I had a small group Bible study with some friends and mentors about comparing ourselves to other people (highly common in competitive college environments) and also comparing ourselves to God. Near the end of the conversation, something one of my friends said stuck with me: “When you’re trying to be perfect and all-powerful, you’re trying to be God. He doesn’t want that.”
Personally, the topic of perfectionism, to me, is flogging a dead horse. We talk about it a lot. We know it’s bad. We know we’ll fail. Yet the majority of us will never stop striving to be more perfect in whatever ways we can. High expectations and striving to be the best we can be is not just the expectation, but the norm. In terms of comparing ourselves to others, that’s what we need to do, because after all, a little friendly competition never hurt.
But often, we walk a fine line in that competitiveness: many times, when we compare ourselves to our classmates, teammates, or co-workers, as much as we’re internally trying to lift ourselves up, we’re trying to put the other people down. It’s an issue of control, an issue of self-ascendancy. I don’t claim to be free of this at all, but I can tell that I noticeably feel like crap every time I talk about other people and compare myself to them. Because no matter what you think you’re better than them at, there’s something else that they’re far more advanced than you at. Every time I brag about something I do, I feel the same way, because it’s not about whatever good I was trying to do at that point — when you’re bragging, it’s about you.
So, a quote I try to live by nowadays is that “you’re not better than anyone, but no one is better than you.” Trying to elevate yourself above another person, even mentally, is a sign that you don’t trust yourself and that you think need to earn something and prove yourself. I have what I need more now than at any time: certain people being placed in my life have shown me that I have the Lord’s grace and mercy.
Perhaps the Bible verse that most fits into this mindset, if it doesn’t make sense, is Romans 3. Paul is writing to the Jews and the Gentiles over beef they have over who is more deserving of God’s love. He says this in verses 11–12:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
My minister, Stephen, put it like this: say the guy who cheated on his taxes justifies his actions by saying, “at least I didn’t murder someone.” Well, what is the murderer he’s elevating himself above saying? At least I’m not Hitler?
If there were some scale or measurement of righteousness that we universally held, the world would be an even more unjust place. It is in ranking that “divide and conquer” is often used by elites to subjugate lower classes throughout history, or in ranking some indigenous tribes above others that colonizers succeed in subjugating another people.
I’ve written about this a lot, but Reverend Thandeka wrote in “The Whiting of Euro-Americans: A Divide And Conquer Strategy,” that after a scary rebellion of white indigenous servants and black slaves (Bacon’s Rebellion), the elite Virginia assembly (almost all slaveowners) gradually gave more and more small privileges to the white indigenous servants over slaves. The two exploited classes never rose up again in rebellion against the slaveholders, as this new perceived distinction and ranking system between poor whites and poor blacks divided them.
And so, back to the topic of perfectionism, what are we trying to do when we’re trying to be perfect? What are we trying to prove? Is it out of fear that we’re the same as everyone else? Is it an attempt to prove we’re better than everyone else? Is it out of the need to prove to ourselves that we can?
It’s probably a combination of them all, plus some more, but at the core, it’s this: we’re trying to be God, and the best part of it is, that I think freed me from this notion, is that we can’t possibly ever be that. We’ll always fail. Because what does it mean if, in some bizarre situation, you were your notion of God, and you made it. You got to the mountaintop. Did you get all you ever wanted? Then what?
When we’re close to our notions of perfect, we’ll be lonely. We expect that in others we trust, too, and have to live in constant disappointment. Jen Wilkins, in “None Like Him,” puts this dissatisfaction with relationships like this: “When we ask another human to be unlimitedly trustworthy in any area, we are asking someone who is ‘only human’ to be God.”
We’re in this world not because we’re God. We’re here because we’re human, and it’s been a struggle for me, personally, to embrace that humanity as much as possible.
The part of the Gospel that best exemplifies this is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18. The Pharisee, a self-righteous religious figure, goes into a temple and prays: “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” The tax collector, a man who holds a position shunned by society, and prays: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The tax collector went home justified, and the Pharisee did not.
When you’re finally perfect, you’re the Pharisee. You will not go home happy. You will not go home justified. You will not be God. The tax collector is what we were made to be: flawed, humble, and human. Accepting that being perfect isn’t what God wants, well, can maybe free you from perfectionism.
This article was originally published on theodysseyonline.com on June 11, 2018.