A conversation in response to 12/3/2016, 1/19/2017: On Perfectionism and Creativity
In early 2017, a friend had some questions about a post. My response ended up summarizing my whole soteriology at the time, which of course is built with the humble and talented bricks of so many profs, books, and pastors and mortared together with my own thought and experience. I’m putting it here for posterity and will probably comment on it later.
D: I have been thinking about this a lot lately, specifically how fear relates to perfectionism. Maybe you can expound on that some…
Me: What have you been thinking?
D: Well recently I feel like perfectionism is somehow related to self- protection or fear. But I haven’t figured it all out yet. You said it’s fear of failure which makes sense. Trying to protect a false image I have of myself maybe? But what if the fear of failure is of moral failure or sinful failure? I guess that’s what you were saying, that even that can become an idol. I’ve not thought of that before. But yes, it steals creativity & risk taking, but since perfection is impossible it also steals joy & peace.
Me: Yeah, moralism—that Christ-agnostic standard that has ruled much of my life—is a huge offender. And a sneaky one, since it masquerades so well as being scriptural. Learning the difference between moralism and the Gospel, which is about Christ’s meeting all godly standards on our behalf, was a huge change for me. The Grace Awakening by Chuck Swindol was a big help for me in this, among other things.
A corresponding key nuance is that ALL salvation—even sanctification—is by grace through faith. The emphasis in my tradition was always on our responsibility and need to work in sanctification (which we should) rather than on our dependence upon God for good works, just as much as we depend for initial belief and for future, eternal deliverance. We are called to work, but the goodness that comes within our working, when it comes, is always, always, always by grace through faith and not because of the work, itself (Phil 2:12-13). That grace—that dependence upon God for sanctification-salvation—frees us from the idolatrous tyrant of moral success. And again, it’s only because Christ has already met the standard on our behalf.
The Gospel is always, and in everything that’s eternally good (things whose goodness transcend temporal benefits, I suppose), “Christ saves us.” So any fear regarding anything eternally good, given Christ’s power and love for us, must arise from some lack of faith in Christ//faith in something in place of Christ. It must come from some flaw in our beliefs and values rather than from some valid application of the Gospel.
D: I agree. My trouble is with figuring out in the moment where my motivation is coming from- empowering grace or moralism.
Me: Another helpful nuance for me (we seem to share the same vice, though I’m not surprised)—we are at all times both sinner and saint. Nothing we do is ever wholly one or the other. So waiting for “good motivation” isn’t really a thing. We’ll never have it even if we think we do.
God just wants us to work, and to the degree that we do good, it’s because of him. And to the degree that we don’t, it’s because of us. And when we fail, because Christ has already pardoned us, we learn, and we keep on working, correcting our methods and actions on the way. It’s painful to learn through failure, but I think that’s one part of suffering we’re promised in this life. Putting to death the deeds of the body is putting them to death. It’s not a day spa. That one’s a fairly recent nuance for me—within the past six months, probably. He just wants us to keep working as best we can in each moment, and worrying is not ever a good work.
Given that all good we can do is by grace through faith, worrying about whether or not we have a good motivation with the intention of withholding that action if we don’t is, in my estimation, symptomatic of a return to moralism. The worry—the fear of failure—signs that we have lost faith in the righteousness and grace of Christ, upon which we are dependent for both our pardoning and for the good motivation/works. If we trust in him for what, in short, could be called our sanctification (good works out of good character), we trust his provision AND his withholding. Whatever he chooses to do—and he does not promise all salvation to all men—he is God, on whom, alone, we are dependent. And here it gets hairsplitting—if we trust ONLY in the provision and NOT in the (apparent) withholding (and also on our ability to know what provision we need and when, how, etc. we get it), we trust in the provision. It has become an idol. If we trust in the PERSON(S) who provides (or not), we trust not only his provision but also in what way he provides or not. We trust him and all he does in all the ways he does them, even when we have no idea what he’s doing or if he will ever extend us what we desire or what we think he should. All that to say, a person who trusts God, including his provision of the grace required for either our pardoning or our good works (again, ALL aspects of salvation) trusts HIM, and fear signs a trust in something less than him—something untrustworthy, thus the fear.
And another nuance—I use “lack of faith” more broadly than just in regard to belief. I think we are dependent not just for the belief but also for everything required for the belief, including the correct knowledge.
One mistake I fall into is making the removal of perfectionistic fear an idol. Given that God is both infinitely loving and powerful, fear is symptomatic of a lack of faith and thus sinful. If God is such, what have we to fear that’s actually worth fearing? Is he not capable to know good and evil, and in loving us and doing as he pleases, does he not give good perfectly? So the lack of faith requires grace (through faith), like all sin. So applying the above, God is good (i.e., loving and good) whether or not he gives me the grace to believe and so be free from fear (salvation from that sinfulness by grace through faith [faith is by grace as well]). And to follow that, in wanting to do the work that he commands me to do, I do my best to deny fear-led thinking and instead focus on good things and actions. Sometimes it’s a TEDIOUS moment-by-moment battle and far beyond me to be able to detect and redirect my thought life, especially when it’s led by something as strong and as confounding as fear. But I feel like that falls into the “work as best you can in all moments” and all the corresponding things I mentioned above. And I, in and of myself, am not capable of winning it because whether or not I believe it, I am wholly dependent upon God for salvation from any and all evil, whether by way of pardon or by way of outright deliverance, with the removal of temptation, whether I recognize it as such or not. And he loves us and is more powerful than we can comprehend. But I work, and if I will be delivered within that work, it will be God, by grace, through my faith— which is just another product of grace—and not by the work, itself.
All good things come from God. We are wholly dependent upon him for everything worth having. And that’s just the Gospel, which we learn on and on and on and on and on.
Do you mind if I put all this on my blog sometime? I’m not sure I’ve written all this down in one place before.