Mercy, Wholeness, and Self-Centered Perfectionism

***Parallel Processing

Parallel process is a clinical term used to describe the common occurrence in therapy when the therapist’s own experience is reflected in the client’s. It is when a client comes in grieving over the loss of a loved one while the therapist has only just experienced his or her own loss as well. It is a therapist helping a client through feelings of anger and hurt that the therapist has also just recently confronted.

But, here’s the thing: we are all in parallel process. Too often in life it goes unsaid.

Here is where I say it.***

Our honey jar is almost empty.

Until my oldest daughter was in first grade she ate honey almost every day.

Ok, ok, for those of you who know us very well…she really ate the same thing EVERY day for EVERY meal.

Oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter and honey sandwich for lunch, and chicken nuggets for supper.

We were going for the nutrition award as parents.

It worried us me sick, but eventually she grew out of her eating habits just like my more gracious friends and family members assured me she would.  She now eats salmon, tacos, and her favorite kind of food is anything “spicy”.

She grew out of her honey stage and now I am the only one in the family still eating honey on an almost daily basis.  So, when the honey is collecting almost empty at the bottom I dread to purchase a whole new jar just for me.

I often forget to leave the honey turned upside down, which makes it easier to pour out onto my toast.  In this situation, if I am running late in the morning, planning on eating my toast in the car on my drive to class in Knoxville, there is no hope that I will get the honey out in time.

Honey stuck at the bottom has to be turned upside down for what seems like an eternity before it runs all the way down to the bottom where it is useful to the person who wants to eat it.

All of my children have gone through stages when they have had little tolerance for anything less than “just right”.  Their food, their blankets, their homework, their clothes…if anything is out of order a meltdown ensues.  I often find myself doing a great deal of work helping my children learn to tolerate imperfection…so that they can keep moving forward…so they don’t get stuck…so they can laugh, enjoy life, and grow.

Growth and strength require flexibility and, like my children, I have struggled with being bendy since I was young.

In a very literal, P.E. class, presidential fitness test kind of way, too.  My arms just never seemed to match the length of my legs.  A dream of mine in grade school was to actually pass the reach test past my toes.  Since I could barely make it past my ankles, I never came close.

I still contend that something was wrong with the tendons in my legs that kept me from being a presidential fitness champion.

But, my lack of flexibility goes beyond my inability to touch my toes and if God had his own course schedule for me this school year I believe the course would be entitled: “Flexibility 101: Learning to Tolerate Imperfection”.

I have heard many people call themselves “perfectionists” and sometimes this proclamation carries an air of boasting to it.

What we often fail to realize is that perfectionists…TRUE perfectionists…often do not fare well in life.  Their obsession with perfection usually leads in one of a few directions:

  1. Never starting anything at all.  If you don’t do it, then you cannot fail.  Sometimes known as “Paralysis of Analysis”, people in this state will often spend a lot of time analyzing or planning, but never following through.
  2. Never finishing anything.  They get started, but out of fear of failure, they keep redoing, making changes, or stalling because as long as they are in process then no one can accuse them of failing.  After all…they aren’t finished yet!

And, remember what failure is…anything less than perfect.

3. The final, perhaps the most deadly, path of a perfectionist is when a person will put all sorts of valuable resources at risk in order to attain perfection.  These resources include time, sleep, loved ones, health, etc.

This path can lead to anxiety, depression, and all sorts of addiction.

Let’s be honest, shall we?  Perfectionism is insanely (and I do mean INSANE) self-centered.

The whole reason a person wants to be perfect is about their own image, what people think about them…their own reputation.

Perfectionism is rarely about benevolence and compassion.

Perfectionism is about the perfectionist.


I started this semester a little uneasy about how I was going to manage all of my responsibilities.  I have this bad habit that my husband now knows well.  When I get overwhelmed rather than shifting down a gear, I shift up.  I decide that the only way I will feel successful in this crazy time is if I do it all…and do it all perfectly.

So I can’t just pass my statistics class where we are studying things like polynomial regression…I have to make a 100 on every quiz.  Anything less and my day is a little bummed.  And, statistics is just one part of my responsibilities.  So I stay up late and get little sleep and put all sorts of demands on my time, re-writing notes three times to help me study, and going overboard in my teaching responsibilities, doing my best to never encroach on my children’s time because I have to be a perfect mama, too.

And, all through this school year I hear God’s whispering to me over and over again… I want you to learn to tolerate imperfection.  I want you to learn to be flexible.

NOT…I want you to be perfect, doing all things with excellence.

Somewhere in our American Christianity we have equated “excellence” and, perhaps, perfection, with faithfulness.

Matthew 5:48 does tell us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.  Doesn’t than mean that perfection is not only condoned by God, but preferred?

