and generally with mental health problems. They are compulsively trying to do the right thing and mortified by falling short in any way. In short, they exhibit precisely the kind of problems that one associates with perfectionism.
My friend Ed Watson recently blogged about a similar issue drawing on his own experience of living in a residential faith community in which he observes that “the people who most want to do good in the world are among the very worst at taking care of themselves.”
He goes onto unpick the theology underlying this mindset:
“Let’s look first at what it means to say that we stand in need of redemption. This is not, in my mind, the clarion call to self-flagellating guilt so typically thought of as part of the doctrine of Original Sin. It is rather the observation that we are finite and fallible creatures, capable of mistakes, easily worn out, and above all incapable of absolute self-sufficiency. This is not, of course, to say that this finitude is what we need to be redeemed from (after all, it is as finite and fallible creatures that we were created and loved): it is to say that we will always need external things to sustain us, whether it be food, the company of others, or the redemptive love of God. This is no cause for shame: it merely implies that when we get home on a Friday night, utterly exhausted, it is a part of our nature to require something beyond our own sense of duty or resilience to help us carry our work on joyfully into the next week.
Insofar as this is the case, the recognition that from time to time we need to take the time for proper self-care is not a denial of the command to put the needs of others before our own: it is rather the recognition of our own finitude. Here we find another meaning in the ‘as thyself’ in the command to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ (one which I’ve lifted from Karl Barth). We cannot love our neighbour as God loves them, for we are not God: we can only love them as we are capable of loving them, as ourselves. Thus to love others as God commands, we must be honest with ourselves about the limits of our own capacities.
There are times, then, when if we are to carry any cross at all, we have to stumble, rest, and allow others to help us along our way. We have to recognise our own limits and so learn to say no to jobs which take us over those limits. We have to learn to accept the loving gifts of others, whatever they may be.”
Now to be clear the kind of people whose problem is giving up too much for others are a definite rarity even among the kind of people I described at the outset: Christians working for the church or in caring roles. However, they do exist. And for their sake the notion of perfectibility must be handled carefully. If it even possible – which I doubt – then it is incredibly difficult. It is a notion roughly equivalent to enlightenment in Eastern traditions but they also embrace the notion of reincarnation which gives one many lifetimes to achieve it. If you only have one, you are very unlikely to manage it. And as even Wesley acknowledged doing so would not free someone from ordinary human ‘infirmities’ like imperfect knowledge and judgement. To which we might add the need for mental and physical recuperation.
We probably will be imperfect but God still loves us. So hating oneself is an unnecessary tragedy.