Perfectionism: When Right Is Wrong
This morning we’re in Ecclesiastes 7:15. Let’s read that first part again. It’s page 556 in a seat Bible. In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evil doing. So be not overly righteous and do not make yourself too wise.
Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked neither would be a fool. Why should you die before your time? Now isn’t that a great life verse? That is the life verse many of you have been looking for. Sin in moderation. Be a Christian sort of. Don’t be too good, don’t be too bad.
As I’ve been mulling over this passage I just have this irresistible urge to speak at a graduation. It’s graduation season right now. For some reason no one has invited me so would you mind if I gave a graduation speech right now? I I just happened to have a little suitcase with a dusted off graduation robe if I can get it on. I want to be able to present. Should we go all out? Get some wings, whatever this thing is. No hat.
Okay. Faculty, students and seniors, I’d like to speak with you from Ecclesiastes 7. I’ve seen it all in my empty life. The good die young. The bad tend to live long. So my call to you as you venture forth is to embrace your inner mediocrity. Don’t try to go all out.
Be ordinary, average, run of the mill, middle of the road. Don’t go out and be some martyr in another country. Don’t be a murderer either. Be moderate if you follow your dreams, you’re probably going to have to move out of your comfort zone. Which is really uncomfortable. If you shoot for the stars, you’re most likely going to miss. And then you’re just floating around up there, and like the people say at the gym if you go hard or go home, those are the very people who pull things. Then what? So go soft. Stay home. Find a couch. Get comfortable. This is not the end. This is the beginning so as you step out, step tentatively.
Thank you. I don’t understand why no one’s asked me to speak at their graduation. So I had to do it here. Is this really what Solomon is saying? Does it sound a little bit like that? Just just find a safe middle ground and do that. Don’t do anything radical. Don’t read David Platt’s stuff please. And the short answer to that question, is that what Solomont is saying is no. I don’t believe he’s saying that. He is not advocating a moral mediocrity. What he’s addressing is what we would call today perfection. Perfectionism. Now we often have a skewed view of who is a perfectionist and what is perfectionism.
Typically we just think of that person that has everything perfect in their family, in their house, and their yard weedless. That’s a perfectionist. And since I can’t get my act together, certainly I’m not a perfectionist. But there are delusional perfectionists and there are frustrated perfectionists, and it comes in a variety of forms. As Dr. Paul Hewitt who many consider to be one of the premier researchers on the subject of perfectionism says, It’s not a way of thinking. It’s a way of being in the world. It’s a very interesting observation. It’s not a way of thinking it’s a way of being in the world. Now of course it is a way of thinking. But what he’s saying is it’s much more than that. Perfectionism is, you could define it this way. This isn’t a comprehensive one, but it’s the extreme craving to live in certainty in a world of uncertainty. An extreme craving you could even say an addiction to live in uncertainty about everything in a world of uncertainty. Or from a Christian perspective it’s answering the question, how does an imperfect self relate to a holy God in a broken fallen world? What are some signs of perfectionism?
Here are a few. You are over responsible. Over responsible. The best illustration I think of this, Paul Tripp talks about two circles. First of all the circle in the middle says the circle of responsibility, and that circle includes those things that we are responsible for within God’s call. God calls all of us as wife, husband, friend, roommate, co-worker. He calls us into certain responsibilities that he gives us grace to carry out within our circle of responsibility. But then there’s a second circle and that is a circle of concern. That is all the things we know about that feel wrong or we’re worried about. It maybe a friend or a relative who’s making really unwise decisions. It may be the world around us or the news we’re watching or whatever, something that we’re concerned about but we can’t necessarily do anything about directly. Perfectionists have a really hard time distinguishing these two circles. They get conflated. And so the circle of responsibility becomes really bloated, and everything becomes my responsibility and therefore it weighs me down, it crushes me, it sucks away my joy, leads to bondage. It is a hyper responsibility, and I think it’s what Solomon is talking about when he uses the words overly righteous.
Second sign you think in all-or-nothing terms or ways. Everything’s black or white. You move toward extremes. A day either was an amazing day or it was horrible.
I was a success or a failure. If you’re on a diet and you mess up one night and eat a bowl of ice cream, what’s the use? Binge. Eat the whole thing.