What does this idea of perfection here mean?

The gospels often parallel each other and the beautiful part of hearing the story of Jesus from four different disciples is that we get a very full, beautiful, four-dimensional view of Jesus and His words.

Matthew 5:48 is found in the famous “Sermon on the Mount”.  The parallel passage for this section of Matthew is found in Luke. In fact, if you go and read both passages you will have fun seeing the similarities.  However, there is one striking difference and it has to do with the parallel verse to Matthew 5:48.

Luke 6:36 says: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

What is the point here? What kind of information is this?  Maybe a closer look at the word “perfection” will give us some clues.

The word for perfection in Matthew 5:48 comes from a word that is translated 42 times as “whole”.

When you put all of this very cursory information together (you can find scholars who do a more exhaustive treatment of this subject I am sure) it seems that what God desires from us, more than perfection, is



My husband came down with the shingles last week.  He is an amazing, laid-back man with a big, kind, wise heart and a great sense of humor.  Although he was in pain he was able to laugh about his predicament.  Many people told him that shingles is caused by stress at which point he teased me.  I am pregnant and working on a Ph.D.  He wonders where the stress comes from?  Har-har.

I know I along with my pregnancy and Ph.D. didn’t cause my husband shingles (and so does he!), but I found myself hearing God’s whispers again.

I want you to learn to tolerate imperfection.  I want you to be flexible.

…so that you can keep moving forward…so you don’t get stuck…so you can laugh, enjoy life, and grow.

I’m like that honey in the jar.  Like SO much of our western, American society, I am so programmed to demand perfection. Like my children, I have a difficult time tolerating anything is not “just right”.   Changing my ways, altering my thinking is like turning a honey jar upside down.  It takes forever for the honey to start flowing down to where it is useful.

Like a train going in one direction, changing my way of approaching life means slowing the train down to a stop first.  There is a lot of screeching in that stage.

Then the train can start going the other way.

That Wednesday I took my statistics quiz.  I had made a conscious decision the night before not to stress out about it.  I just went with it. I was prepared, but I did NOT re-write my notes three times.

And, I did great.  I missed a question.  Big whoop.

When I got home I went through all the routine of picking up my kids, making supper, and getting ready for church.

In the middle of these preparations I got a phone call with information that was destined to rock our community.  A friend of mine, a precious family at our church, had lost a husband and a father, in a horrible accident…probably about the same time I was getting home from picking up my girls from school.

As I cried out for my friend and tears streamed down my face that night, I found myself hearing God’s whispers again.

“Please, please…

I want you to learn to tolerate imperfection.  I want you to be flexible.

…so that you can keep moving forward…so you don’t get stuck…so you can laugh, enjoy life, and grow.”

In that moment, worldly perfectionism will keep the friend from reaching out because the wrong word might get said.

Worldly perfection will steal, kill,and destroy moments with our loved ones…and, we are never promised tomorrow.

Christian perfectionism is concerned with mercy, wholeness, and relationship…all of which can get kind of messy and require tolerance for things being not “just right”.

Loss…grief…life…is rarely “just right”.

God, You don’t care about my perfection and excellence was not on Your mind when Your son was born in a dirty stable.  Neither does my husband expect it nor my friends or my kids.  I do.  In fact, the pursuit of worldly perfection is nothing more than a distraction from what is important…what matters in this world.

Wholeness….in relationship to others and with You.

Mercy…a merciful life with a full, gracious, open heart to others, You…and for myself.

I know you are still working on turning my train around.  It is a constant battle amidst and against the tides of our culture.  It may never be a done deal.  Thank you for Your patience with me.

I want to encourage you today to turn the honey jar of your way of being upside down.  Ask God to help you.  Stop your slave work to the hamster wheel demands of a wordly perfection that brings nothing but anxiety, depression, and regrets.

Work hard, sure.  I doubt I will stop doing that.  But, I promise your work will mean more and go further if you make room for wholeness and mercy in the context of relationships as your priority.

Christian perfection is just not the same as wordly perfection.

Any message that tells you otherwise is a lie.

I truly, passionately believe God is calling each of us and whispering the same message amidst and against the tide of our WORDLY perfection driven culture…

“I want you to learn to tolerate imperfection.  I want you to be flexible.

…so that you can keep moving forward…so you don’t get stuck…so you can laugh, enjoy life, and grow.”

“Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.
Hello lamppost,
What cha knowing?
I’ve come to watch your flowers growing.
Ain’t cha got no rhymes for me?
Doot-in’ doo-doo,
Feelin’ groovy.

Got no deeds to do,
No promises to keep.
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep.
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me.
Life, I love you,
All is groovy.”

Simon and Garfunkel