We often live under the assumption that we must be perfect. But before going any further, let me define perfection as we often use it. Perfection is the state of existence where nothing is wrong in our life, moral excellence has been achieved, and everything is peachy-keen. But since perfection is an unattainable goal for sinful people, we are forced into one of two responses. Either we could put on airs and pretend that we are something we are not, or we could quit trying altogether and simply let life have its way with us. But there is another option. What if instead of pursuing perfection, we pursued excellence?
Is excellence different than perfection? Can pursuing excellence free us from pretending to be something we are not, or from not even trying at all? I believe it can and here is why – excellence implies giving one’s best, while perfection implies a finished state. My best effort today might be different than it was yesterday, and may be different tomorrow as well. But excellence allows me to give God my best efforts today in the pursuit of his plans, while acknowledging the limitations I am facing. Perfection can make me not want to try because I am influenced by memories of past attempts, or am envisioning a possible future when I might have more time, skill, or ability to offer.
Excellence makes room for improvement and doesn’t imply one is complete. It allows us to yearn for more improvement in our lives than we are currently experiencing. Excellence gives us the opportunity to admit that we still need to change and grow, while perfection removes any hint of needing to grow and change. Those pursuing perfection want to hide their imperfections, while those pursuing excellence will admit that they have weaknesses. Pursuing perfection will drain our energy because it is unattainable, but pursuing excellence can restore our souls.
Pursuing excellence allows us to do all the things God has prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10), with the knowledge that our hearts and motivation matters more than our flawless completion of them.
Excellence allows us to do all things for the glory of God instead of for our own glory and self-righteous appearance. God is more interested in our heart and our willingness to attempt all that he asks of us than in our faultless completion of the tasks. He knows we can’t do everything to His standard; that’s why He sent Jesus. If He wants perfection, He need look only at Himself and Christ. If He wants excellence, He can look at the Spirit working in you to form the image of Christ.
So why do we burden ourselves with a heavy load, when we could carry the light load of pursuing Christ while admitting our imperfection? My only answer – it’s part of the sin nature.
In my own life, the shift from perfectionism to the pursuit of excellence has opened up a need for others. When I was trying to be perfect, I didn’t need others and I didn’t want others to really know who I was. If they knew me, my perfect persona would be shattered. They would see behind the mask. It was a lonely and tortured existence. But when God began to confront my perfection with his holiness, I quickly realized that perfection was an impossible ideal for me to achieve. God helped me to shift from pursuing perfection to pursuing excellence, and with that shift came an openness to people. But more than an openness, a real need for others grew in my life. To achieve excellence, I came to see that others could teach me, and guide me, and even see my brokenness and show me how to grow beyond it instead of hiding it. Excellence opened up the ability to receive feedback and criticism, something that my perfect persona would never have received.
I have found that honestly admitting those places that I am trying to hide from others has given me insight into my pursuit of perfection. Asking others to share their perception of me and places for growth in my life is another way my perfect persona is continually confronted. I am given the opportunity to admit my weaknesses and ask others for help in overcoming them. Pursuing excellence has allowed me to become a more forgiving and gracious person. Admitting mistakes and failures and the impossibility of operating at my peak all the time has freed me from the fictitious perfectionism that haunts my past. Now, mistakes are an opportunity to grow and learn instead of hiding and covering up.
A wise neighbor once told me that, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” That twist on the perfectionist’s saying, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” freed me to recognize that many times I avoided things because I couldn’t be the best. That kept me from trying new hobbies or attempting new tasks that I wanted to experience but didn’t because I didn’t want to fail. This simple advice, offered on the driveway one evening, freed me to pursue excellence while admitting my current limitations.
If you try to be perfect you will never be satisfied with yourself or be honest about who you truly are. But if you seek excellence, God will be able to do more through you than you could ever ask or imagine.
Remember, God only works with imperfect beings (the perfect ones don’t need him).