People who know me well would laugh to hear me say that I’m a perfectionist. After all, I’ve never been accused of being a neatnik. My cabinets aren’t neatly organized, and I struggle to keep up with things like important pieces of paper. More than once I’ve sent a frantic text to a fellow dance mom or basketball mom or a dear teacher to try and retrieve the information that I probably accidentally threw away about the day’s recital, game, or assignment. My closet is what you might call tornadic. No, I’m not one of those women who loves long walks through the aisles of The Container Store, dreaming of my next organizing challenge. I toss it. I pile it. I throw it away. But I rarely organize it.
Still, there is an interesting side of me that longs for perfection, especially in the area of spiritual discipline. I can’t tell you how many times I have begun a study, a prayer journal, a book, a plan for regular evangelism or outreach, a daily prayer time, a Bible reading plan. Each time I begin I have huge goals. I set my sights high. I set all sorts of restraints and strict schedules for myself, and usually I start strong for a few days. I hit the mark. I study for the perfect amount of time. I write down the self-prescribed number of items. I make the phone calls. I read the exact number of chapters I’m supposed to. But then, life happens. I have a sick kid. I have a commitment at the kids’ school. Chad needs help with a project at church. I have to go grocery shopping. And I miss a day of my journaling, my prayer time, my Bible reading, my book studying.
That’s all it takes, really. Just one day of failing to follow through with my huge plan for spiritual growth, and I am ready to give up. I feel like a failure, like I will never achieve true discipline, and I quit altogether. In my mind, if I can’t execute the plan perfectly, I may as well forget about trying it at all. And instead I fall into a period of spiritual water-treading. I’m not drowning, but not going anywhere either, just keeping my head above water and wondering when I will ever figure out how to achieve Olympic-sized spiritual disciplines for Christ.
It has taken me 43 years to begin to learn that there is a happy, spiritually-nourishing medium between praying for an hour a day and not praying at all. Between reading five chapters in my Bible and not reading a single word. Spiritual disciplines don’t have to be feast or famine, and they shouldn’t be. I don’t have to perfectly execute a plan in order to be growing in Christ, learning from His word, communing with Him daily, learning more about who He is and who He wants me to be.
Olympic-sized goals are not the key to spiritual growth, and especially not if I am setting myself up to fail. Rigidness and perfectionism are enemies of spiritual formation. We spiritual perfectionists tend to think it’s not worth doing if we don’t do it the “right” way, but in the end that thinking usually leads to exactly what it sounds like it would: we don’t do it at all. We don’t read. We don’t pray. We don’t reach out. We don’t follow through. We want perfection or nothing at all. And the sad result of that line of thinking is that we settle for the nothing. We wallow in a constant state of feeling like we’re failing, and nothing about it seems perfect or even remotely good.
So, what are we to do? How do we function when we want to be Puritanical in our spiritual disciplines but we can’t even keep a prayer journal for three days in a row?
We have to set smaller goals. Reading Scripture for ten minutes a day is better than reading nothing at all. We have to let go of the arbitrary numbers that we assign to “real” spiritual disciplines. We need to start smaller, and let God begin to mold us through ten minutes of meditation on His word a day.
We have to keep going. Missing a day should not spell the end of our studying. Missing a whole week shouldn’t either. We have to get back to it. In a year, we can read the Bible for 60 hours just by reading for ten minutes a day. Say we miss a whole month’s worth of reading–we would still read 56 hours worth of Scripture in a year, and that’s a whole lot better than the nothing we will read if we let perfectionism force us to quit altogether.
We have to start where we are. We can’t wait for the perfect time, the perfect plan, the perfect sense of motivation, the perfect “feelings” to surface. Part of spiritual discipline is just plain old discipline. That means we do it when we feel like failures. We do it when we feel like hypocrites. We do it when we feel disinterested. We do it when we’re angry. We do it when we are feeling so far from perfect.
And, probably most importantly, we have to remember that the point of spiritual discipline is not so we can check off a list of stuff we did. It’s so God can renew our minds through the reading of His word. We don’t need a chart and a neat pile of gold stars to add when we read our Bibles and pray. We need hearts that yearn to know God. This isn’t about our achievements, but the glory that He gets when He is truly known by His children.
God knows that we aren’t perfect. Goodness, does He know. When we allow our desire for perfectionism to shut us down spiritually, we are actually standing in our own way. We’re cutting ourselves off from our only hope for spiritual growth and formation, and we ultimately decide that if we can’t seek God in our own, “perfect” way, then we won’t seek Him at all. And, what’s more, we decide that unless we seek Him perfectly, He doesn’t want us to come to Him at all. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Jesus said that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Come to me, He said, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Not an ability to achieve Olympic-sized spiritual goals every single day. Rest. We have to stop making knowing Christ seem so hard. He is near. He is knowable. He is perfect, and we are not. He wants us in all of our messy closets and messy minds and messy hearts. In all of our imperfection. Start small, my fellow perfectionists. Let’s go forth and rest in who Christ is, not in our always faltering “perfection.” He will meet us where we are.