What I Am Learning: And Now That You Don’t Have To Be Perfect, You Can Be Good

“Perfection. To be perfect. What a marvelous idea! There’s only one problem…we’re not. And when imperfect people aspire to perfection the results can be disastrous…” or so writes Pastor Brian Zahnd.  And this is what I am learning.

John Steinbeck’s storied novel East of Eden is a marvelous, sprawling epic (all 608 pages)! Surely it ranks high among novels such as War and Peace, A Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, etc… And great novels like East of Eden are valuable for this simple reason — they tell stories and give insight into human beings. 

An author can reveal the inner sanctum of a person; the author can tell us what a person is thinking and let us in on their deepest secrets — something which is nearly impossible to do in real life. If the author chooses to do so they can give us a “God’s eye view” of the world they have created with their writing. 

Wouldn’t you agree, the literary giants aren’t just great writers, they are also great perceivers! They can help us understand the human soul far more than you might imagine. And sometimes they stumble upon the utterly profound.

Such is the dialogue near the end of the book. Wise Chinese servant, Lee, says this to Aaron Trask’s girlfriend, Abra: “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” Boom!

Zahnd’s blog post reminded me of a universal truth. “People who find themselves in a culture where perfection is expected are forced to pretend. Perfectionism produces pretension. To live in a world of pretense is to live outside of reality. There’s another word for this: Insanity.

I’ve lived that storyline. When we try to be perfect, we find it impossible to be good. “The pretense of perfection leads people to be legalistic, judgmental, proud, duplicitous, depressed and generally screwed up from the cognitive dissonance of an expectation that is cruelly contradicted by reality.” (Sounds spot on for an enneagram two of which I am.)

Perfect people cannot be good! It’ a maddening cycle. And sadly, it’s almost exclusively the religious who have any serious aspiration for perfection. Religious perfectionism is the worst because God has been invoked.

No longer a doctrine per se as it once was (see Charles Finney), but too often its remnants remain within a zealous Christian culture. And when this is the case, people can’t face their sin or deal with their sin or overcome their sin — they simply must not have sin, which is a tall order.

Instead of “confess your sins to one another”, it’s don’t ask, don’t tell. This runs counter to James healing balm of “confessing our sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. (James 5:16)

So what I am learning — is that when you don’t have to be perfect you can begin to be good. AND thanks be to God in each of our life’s journeys there IS a perfect one.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. (1 John 2:1 ESV)

So what I am learning — is that this Neighborhood Advocate (Me) needs a bigger and more righteous advocate. And when Jesus enters our stories everything changes. Sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly (the AA ninth step promise) but NO longer do I need to listen to the message in my head that chides and tells me perfection is the goal. 

The antidote for perfectionism seems to be grace — and grace and redemption are the twin truths of East of Eden and of course the Scriptures. And I wish that message would have come earlier in my life. Oh well the best is yet to be!

What now? In recognizing my personal disease of forgetfulness and that other voice which can anytime return to live rent free in my head, I needed a constant reminder — is the message and symbolism of my latest tattoo. 

Though I am broken (the arrow) as is all of humanity — I no longer need to chase perfection. Jesus is enough and I can place my focus on being good and doing good. AND I am grateful, almost daily to carry that message to those who ask. — And now that I don’t have to be perfect, I can be good.

Imperfectly Yours,

Jim

PS – Check this song out by U2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Zk26KXSH3g 

Grace

Grace

She takes the blame

She covers the shame

Removes the stain

It could be her name

Grace

It’s a name for a girl

It’s also a thought that changed the world

And when she walks on the street

You can hear the strings

Grace finds goodness in everything

Grace, she’s got the walk

Not on a ramp or on chalk

She’s got the time to talk

She travels outside of karma

She travels outside of karma

When she goes to work

You can hear her strings

Grace finds beauty in everything

Grace, she carries a world on her hips

No champagne flute for her lips

No twirls or skips between her fingertips

She carries a pearl in perfect condition

What once was hurt

What once was friction

What left a mark

No longer stings

Because grace makes beauty

Out of ugly things

Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

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