sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 09/15/2013
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Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
There’s more to this Jesus saying than meets the eye, but let’s consider first how our hearts might hear it.
We live in a world in which perfectionism is rampant. As we talked about last week, perfectionism is one of the ways we try to protect ourselves from the pain of shame. Because shame is, as Dr. Brene Brown describes it, the universal, intensely painful experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of belonging.
Someone you really care about criticizes the way you look or ridicules you for some mistake you made or looks at you like you’re an idiot for something you said, and shame floods over you. [examples…] It’s a terrible feeling. Our place with that person, or in that group is at risk. We feel naked. Exposed. Judged and found wanting.
What are we going to do? In the moment we might get angry. Or embarrassed. Or break down in tears. Or run away. Anything to avoid that shame feeling. To avoid the painful experience of believing we are flawed and unworthy of belonging. But all of those strategies are very temporary. They don’t promise any long term relief.
But perfectionism does. Perfectionism offers us a way out of ever having to experience shame again; it presents itself as an antidote to shame. And it’s very, very appealing. If we can just be perfect, we won’t be vulnerable to rejection. No one would have any reason to not like us, to not accept us, if we could just get everything right. Be right about everything. Do everything right.
Because if we are perfect, and someone rejects us, well clearly they are the flawed one, not us, and they don’t deserve to have us belong with them anyway. No shame anymore, not for us.
What a great thing, perfectionism! It’s like a suit of shining armor, custom made for us. Slip into it and enter a world without shame. A world where rejection doesn’t hurt anymore. A world where we never have to be naked or exposed again, where no one can see us and laugh or sneer or frown. A world where the us we see today, in fact – the flawed, pained, sometimes weak self that we ourselves are ashamed of when we look in the mirror – a world where that us never has to be seen again, replaced by the strong, shining, armored superhuman that has taken its place.
So we hear Jesus say, “Therefore, you are to be perfect, as you heavenly Father is perfect” and it makes perfect sense to our perfectionism clad hearts. Surely God doesn’t have to worry about shame and rejection and vulnerability – he’s the most perfect of all, and therefore the least rejected and the most loved being in the universe. And that’s what we are becoming too, as we follow Jesus. Sinless, perfect Jesus.
So our religious efforts become woven together with our perfectionism, so much so that they are effectively inseparable. We’ll do everything perfectly, we’ll believe everything perfectly, our faith will be perfect, our morality will be unquestionable, our devotion will be perfect, our love will be perfection itself, and we will never have to fear rejection from God.
Well, except for two things. And both of them pretty major things, all things considered.
Except that we can’t succeed, for one thing.
Our attempts at perfectionism fail on every front. It’s just not sustainable. Not over time. And not across all the areas we try to be perfect.
Perfectionism is like those fig leaves in the garden of Eden story. A pitiful cover for nakedness. They don’t hold together very well. They are going to wither, eventually. And crumble away. And we’ll be standing there just as naked as we were before.
Let me illustrate in an area I think most of us will be likely to identify with.
In our culture, the demands of perfectionism are very different for men and women, generally speaking, because what it takes to belong as a man or a woman in good standing with one’s gender are very different. To belong one must conform to the norms. And if you don’t, you’re likely to experience shame, the pain that comes from feeling like you’re flawed and don’t belong.
According to a US study on conformity to feminine norms, the following is a list of the most important attributes associated with “being feminine.”
Pursuing a thin body ideal.
Showing modesty by not calling attention to one’s talents or abilities.
Caring for children.
Investing in a romantic relationship.
Keeping sexual intimacy contained within one committed romantic relationship.
Using her resources to invest in her appearance.
In other words, stay as small, sweet, and quiet as possible, and use your time and talent to look pretty.
For men, here’s our list of the most important attributes associated with “being masculine”
Primacy of work.
Power over women.
Disdain for homosexuality.
Pursuit of status.
Anything that deviates from this list is seen as weakness, so the basic message for men is this: if you want to secure your belonging, don’t let anyone think you are weak.
For some men and some women, it will be easier than others to come close to succeeding. But for all, failure and shame are forecast with 100% certainty. Research shows that all the roleplaying we do becomes almost unbearable around midlife. Men feel it two ways: 1) they feel increasingly disconnected (because real relationships are impossible without vulnerability, and showing vulnerability feels like it will be perceived as weakness), and 2) they develop a paralyzing fear of failure. Women experience it as exhaustion from trying to meet impossible expectations.
