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Mistakes don’t feel good. The sharp pain of regret after a mistake is a terrible feeling. The fear of making a mistake is terrible, too. “I’m afraid I’ve made a mistake.” How often have we said that to ourselves? How often have we made not just one mistake, but several? How we wish we could avoid our mistakes and also the constant fear of making them. We can try to avoid them, but they happen nonetheless, and the fear remains. In order to avoid mistakes, we try to be mistake-less, or perfect. Yet, inevitably, we fail again, and we feel ashamed. The root of perfectionism is this fear—the fear of shame. Shame is the painful feeling that there’s something wrong with us. And the truth is, deep down, we know there’s something wrong with us. That’s why we try to hide it. We are like Adam and Eve in the garden, knowing something isn’t right, and so we sew fig leaves for ourselves. But fig leaves make for poor clothing.
Trying to hide our shame is one way to deal with it. That’s what Adam and Eve did. They hid their shame with fig leaves, and then they hid among the trees. They were perfectionists. Perfectionism is striving in our own strength to make everything right so that our shame is concealed. There are other ways to deal with shame, though. There’s also the way of Cain, who broke out in anger and killed his brother, Abel. This is the way of open rebellion. Many Christian parents would prefer to have children who are perfectionists rather than children who are openly rebellious. But the shame of not measuring up is still there, and oftentimes, the effects of a perfectionistic attitude last longer than the effects of open rebellion. Just look at the story of the prodigal son. He embraced open rebellion, only to return home repentant to his father. Yet the older brother remained a perfectionist. “Why did you kill the fattened calf for him?” The older brother thought he had done everything right. He thought he’d hid his shame rather well. The older brother’s real question was, “Don’t I measure up?”
To clarify: perfectionism isn’t simply striving to do well. Striving to do well is good, worthwhile, and commendable. The Bible calls us to it (Col. 3:23). If that’s what we’re doing, we’re not worried about what other people think, and we’re not judging ourselves for our poor performance. For example, if we’re learning to play the guitar, we simply keep practicing to get better. Perfectionism only arises when there is shame involved. And how do we try to preserve ourselves from shame? Through control. Control allows us to adjust our environment so that everything is in its right place—at least, according to us. If Cain could have controlled God, he would have made sure that God accepted his sacrifice and not Abel’s. But Cain couldn’t control God. How frustrating. If things are outside of our control, we can’t ensure our shame is hidden. Things inevitably go awry, and our flaws are exposed. We’re met with shame again. We’re reminded that we can’t fix things. We can’t hide. Adam and Eve, though they sewed fig leaves and hid from God, were eventually found out. God came walking in the cool of the evening, and He asked, “Where are you?” Adam responded, “I was afraid.” Similarly, our own perfectionism, despite our best efforts, leaves us scared and ashamed.
Back when most human beings were farmers, we were highly dependent upon the seasons and the soil for our well-being. Adam knew this from the time he left the garden. The sense that we were out of control was strong. Only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 1800. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. That percentage is even higher in developed countries. As a result, most of us no longer depend so directly on the fluctuations of the seasons to survive. We just run down to the supermarket to pick up a meal. This is because of the advance of technology. Technology has allowed us to control our environment more and more. We can now keep food stable for years through freezing or canning. We can call anyone we want at any time because of cell phones. We can heal a variety of diseases, so our life expectancy has grown by leaps and bounds. And Google is always at our fingertips in the case that we don’t know something.
As a result of all the advances of modern technology, we’re apt to think that we really do control our world. We’ve developed the technology to far surpass fig leaves, after all. We now have polyester blends, organic cotton, and smart wool. We can control so many things. Sometimes this illusion of control can lull us into a false sense of security, but at the same time, we also realize that we’re not in control more times than we might care to admit. Sometimes we’re surprised by our lack of control. Perhaps our children simply won’t sit still. Or, we hit a traffic jam on our way to work, and we’re late to an important meeting. More shocking things can happen to us. Perhaps we discover our spouse has committed adultery. Or, we receive a diagnosis of cancer. These moments of perplexing out-of-controlness hit us with stunning force. We realize we aren’t perfect, our lives aren’t perfect, and neither are the lives of those around us. In moments like these, it’s like we’re back in the garden, and we’ve just realized how naked we really are. We feel ashamed and helpless.
We’re born naked and helpless. We’re vulnerable creatures. Our very bodies are vulnerable—we have no shell or coat of fur to cover our soft bodies. Our physical, psychological, spiritual, and financial vulnerability is a scary thing to think about. We don’t control the seasons. We don’t control our job security. We don’t control when we will live or when we will die. We barely control ourselves. According to studies, nearly one in six human beings is on a psychiatric drug such as antidepressants or sedatives. We finite, weak creatures are stunningly, irrevocably, and utterly out of control.
There’s good news, though. Christians have a long history of thinking about control. When we talk about being in control and controlling everything, what we’re talking about is sovereignty. That’s theological language. The Bible has a lot to say about control. We are used to hearing, “God is in control.” It’s a simple statement, and Job got a fuller explanation of that statement in the form of questions. God asked him, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Answer: I didn’t exist yet. God has a lot more experience than I do. “Who set its measurements?” Answer: I didn’t. God did, and only He has the knowledge and wisdom to rule the universe. God continues questioning Job, and as we read Job 38–39, we’re left in wonder at the control God has over absolutely everything.
This is what we wanted in the garden. We wanted sovereignty. Instead, we got sin and shame. It turns out that what we knew deep down is actually correct—we’re not in control, and there’s something wrong with us. The good news, however, is that Someone else is in control, and Someone else has taken our shame away. It’s only when we recognize God’s sovereignty that we’re able to begin the healing process. It’s only when we realize that God has taken upon Himself the shame that we so fear that we can take our first steps toward being released from the cycle of shame. The answer isn’t being in control and hiding our shame. The answer isn’t perfectionism. The answer is Jesus Christ.
We Christians still struggle with sin and the desire to hide our shame. One day, however, we will be perfect, and it will be on God’s terms—not ours. Because of our Savior’s atoning work in our behalf, we will stand before the throne of grace unashamed and clothed in His righteousness. We will rejoice in His presence forevermore. That being the case, we can stop hiding now. We can let go of our shame in the present. We can stop being afraid today. We can trust the One who is in control forever.