I could hear the sounds from where I stood in the kitchen. It started with a mumbling which grew louder to sounds of frustration, whining, and complaining. They emanated from the school room where I had left my son to finish his work. I knew before I even entered the room what was going on.
He couldn’t get it perfect.
We’ve been studying ancient Greece and I found instructions on how to draw a Trojan horse. I thought the boys would enjoy drawing it. The challenge is, my son can be a perfectionist and he couldn’t get it exactly right.
I sat down with him to talk about it. Tears streamed down his face as he explained about the line he couldn’t get straight.
“Is it possible to get things perfect?” I asked.
He sniffed. “No.”
“Do you remember why?” I asked. “Because of the fall. Since Adam and Eve disobeyed God, sin entered the world. And ever since then, nothing works right. Not our bodies, not the things we make, not the world around us, not the way we respond to one another–nothing. Everything breaks. Everything is broken. We sin. We can’t get things right. We know it shouldn’t be that way. That’s why you struggle when things don’t work right, because it’s not the way God designed things. But that’s why Jesus came, to make things right. He was perfect for us because we couldn’t be. Do you understand?”
We talked about how he needs to remind himself that because of the fall, things cannot be perfect, that he needs to do his best and then stop with that. At the same time, I told him that his desire to want things to work right is also a trait that makes people keep trying. It’s how inventors succeed and how cures are found. I told him that it’s good to keep trying but that getting angry is not the way. I held him and let him cry those tears of frustration. I cried a little too.
The gospel brings freedom to the things that hold us captive. One of those things is perfectionism. The gospel frees us from having to be perfect. I don’t mean that it frees us to sin. Rather it frees us from finding our worth and significance in what we can or cannot do. It frees us to fail in the way that all humans fail–not being able to dance, not having a green thumb, not being a success in the eyes of the world, not being the head of the class, and not being able to draw a straight line.
In a recent blog post, counselor Ed Welch describes how the gospel frees us to fail. ”The category of failure-because-we-are-human is one all of us face. This is the failure you experience when you don’t make the cut for the varsity team and all your friends do, or you don’t get the job, or you lose the church vote for deacon, or a date never calls back…The freedom we have in Christ has a few different facets. One is that we are not judged by the world’s standards of success and failure. Instead, we have the freedom to be human, which means that when we fail, and we will every day, we know that Jesus is the head of this new world order, not us, and we hope to one day realize that there are more important matters, such as boasting in what Jesus has done.”
If you have a child who struggles with perfectionism, the gospel provides great hope and freedom. Sometimes it’s easier to apply the gospel to our children’s sins. We remind them that Christ died to forgive them of their sins. We teach them to repent and apply the gospel to their sin. But children also need to apply the gospel to the failures of their humanity as well. They need to remember that Christ’s death also applies to their weaknesses and failures. Belonging to Christ gives them an identity and significance that far outweighs anything they can accomplish in life.
This is an area I pray about for my children. Because it’s a hard life, expecting something from yourself that you cannot do. I pray that the gospel would bury deep roots in their heart. I pray that they would see that Jesus already did it all for them and that they would rely on the righteousness of Christ and not their own. I pray that they would rest in the freedom Christ purchased for them and that they would not allow their failures to weigh them down. I pray that they would see that God has chosen to use the weak and foolish of this world, not those who have it all together (1 Cor.1:26-29). And when situations like the problem with drawing a picture arise, I pray for grace and wisdom to point them to Christ.
Only the gospel can free us from all that holds us captive–perfectionism included.