Side note: men, do you notice how Jesus didn’t give most of these masculine expectations the time of day…? Yet, at the end of the day, how many of you would call him weak?
So problem number one is that perfectionism isn’t possible. That’s bad enough. Problem number two is worse, though. Problem number two with perfectionism is this:
Perfectionism cuts us off from the good life, subjecting us to hell.
Let me try to say the same thing in several different ways, and then we’ll explore what that means and what we can do instead.
Perfectionism keeps us from doing what wholehearted people do, which is embracing vulnerability instead of running from it. Because perfectionism hates vulnerability and leads to increased anxiety and depression, which is destructive to relationships, hinders creativity, and limits performance. Perfectionism, in other words, promises to make us so good that no one can reject us. But instead it makes us worse and drives others away. That’s a hell of deal, isn’t it!? At the same time, it keeps us from courageously embracing vulnerability, which research shows expands relationships, helps creativity, and leads to, of all things, better performance.
[Think about an athlete who is struggling to master a skill, and, courageously embracing vulnerability, goes to a coach for help… or one who doesn’t, because of the grip of perfectionism…]
Perfectionism keeps us from being perfect. That is, it keeps us from being perfect the way our heavenly father is perfect. Because our heavenly father is perfect in ways perfectionism can’t even imagine.
Remember that saying of Jesus that we opened with?
Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The original Greek word that is translated perfect here is teleioi. It means “reaching its end, mature, whole, finished, developed into a consummated completion by fulfilling the necessary process.” In other words, Jesus is telling his followers that they are to go through a necessary process in order to become mature, whole, finished. That at the end of a journey towards wholeness, they will find themselves in a state of consummated completion. That they will grow up to be like their heavenly father. Does that sound anything like what we experience in perfectionism?
No! Not at all.
Perfectionism says I’ve got to get everything right. This time. No room for mistakes, or I might find myself on the outside looking in.
Jesus says follow me and grow up into adulthood as a human being; if you’re patient and persistent, you’ll be amazed at the transformation into wholeness you experience along the way.
And maybe even more significant than that is the context for Jesus’ statement about being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. It comes right on the heels of these statements:
Don’t make oaths – all you need to say is simply “Yes” or “No.”
Don’t resist an evil person – If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
Give to the one who asks and don’t turn away the one who wants to borrow from you.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
What do all of those instructions have in common? Every single one requires a courageous embrace of vulnerability.
Therefore, you are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
How is our heavenly Father mature, whole, finished? He is mature, whole, finished, perfect because he always, every time, time after time, courageously embraces vulnerability.
What did Jesus say about himself? I only do what I see my Father doing.
And what did Jesus do, every time, time after time? He courageously embraced vulnerability.
He let go of divine privilege and became a human baby. Born in a stable. To a teenage mom suspected of sleeping around. Under a death warrant issued by an unstable king. That’s courageous vulnerability.
He let himself be parented by poor human parents. Who sometimes forgot him in big cities and left without him. That’s courageous vulnerability.
He went into the wilderness for 40 days without food and let himself be tempted by evil personified. That’s courageous vulnerability.
He let himself be known by, associated with, and entrusted his mission to, a ragamuffin group of outcasts and not quite good enoughs who had trouble understanding him most of the time. That’s courageous vulnerability.
He spent day after day with the sick, the demonized, the deformed, and the marginalized. Eating with them. Touching them. Healing them. That’s courageous vulnerability.
He let himself be crucified for them, hanging naked and accused on a Roman cross, mocked and beaten, without defending himself.
He only does what he sees his Father doing.
Therefore, you are to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.
Are we getting the picture?
Perfectionism keeps us from enjoying the life that God enjoys, which is what Jesus calls eternal life, or the life of the heavens.
God doesn’t care about the things perfectionism cares about. God cares about us having life, life to the full. To do that, we’ve got to get right with him and with one another and with the world around us. Which has nothing to do with being right or even doing right.
It has everything, on the other hand, to do with courageous vulnerability.
We said last week that we would make a connection between perfectionism and what is called in religious terminology, “the Fall.” Now is the time to do that.
When did “the fall” happen? When first humans ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in Genesis 3.