This is what Solomon seems to be referring to when he warns against being over-wise, over-wicked. The interesting thing is you’re going to find perfectionists not just in Thornblade. The delusional, successful version of it. But you’re going to find perfectionists at the rescue mission who have thrown up their hands and given up. It is an all or nothing. Number three, you relive your failures, ruminate on your deficiencies. Failure is something to be feared and punished. At times you tend to punish yourself in creative ways. If you don’t come through or possibly punish others when they don’t come through. You have unrealistic expectations for yourself and others. Verse 16 talks about, do not make yourself too wise.
Now that’s interesting the way Solomon phrases that. Make yourself. He’s describing here not a God-originated wisdom but a self-generated wisdom, a wisdom that is homemade, and therefore a wisdom that both leads to what Proverbs 3:7 says, Do not be wise in your own eyes. Don’t define wisdom based on your own perspective, or it will either be delusionally high or discouraging, despairingly low like it. It will not be accurate. It will not flow from the heart of God or the reality of the world. It will include unrealistic expectations for yourself and for others. Next you struggle to complete things.
You can always think of a way it could be better. So therefore you have trouble actually launching it or feeling finished. You live within a series of musts and should haves and have tos. It’s all job, no joy. And it almost, for many perfectionists, it almost feels wrong to be happy. And that’s why at the end of the day for many people, an increasing amount of women end up turning to alcohol to try to unwind because of the building pressure constantly to execute at a level that is compulsive, mandatory, should have, must have, constant pressure.
Next you rarely delegate. You don’t trust people to do it right. You barely trust yourself to do it right. How can you trust another person? Another one is you put off or avoid situations that you are not confident you can execute flawlessly. This is related to the all-or-nothing we talked about earlier but like if you can’t hit a home run, why would you want to be up at bat? And then finally, and this one really encompasses all of them,
you struggle with uncertainty. Now we all struggle with uncertainty. But I mean you really struggle with uncertainty. You crave control. What most people don’t understand is perfectionism is all about control. Controlling ourselves, controlling other people, controlling the world, controlling the future. So you notice the passage we’re looking at in verses 15-24 is embedded within a sea of uncertainty.
Look at where Ryan ended last week, the end of verse 14. So that man may not find out anything that will be after him. In other words there are going to be days of adversity, there are going to be days of prosperity, and those communicate the fact that you can’t execute at a level that will guarantee you will only have days of prosperity. You can’t. As a matter of fact, and that’s why he begins in verse 15, I’ve seen the person who’s done everything (seemingly) everything right, and it goes bad for him. And then I’ve seen the person who did everything wrong, and it went well for that person. Where’s the formula? What’s the equation that I can guarantee a perfect outcome?
And he says no. You’re not going to find out everything. And look at the way the passage ends. Verse 24, that which has been is far off and deep, very deep who can find it out? So it begins with this – no one can find it out – it ends with this – who can find it out? The point is if our minds are trying to grasp things completely in such a way that we can manage every part of our lives and every person around us in a predictable fashion, we are going to die disappointed. This is one of the dominant themes of Ecclesiastes. We don’t know and it’s going to come up again and again the next few chapters. Man does not know. There are things that we don’t know that we are situated in an uncertain, uncontrollable world, and God has actually designed it that way.
Now this is a perfectionist’s nightmare. And Solomon is warning us against the temptation of trying to over manage the way we are being in the world. Approaching everything in a black/white all or nothing, perfectionistic way in order to try to domesticate, tame, train all the elements around us is dangerous and this can actually begin to emerge very early.
Imagine the young girl who begins to think, if I can be perfect maybe my parents won’t divorce. Imagine the pressure on her and the way that shapes the way she thinks and lives. And as she grows older, if I can just eat the perfect amount and have the perfect appearance that people will be attracted to me. I can actually control the way people like me or don’t like me by the way I appear. As we get even older, if I can limit the amount of food then I can live longer. If I could do the right job a perfect job at work, the boss is going to have to keep me around and I will get that promotion. And these kind of subtle cravings can begin to consume the way we think and act.
One recent study concluded that three in ten high schoolers display some sort of unhealthy perfectionism. Now Solomon is not advocating. This is where some of a struggle. I know I do. What is he saying? Is he saying just be a sloth? Go limp. Embrace your inner mediocrity. No. We know that’s not the case because if you just look at the next chapter, chapter 9:10 he says, whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.
That’s a much better verse to speak about for graduation. So what is he saying here? And why is he saying this? If he’s not calling us to embrace mediocrity or be passive, what is he doing? He is warning us against a soul deadening, body destroying perfectionism. Look at verse 16.
