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.