Practically Perfect in Every Way

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We all remember the movie “Mary Poppins” (Walt Disney, 1964; based on the book by P.L. Travers). She was described (self-described, actually) as “practically perfect in every way”:


By the time the wind has blown the weather vane around
I’ll show you if I can

No matter what the circumstance for one thing I’m renowned
My character is spit spot spic and span
I’m practically perfect in every way.

Practically Perfect?

So people say
Each virtue virtually knows no bound
Each trait is great and patiently sound
I’m practically perfect from head to toe
If I had a fault it would never dare to show
I’m so practically perfect in every way

Both prim and proper and never too stern
Well-educated yet willing to learn
I’m clean and honest my manner refined
and I wear shoes of the sensible kind
I suffer no nonsense and whilst I remain
there’s nothing else I feel I need to explain

I’m practically perfect in every way
Practically perfect that’s my forte
uncanny nannies are hard to find
Unique yet meek unspeakably kind
I’m practically perfect not slightly soiled
running like an engine that’s just been freshly oiled
I’m so practically perfect in every way.

(Robert B. Sherman and Richard M Sherman; Composers and Lyricists)

I remember watching the movie “Mary Poppins” when I was much younger and dreaming of the day when I would be perfect and beautiful like her. She was always so kind, so wise, and so unflappable even in the most unusual circumstances.  She was the epitome of all that I hoped to be.

Strong perfectionist tendencies run in my family and I have struggled with them all of my life. As I have grown older, I have come to understand what perfectionism really is. It is a perversion of what God originally intended: the pursuit of excellence in all that He sets before us to do.  Perfectionism is deeply rooted in pride. It is based on the assumption that if you work hard enough or work smart enough, you will never make a mistake; each task, each decision, each relationship will be perfect.  This is, of course, never possible. The sin nature that we struggle with daily always prevents it.  As we come face to face with the gap between what we are and what we want to be (or think we should be), our lives become a never-ending series of disappointments. We can never achieve, never fulfill, and never accomplish what we want to or expect that we should.

Perfectionism is always destructive, despite what psychologists may believe and say, because pride is its root cause.  You are constantly aware of how far you fall short of what you expect of yourself or of what you believe others expect of you.  This becomes growing self-contempt which leads to self-punishment and then to depression or bitterness, as both real and perceived failures result in the continual erosion of your confidence and sense of worth.  When you believe that every situation’s outcome depends on what you do, the pressure to work even harder becomes increasingly more intense; you expect that your efforts will make everything “right”.

The pride of perfectionism is very clear. You act as judge and jury for each action, sentencing yourself to what you see as deserved punishment when you don’t succeed. There is no room in this pattern of behavior for the love, mercy, and forgiveness of God because you have already passed judgement and found yourself guilty. You are deceived into believing that you can make yourself “good enough” if you just keep trying harder.

What God requires of us is excellence in each task He sets before us, not perfection.  Our behavior should reflect our role as an ambassador for Him; we need to mirror Christ’s nature and character. For those with strong perfectionist tendencies, the line between the pursuit of excellence and the drive for perfection is often blurred.  It is easy to slip over that invisible line without even realizing it. Fundamentally, this is what perfectionism is: striving to make ourselves (and others) perfect through our own efforts and will.

Over the years I have struggled with perfectionism in many areas of my life. Some of these areas I have come to peace with, while there are others that I still struggle with.  The person driven by perfectionism doesn’t see what is a reasonable goal or a realistic outcome. The perfectionist applies to others the same standards of “perfection” he applies to himself.  No one ever completely measures up to this standard, thus putting relationships at risk. This is always a “no-win” situation.

There is only One who is perfect in every way. The men and women in Biblical accounts God holds up to us as examples of what He considers “perfect” and “blameless” (Noah, Moses, David, Abraham, Joseph, Daniel, Solomon, Paul, Peter, and many others) shared a common determination.  They purposefully and faithfully walked with God, pursuing Him with their whole hearts; they were quick to repent when they sinned. Even though their behavior was not perfect, God judged their heart attitude as “perfect.” When we view our lives from God’s perspective, we see a humble heart that seeks to walk with God is far more important to Him than perfect behavior.  If our heart is right with God, our behavior will be right as well.

The perfectionist’s heart and mind are rarely at rest.  It takes great effort to shut down the internal drive to set everything perfectly in its place. Someone driven by perfectionism never completely relaxes because he is always seeing life’s imperfections and keeps working diligently to “fix” them. Learning to trust God and letting go is the ever-present challenge.

This is obviously something that I can not do in my own strength.  The older I get, and the more God reveals Himself to me through His Word and by His Spirit, the more ugly the sin of perfectionism becomes.

I want to be able to say with increasing regularity, “I am not going to worry.  God has things well under control.”

I want my heart to find rest.

“I am not what I might be, I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be; but thank God I am not what I once was, and I can say with the great apostle, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’” ~ John Newton (1725 – 1807)

“Noah was a just man, perfect in his generations. Noah walked with God.” Genesis 6:9b (NKJV)

“Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” Hebrews 13:20-21 (NKJV)

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Copyright © 2011 by Susan E. Johnson
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