Why should you destroy yourself? Look at first 17. Why should you die before your time? As if that’s possible. But perfectionism is literally lethal. Studies have shown people super high in perfectionistic tendencies die younger.
Listen what Drake Baer concludes. Perfectionism is implicated in eating disorders. It appears to make it harder for people to cope with chronic illness like irritable bowel disease, fibromyalgia, and recovery from heart disease and traumatic brain injury. In cancer patients, perfectionism is related to greater symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia. And there’s evidence that it’s linked to higher rates of suicidality.
Just what you needed to learn, right? I wasn’t anxious before this service. But this is the delusion, perfectionism promises security and even early on delivers bits and pieces of it that pull us in, but it ultimately leads to insecurity even fatality. Chapter 7:18, second half, what do we do? He says they’re the one who fears God shall come out from both of them. What does he mean, both of them? Both trying to fly from two extremes like being too right or too wrong, this all or nothing bipolarity, fear of God, awe of God.
He’s not talking about running terrified from God, he’s talking about an awe of God protects us from the dangerous extremes of perfectionism, both the high, heady, self righteous, pseudo wisdom and the low, dreary, self-defeating despair.
How? How does the fear of God and awe of God protect us? Solomon goes on to do, it sounds almost like he’s just listing a bunch of proverbs, but flowing from this passage it seems like he’s giving us some help to move away from both of those. So four suggestions here, and this is not a comprehensive response to perfectionism, but I think there’s a lot of help here.
Number one, find your strength in true wisdom. Find your strength in true wisdom. Verse 19, wisdom gives strength. Now this wisdom is in contrast to the pseudo wisdom, self-generated wisdom. This is wisdom from God gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city. Not self-created wisdom.
God provided wisdom. Remember the wisdom, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. So as we stand in awe of God there is a kind of wisdom that flows from that, that protects us from these dangerous extremes. Now when we begin to talk about perfectionism, for a perfectionist it can be a really frustrating experience because they know, we know that information alone will not enable us to overcome perfectionistic tendencies. For example if you go climbing… years ago Jim Evans me climbing a bunch times and we did one cliff I think it was around 400 feet. This is not us. This one was way higher than that. Because I remember when we got to the top of the cliff we would look down, and you could barely see the treetops way down below. We were well above what Jim called coffin zone. So you didn’t need to worry about getting hurt because you would die.
But here’s the most terrifying part of the experience. You climb all the way up, you get up there, you breathe easy, you look at this unbelievably amazing view, and then you hook up your harness, turn around and now you’re going to rappel down. But the scariest part is that moment – I think it was even more scary than than climbing up – is that that second when (Jim can explain it. He knows what he’s doing. He can explain all you want about how strong those clips are, how much weight those ropes hold, how (I don’t even know the names of it all) the harness and all of that. But but all that information alone is not going to enable you to turn around and lean back. To rapel, you have to lean back on the rope or you’re just going to kind of drag down the side of the rock. I see some of you have done that. You get the rock burns on the side of your face to show for it.
You have to lean back and that moment of leaning back, everything inside of you is saying don’t do it and information alone won’t enable you to do it. It takes strength like a kind of – I was going to say courage but maybe insanity – a kind of courage that comes from a stength. This is what he’s talking about. Those of you who battle perfectionistic thoughts, you know that those thoughts come in with an emotional force.
They’re not neutral, and they’re not just informational. They come in with a sense that if you refuse to heed this thought you are doing the wrong thing. It feels wrong to reject perfectionistic thinking. And I think that’s why he’s talking about strength here. There’s a kind of wisdom that produces a strength of resolve that enables you to reject these voices that are telling you to live a certain way or not do a certain thing that are binding you in fear. And he actually contrasts it here. A plan developed with ten rulers in a secure city. He is saying fear of God wisdom is actually greater, stronger than the most brilliant plan you could come up with with these ten rulers who are in a city. I mean in that day that was the epitome if you had a city most likely surrounded by walls with ten smart people helping you come up with a plan, you are set. He says no there’s something better.
