Battle of the Bests: Perfectionism vs. Excellence

It was the holidays…again. And Molly had begun the season with expectations of a perfect Christmas scene. It was that time of the year when everyone in the house was loading up on end-of-the-year carbohydrates with plates brimming with Christmas ham, New Year’s creamy spinach dip, and Christmas Eve’s favorite side: stuffing! The house looked like a scene out of Country Living; the tree was trimmed, the stockings hung by the fire, and each package under the tree was wrapped in a style that would have given Martha Stuart a run for her domestic money. It was perfect…well, almost perfect. Molly had run out of tape halfway through the wrapping endeavor and had to improvise with rolled masking tape. One of the stockings was actually stapled onto the fireplace with care, and the resident kindergartner was enlisted to help with decorating the Christmas cookies, making the gingerbread men look like they had a case of the measles rather than the gumdrop buttons envisioned. In fact, looking at all the imperfections around her, it was difficult for Molly to remember the perfect Christmas scene with visions of failure creeping into her head. There was dust on the mantle; the cat had made a mess out of one corner of the tree; her husband was trying his best to hang the twinkle lights like she wanted, and her six year old was double-dipping into the cookie dough more than he was helping mommy. With all the frustration the season had caused, doing it all herself seemed like a better idea with each passing moment. At least then, she’d be guaranteed that it would turn out right…it would turn out perfect. Like she wanted.

While Molly’s plight might seem like a scene out of Everybody Loves Raymond, how many of us can truly relate to Molly and her commandeering thoughts. Things aren’t turning out like we had envisioned them; they aren’t turning out perfect, so we want to take over, verbally annihilating anyone that gets in our way. As Christian women, this desire to be perfect is almost amplified with the biblical mandate to do things with excellence. We put the Proverbs 31 woman on an idolized pedestal canonizing her as the quintessential Perfect Woman. And while there are important traits of hers to learn and exemplify in our own lives (ie., she was an excellent wife, developed an amazing work ethic, raised her children well, ran a business, and provided well for her family’s needs), it never says she was perfect, only that she did things with excellence. Therein lays the rub: where do we find the balance between striving after excellence and not perfectionism? What is the difference?

Perfection is Spawned By the World. Excellence is Commanded By the Lord.

With every cover of Cosmo photoshopped to perfection, with every Groupon issuing discounts for 20 injections of Botox, and with every fad diet commercial feature bone-thin models, our world sells the idea that we must be perfect to be happy; and we buy it: hook, line and sinker. We believe we must have the perfect figure, perfect complexion, perfect house, perfectly organized walk-in closet. And if we don’t have these things, we have failed in some way at being a woman. If we can’t plan the perfect vacation, host the perfect party, or keep up with those incandescent Jones’, we might as well throw in the towel and just wear sweat pants and eat Krispy Kreme for the rest our lives. This idea of perfection is birthed by the world and leaves God totally out of the equation.

While perfectionism is spawned by lies from the world, excellence is a command given by God. Lest you think throwing in the towel of perfectionism seems like your best bet on regaining your sanity, there is a justifiable reason why we as women should work hard to do things well. It’s called striving for excellence, and it’s a quality not only encouraged by the example of the Proverbs 31 woman (Prov. 31:10), but also commanded by the Lord (1 Corinthians 10:31). Everything that we do, we are to do as unto the Lord, for the glory of the Lord. So whether we have a test for which to study, a project to plan, or a dinner to cook, it should all be done for the Lord…with excellence. Notice, I didn’t say it should be done perfectly. But doing something with excellence means you do the best job that you can with it. Whether your best in that class is an A or a C+ is inconsequential; your best should be your aim every time. Because God demands our best. And rightly so, He deserves our best; after all, He’s given His best to us.

Perfection Glorifies and Promotes Self. Excellence Glorifies and Promotes the Lord.

Not only does the source of perfectionism and excellence differ, but the focus of them differs as well. Perfection is perpetuated by the pride of our heart because it is self-glorifying. Because perfection is all about ME, my accomplishments, the things that I can achieve and do, how amazing I can look by the efforts of MY hands. The focus of perfectionism is very inward. This is why when a perfectionist doesn’t get recognized for her success, she feels hurt and overlooked. Confession: This is something of which I am guilty. If I have a dinner party and make the table look absolutely perfect, and I have dressed that table out of a spirit of prideful perfection, I want to hear the “oohs” and “ahhs” of my guests stroking my ego. On the flipside, if I am having people over to be a blessing to them, and I decorate the table with the best that I have to make them feel special and honor them, and I have done all this for the sole purpose of encouraging my friends and glorifying my Father, man’s praise is unnecessary. This is the reason Paul admonishes the church of Colossians, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17) While perfectionism promotes self, excellence glorifies the Lord.

While Excellence is Something to Which We Are Called to Attain, Perfection Can Only Be Attained By God.

This is a key truth which we should remember, especially when things don’t turn out in the perfect way to which we wanted them. It releases us when we get that D in a class for which we relentlessly studied; it relieves us when our first try at a flan is a flop; it gives us assurance that we aren’t failures as women when our best just isn’t good enough. Our best is all that God requires of us, perfection is up to Him to accomplish. He promises this in Philippians 1:6, “being confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ.” This is a glorious truth for all those perfectionists out there: You WILL be perfect! It will happen, but it will happen with the LORD accomplishing the perfecting, not you. We don’t need to worry about being perfect. The Perfect ONE is making us that way by molding us into the image of His Son, Jesus Christ. We have but to submit to His leading (Proverbs 3:6), do our best with what we have been given to do (Colossians 3:17), and leave the rest in the capable hands of our heavenly Father.

The battle between doing things with excellence and becoming a control-freak perfectionist is a tenuous one because so often it is forged in our hearts and minds.  For excellence to win the victory, the perfectionist must relinquish control, rest her situation in the perfect hands of God, and give Him the glory for the outcome.

The holidays have come and gone, with their respected successes and failures, and a new year is upon us. With the dawn of the new year, opportunities to test this area of our lives will surely come. Let us remember to do things with excellence, and leave the perfection up to God.

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