There’s something very strange about the story. In Christian theology “the fall” is not sexual sin. It’s eating from a tree it feels like we ought to eat from. Don’t we need the knowledge of good & evil to be good people? So “the fall” is not sexual sin or any other particular sin. It is religious sin.
This is subtle, not obvious. Like the human psyche is. It’s mysterious. But it’s real. If you try to work it out conceptually-abstractly it will defy you. But go at it like this, from the feeling end…
If you feel (not think, but feel) that it’s your job to figure out what’s good and what’s evil in order to be safe and secure…and if in your most emotionally honest moment you can admit that you feel alone in doing that job (so it’s an anxious experience for you) then you are tapping into what it means to eat this forbidden fruit.
Adam and Eve in the garden were brand new humans. Didn’t know the ropes. They were like children, vulnerable. Their vulnerability is signified by nakedness. But they were fine being vulnerable—like any naked 2 toddler running around in glee---because God was near to look after them, to guide them. But then that serpent sowed doubt about the goodness of Lord YHWH’s instructions. “Hey, you need that fruit! Eat it so you can be wise and grown up like God!” And they thought, “Yeah, maybe we do need that.” And they took it, despite the warning that God had given them.
Perfectionism has its root in the twisted religious idea that it’s our job (rather than God’s) to confer moral approval or condemnation on each other (and ourselves, for that matter).
Jesus seemed to make lots or religious people nervous by questioning this assumption. When a leader comes to him and says, Good teacher! Jesus stops him and says, “No one is good but God alone.” Jesus is responding to the Pharisaic tradition that the good religious person has an important job: to say what’s good and what’s evil. To relate to others based on giving or withholding moral approval.
Jesus isn’t eating from that tree. He’s eating from the other tree, the tree of life.
In other words, the way out of our sinfulness, out of our brokenness, out of the source of our shame isn’t perfectionism. Perfectionism will just keep us trapped. No, the way out is to courageously embrace vulnerability.
It’s to feel the painful experience of shame when our sense of belonging is threatened – perhaps because of our own actions, or differentness, or flaws, or mistakes, or just because of the brokenness of others – and to embrace the neediness that it indicates.
Yes, I didn’t do that well. Yes, I am not how someone wants me to be. Yes, I am not how I want to be. Yes, I have flaws. Yes, I made a mistake. Yes, I am being rejected.
And yes, I care about belonging. Yes, it hurts like hell that my belonging is in jeopardy. Yes, I want to protect myself from that pain.
Yes, I am needy. Yes, without others, without God, I don’t stand much chance.
Yes, I am vulnerable.
But I am not going to run from that vulnerability and my own neediness. I am not going to run from others. I am not going to run from God.
I am going to embrace my vulnerability and my neediness, even in my shame. Because Jesus does. And it’s the path to life. I am going to embrace myself, even in my shame. Because Jesus does. And it’s the path to life. I am going to embrace others, even in my shame. Because Jesus does. And it’s the path to life. I am going to embrace God, even in my shame. Because Jesus does. And it’s the path to life.
It takes courage to eat from the tree of life, doesn’t it? Courage and vulnerability.
As we’ll explore further in this series, the embrace of vulnerability is ultimately an embrace of death. But we’ll save that for later. So much to save for later! How does self-esteem, and self-compassion fit into this? The kindness of God? What is shame-resilience and how do we develop it? What’s the role of scarcity in this discussion? How does the good news of the kingdom make the courageous embrace possible? How does all of this help us see what Love is?
For now, let’s close with this, from the Velveteen Rabbit.
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."
The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.
Therefore, you are to be real, as you heavenly Father is real.
1. Declare a Perfectionism fast day one day this week. Don’t make any excuses for any mistakes you make that day. If you break wind, own up to it voluntarily and loudly enough for others to hear. Don’t wear makeup, maybe, if that’s something you put on to protect yourself from feeling shame. Let someone you love and who has earned your trust see you try something you’re likely to fail at or be bad at. Be creative. Don’t do it first thing this week, so you’ve got time to notice how perfectionism influences you and you can figure out ways to fast from it.
2. Spend 5 minutes a day this week being vulnerable with God. Confess your sin to him. Tell him about your experience of needs. Your fears and anxieties. Don’t clean any of it up or try to make it sound good. I’d recommend doing it at the beginning of the day.