There is a strength that flows from fear of God wisdom. Wisdom that comes from standing in awe of God which enables us to acknowledge our own inabilities, to think more clearly and not be driven by frantic or reactive fears. Proverbs 19:21 says, many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. Many of us know what that’s like to have many plans bopping around in our head. Right? Thoughts, voices banging around in there. There’s something more powerful, there is a source of strength that comes through true wisdom that only comes from the fear of God. Standing in awe of God. Number two, face your imperfection honestly. Now he returns in verse 20 and says, surely there is not a righteous man on the earth who does good and never sins.
Can we stop pretending (that’s the whole point of this series) stop pretending that you are going to find a way to do everything perfectly. It’s not going to happen. I was going to go on a rabbit trail, resisting that. Solomon is stripping us of our delusions here. One thing that may help us is to be tuned in to church history. You’ll notice as you study through church history there are movements that fluctuate from one end to the other regarding a Christian’s relationship with sin.
During the 1700s, late 1700s, if you read some of the journals it feels at times like some of the very godly individuals are overly focused on their sinfulness almost in a morbid sense if you’ve read some of the journals, like a David Brainard journal which is super powerful, but it feels like okay, you’re terrible. Can we move on?
And then you see a reaction to that in the 1850s 60s 70s in England for example, the higher life movement which basically argued we’re not sinners, were saints. Don’t think about your sin anymore. Focus on who you are as a as a saint.
Which is right? Well historically Christians have understood that until we are with Jesus we are simultaneously sinner/saint. He he has made us righteous in his sight, but we are not completely free from sin until we are with him. And that tension drives many of us crazy. And so you see this fluctuation from overfocused on almost a morbid self introspection flying over to don’t think about sin ever. You’re a holy one. And the Bible presents both.
For example James tells us we all stumble in many ways. We all – doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about pastor, missionary, worship leader, Christian for a hundred years, brand new believer. We all stumble in many ways 1 John 1:8, If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Matthew 6:12, Jesus even described our prayer time as including, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Paul even after he had walked with God and done amazing things described himself in 1 Timothy 1:15 as the foremost of sinners, and he’s talking present tense. So there’s something stabilizing, connected to reality about acknowledging the fact that we are not perfect people. But the problem comes when we stay focused on that, we remain on that. An awareness of our imperfections should just throw us on Jesus.
Right? Quickly. We’re running to him rather than obsessed with our failures. And that leads to number three, reject the voices of perfectionism. Reject the voices of perfectionism. Look at verse 21. Do not take to heart all the things that people say. We could just stop there. Think of all the pain, the fear, the weights that we carry around because we are worried about what people say. And perfectionists in particular have a tendency, we all think about what people think.
We’re all tempted to think crazy thoughts, right? Thoughts that pop in your mind even as you’re listening to a sermon. Thinking crazy thoughts. But one distinctive of those who battle with perfectionism is we tend to take it to heart. Do you see how he’s going right for the heart? We take it to heart. We actually believe that because the thought came to our head, it’s credible. But it may be insane. It may have no legitimacy. She didn’t even notice you. He doesn’t care what you wear.
But we take it to heart. And lest you hear your servant cursing you, your heart knows. He’s talking about the heart that many times you yourself cursed others. Think about it. You know your failures to think things about others. They think things about you. If you take it to heart, it actually will be paralyzed.
So here’s the challenge. How do you distinguish voices of these, I’m going to call these voices of perfectionism, when I begin to worry about what you think about me what you might be saying about me behind my back. Voices of perfectionism and the voices of the Spirit because sometimes they feel really close don’t they?Was that just what they think, or is that what God thinks and wants me to change?
And sometimes it’s it’s it’s hard to draw a line between those two. And so some people say, well the way I distinguish between the voice of the Spirit and the voice of perfectionism is the voice of the Spirit never commands, He only affirms. Really? What have you been smoking? If you read the Bible, the Spirit issues a lot of commands, right? So it’s not merely a command versus no command versus command or just affirmation versus non affirmation.
There’s something more, and we’ve talked about this in the past, we can talk about this much more comprehensively. But let me just give you one distinguishing characteristic of the voice of the Spirit and the voice of perfectionism. Even if they both issue commands, the voice of the Spirit always embeds his commands within a new identity and a new energy.
Let me illustrate what I mean by that. The voice of the Spirit always issues his command within a new identity and a new energy. If you hold your finger here in Ecclesiastes and jump over to Ephesians I want to illustrate what I mean. Ephesians 5, it is page 978 if you are using a seat Bible, page 978. So the Spirit issues a command in Ephesians 5:1. This command is a perfectionist’s nightmare. What is the command?
