I’m always interested to see what (if any) words or ideas from the Sunday readings stick with me as I head into the week. This week it’s been the idea of perfection, which Sunday’s Epistle reading told us was the connection between power and weakness: perfect power is found in weakness. Maybe it’s because I have a few self-identified perfectionists in my life, but the contrast between our common understandings of the idea and how Paul uses it seems like something worth considering further.
As I wrote the other day, whereas we tend to think of perfection as flawlessness, the word Paul uses has the connotation of something reaching the end of its course and thereby meeting its goal. This is important because our typical understandings of perfection leave no room for error and are therefore graceless. (And because they are graceless, they are also not of God.)
Perfectionism seems to be more about the ego and a desire for control than anything else. To quote the Psychology Today blog:
What makes extreme perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, resulting in a negative orientation. They don’t believe in unconditional love, expecting others’ affection and approval to be dependent on a flawless performance. … Maladaptive perfectionism is often driven by fear of failure, feelings of unworthiness, low self-esteem, and adverse childhood experiences.
In our culture, this is a double-edged sword, because not only is the goal of perfection in this way impossible to achieve — and so perfectionists set themselves up to fail before they even start — but also we are prone to disliking people who project a facade of perfection. (I can’t help but think of the backlash a few years ago against Taylor Swift, which largely revolved around what was seen as her desire to perfectly control her image, even when the facts seemed to tell a different story.) We aren’t drawn to flawless people; rather, we are drawn to people who show their vulnerability and weaknesses. In fact, we call these people ‘human.’ And in their lack of pretense and striving, because of their flaws, they, paradoxically, can seem perfect in their own way.
I recently came across a wonderful illustration about this in my reading on Indigenous peoples and justice. Randy Woodley writes:
Making mistakes reminds us that we are made to be human and we are not God. In traditional Native American art forms, often a mistake is left in a rug, basket, or pottery as a way of reinforcing our humanity. The logic of the mistakes is that if the mistakes were not visible, we might consider our work or ourselves to be perfect, like Creator. Native American belief is not about perfection but rather about our role or place in the universe. (Shalom and the Community of Creation)
If we think again of the biblical understanding of perfection as crossing the finish line or reaching the goal, there is so much more grace here for us. What if we conceived of being a ‘perfect parent’ not in terms of not making mistakes, but about raising a child to be a functional adult? What if being a ‘perfect student’ was about learning instead of test results? This, I think, is what being made perfect in weakness is all about. Far from what our egos and desire for control tell us, our flaws don’t take away from beauty, truth, and goodness. Rather, in their own way they can reveal it. And, to me at least, this is very good news.