“Mom,” my 16-year-old said, looking down at me on my hands and knees, pulling armfuls of dead leaves from beneath a thorny bush. “You know the wind’s just blowing the leaves back under there, right? I think you need to stop aiming for perfection.” With a sigh, I looked at the leaves scuttling along the footpath…inching their way toward the bushes…gleefully taunting me in my efforts to clear them from the yard.
“I just need to get a few more,” I replied, reaching my tired arms forward to pull another bunch from beneath the bush. After all, this was a church mission project…and I was supposed to be working on behalf of God. Perfection seemed appropriate. My son shook his head. He knew what I didn’t want to admit–there will always be just a few more leaves to get.
We live in a society that relentlessly pushes us toward perfection–the perfect body, the perfect marriage, the perfect kids, the perfect pet, the perfect job…it goes on and on. Carefully crafted branding messages and pithy social media slogans bombard our senses–perpetuating the push to perfect. Fake it til you make it; If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again; Nothing ventured, nothing gained; Failure is not an option; Keep going; Persist.
The problem with all of this, in my life anyway, is that the drive to be better always leaves me feeling like a failure, because no matter how much harder or smarter I work, perfection remains out of reach. I keep persisting, only to run headlong into the same brick wall time and time again–and the only thing that gets dented is my head! And when I start feeling weak and broken, judgement enters in–of both myself and others. To soothe my own feelings of inadequacy, I turn my ire on others–judging them in their failures to ease my own hurting soul.
This, of course, is the opposite of what God wants for us. God, who comes to us with grace, love, and mercy, never intended for us to bear the brunt of perfection. If we could achieve it on our own, why did we need salvation in the first place? The truth is, we weren’t made for perfection–we were made for God.
It is only when we release the need for perfection, when we resist persisting, that we find ourselves made perfect in God’s love. How is that possible? God created us to be dependent not on ourselves, but on him. God is so much bigger, so much more capable, and so much wiser than we are that it is he who does the heavy lifting for us. When we yield…God picks us up–and he is infinitely more able to transform us than we are to transform ourselves.
The apostle Paul understood this need for humility–a gift he did not naturally possess. In 2nd Corinthians, Paul makes a revealing statement. Though he admits to being vastly superior to most every other human being in his knowledge, fervor, and leadership abilities, he notes that God has given him a “thorn in his side” to carry. The thorn (he doesn’t elaborate on the specifics) vexes him, until he realizes its purpose: God gave Paul the thorn to teach him the lesson he could not learn on his own–surrender. And with that surrender, Paul experienced freedom.
Because he realized his need for God, Paul was able to boast more avidly–not in his own abilities, but in God’s mercy and grace.
Change is hard work, but it doesn’t require more striving, it requires letting go. We must go to God and admit our failures…our tendency to judge, to be jealous, to be petty and conceited and self-righteous. He knows it anyway, but there’s release in the confessing, and then comes the freedom we receive when we finally stop persisting and lean into God’s mercy, knowing that change doesn’t come from us. And accepting that others are undergoing the same transformation.
I like the way Anne Lamott puts it in her book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy:
“Over and over, in spite of our awfulness and having squandered our funds, the ticket-taker at the venue waves us on through. Forgiven and included, when we experience this, that we are in this with one another, flailing and starting over in the awful beauty of being humans together, we are saved.”