Tell me. Just be imitators of God, that’s all. What’s on your to do list today? Just going to imitate God. Oh you’ll have a lot of free time. That’s no problem. So you’re talking about a massive command. Imitate God. But look what that command is embedded in. There’s a therefore there, and if you go back to the end of chapter 4, verse 32 be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. But do you understand what he is saying? Today I want you to imitate God.
But the way you’re going to do that is I just poured billions of dollars of forgiving grace on your account, and you get to go spend some of it. Go share with other people. Forgive, show kindness. But see it’s not self generated. That’s the difference. The voice of perfectionism is a voice that says you’ve got to measure up. You’ve got to perform. You’re not coming through. Go hard or go home. But see the voice of the spirit is so different. Listen I’ve poured my love all over you.
I forgive you of all your sin. I filled your accounts with more grace than you could possibly spend. And there are some people in your life that really need some of it. Would you go pass some of that out? Imitate God the way he did it to you, you get to go do it to them. You see there’s a divine energy there because he’s giving you everything you need to do what he’s called you to do.
Look what comes right after the command, therefore be imitators of God as beloved children. Look who you are. He’s not calling you to be something you’re not. He’s calling you simply to live out who you are. You are a loved child of God. You do not need to try to measure up in order to be accepted. You’re not going to be cut off if you don’t come through.
You are loved. You are His child. So walk in that love, verse 2. Live this out, As Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Do you see he’s issuing the command, but it is embedded in a new energy, I’ve given you everything you need to do it and a new identity, you’re my child. There’s nothing you could do to ever not be my child. My love for you is beyond anything you’ve ever done wrong or could ever do right. Do you feel the security of that? I need one head to nod yes. Good. We will not destroy this city if one head nods yes. That’s the difference, one difference of many between the voice of perfection and the voice of the Spirit.
One difference. We must learn to distinguish those voices, otherwise, and this is one of the reasons perfectionists tend to go all or nothing is they just get tired of the voices. They don’t know the difference between the voice of perfectionism and the voice of the Spirit, so just shut them all off and watch Netflix.
There is a better way. Finally number four, let your limitations turn you to worship. Let your limitations turn you to worship. Verse 23, all this I have tested by wisdom. I said I will be wise but it was far from me. That which has been is far off and deep, very deep. Who can find it out. So the big question here is what do we do when we realize no matter how long we’ve walked with God no matter how much we’ve done right or wrong, there are limitations to what we can understand.
It’s deep, very deep. And we can go limp and just give up, or we can allow our limitations to turn us toward the one who has no limitation. That’s why when we come face to face with our limitations we will either turn to the god of perfectionism, little g, or we will turn to the perfect God. Very different response.When Jesus looked out on a flock of perfectionists, frustrated perfectionists,
He did not cast them aside. He said, Come to me, Matthew 11:28. Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. The context of that verse, if you read back a few verses, this is Matthew 11:28, read back a few verses. Jesus prays to his Father, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, I thank you that you have hidden these things from the wise, the pseudo wise (same thing Solomon is talking about), self-generated wisdom. You will hide these things from those who think they’ve got it. You will reveal these things to the little children. Those who admit I don’t got it.
And then he goes on to give more of the same kind of language as Solomon. He says, you know as a matter of fact no one knows the Father except the Son. No one knows the Son except the Father. So there’s an agnosticism to a full comprehension of who God is. He says, only those whom the Son chooses to reveal himself will know and that leads him right to here. So come to me. The answer to perfectionism is not another list with a bunch of check boxes. It’s a person. It’s a relationship.
He says come to me. Come to me all you who are weighed down crushed by thoughts, fears, bondage. And notice, I will give you rest. Rest is not something that is achieved, it is something that is received. You will never get it right enough to rest. Perfectionists are working themselves to death trying to get to the place where they can finally say, Aha! It’s right! You will die trying, as Solomon said. Why should you destroy yourself?
I will give you rest. Come to me. Come to me. I want to pray that we would do that. Right now. That we would come. And then after I pray we’ll have some elders and their wives and some others ready up here if you want to come as we sing and pray we would love to pray with you if you’re in a big pile of people just ask them to bump over they’ll be glad to do it to move aside so you can come. We’d love to pray with you. If you’re being weighed down by anything we would love to pray that we would come to Jesus and see that a relationship is the key.