I can talk forever about why Christians have more reasons in the world to be optimistic than anyone else (starting with the 1200 plus promises God makes his people in his Word). However, it’s no secret, we live in a sinful world. Christians don’t find themselves with any fewer circumstantial problems than the rest of the world. In fact, Christians don’t have any fewer instances of cases of depression (and in some studies, have more) than the rest of the world. Satan works overtime on those whom he’s attempting to pull from the path that leads to salvation. Look at the words of biblical characters like Job, Elijah, Jonah, Jeremiah, and the Apostle Paul. At times they clearly appear to be suffering at the very least mild forms of depression, disenchantment, and sadness. From at least an earthly standpoint, they were at times, very unhappy.
Over the course of the next several weeks, we’re going to spend some time taking a look at the some of the most common things that make God’s people unhappy. We’ll seek God’s guidance and, God-willing, better understand ourselves and our lives.
The first issue we’ll look at is PRESSURE. Everyone faces pressure in life. However, much of it is self-imposed pressure that comes from unrealistic expectations and perfectionist mindsets. And when we have these mindsets, we set ourselves up for failure, at least in our own books. And then we feel awful.
We all face some anxiety over perfectionist tendencies, to varying degrees, but I’ve included here an inventory from one of my favorite psych texts of what probably categorizes someone as a “perfectionist”. Rate yourself from 1-4 (mild to extreme) in the following categories:
- I like to be in control at all times.
- I like things to be fair.
- I have a hard time saying “no” without feeling guilty.
- I like things to be perfect.
- I have high expectations of myself.
- I worry about what other people think.
- If I want something done right, I feel I should do it myself.
- I feel guilty easily.
- I do not like to fail.
- I feel people should listen better.
- I don’t like to cause conflict.
- People don’t appreciate all that I do.
- I’m not where I want to be in life.
- There is not enough time in my day.
- I don’t really feel rested.
All of these are common experiences of those who feel pressure through expectation. And the generalization is that if you’d mark a 3 or 4 consistently on numbers 1,4,5,7,9, you’re likely a perfectionist.
Now Christians should understand better than anyone that we are not perfect. Romans 3:23 makes it very clear: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But we still have trouble living with that. We still sometimes beat ourselves up over being flawed. And I guess I’d like to make one point of clarification here – obviously we don’t want to be dismissive of moral imperfections, i.e. sins. That would be to take Christ’s suffering and death lightly. Conversely though, when God has completely forgiven us, for us to not forgive ourselves for being imperfect would also, in a sense, be taking Christ’s suffering and death lightly – that we feel we have to wallow in what Christ has already set us free from (this happens to be what this past Sunday’s sermon was about – http://www.resurrection-wels.org/church/sermons). We have to forgive ourselves and we also have to accept the fact that, as flawed humans, we are not perfect. This is not a license to sin, but it is a guide for reasonable expectations for ourselves in our lives.
Furthermore, another product of unhappiness from imperfection might not be due to moral imperfection in our lives at all, but rather just the fact that since we’re in a sinful world, mistakes are made. These, in fact, are often the “flaws” that bug us the most. If any of this sounds like your personality type, it’s time to stop trying to be perfect, and start trying to live with imperfection. Post Adam/Eve fruit faux pas, perfection is simply not the real world.
And so we’re going to set 2 goals for ourselves today to help us cope with our absense of perfection:
Goal 1) Stop Trying So Hard to Please Others – the amount of energy we spend to make ourselves “acceptable” in other people’s eyes is obscene. Isn’t it strange how sometimes even the people that we don’t particularly like are the ones whom we try the hardest to make like us? Why do we do that?! Ultimately, it’s because we determine that our self worth is dictated by how this world perceives us. You can tell already how unchristian that thought is, right?
You are simply never going to please everybody. The old rule is that 60%, yes, 60% of people, almost regardless of what you do, are probably not going to like you in general. Little old me?! Yes, lovable you. The other 40% are going to like you most when you simply be yourself. I remember hearing a variation of this from several pastors/professors who agreed that whatever congregation you go to, 10% of the people are probably going to like you no matter what, 5% of the people aren’t going to like you no matter what, and the other 85% or so of the people are going to see you as “the pastor” and not really have much opinion.
If my self-esteem is based on my approval-rating from the world (or from my congregation), I’m always going to be let down. Trying to please everyone will drive you nuts. Good thing Jesus made it simple. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27). Essentially here, Jesus is saying, “Seek to please God first, and that means that you’re going to love and serve others too.” That’s going to make you as likeable of a person as possible. Anybody who doesn’t like you then, well, they have a problem with God, not with you. It’s not your job to waste your time and emotional energy trying to make them happy.
Simple Rule: Seek to put God and his will first. If someone still doesn’t like you, it’s their loss. Don’t think about it anymore.
Goal 2) Lower Ridiculous Expectations – Perfectionists, without consciously realizing it, tend to have a list of “shoulds” that their lives are filled with. I should get this grade on the test. I should land this kind of career. I should have this much money in my bank account. I should look like this or be this weight. I should have these kinds of friends. I should have these kinds of kids. I should have this kind of spouse. I should have this kind of house. I should have this kind of life. Invariably, they’re unrealistic expectations are then foisted upon others in their lives as well, making relationships difficult and at times, not enjoyable.
Well, the “shoulds” of our lives will drive us nuts too and pressure-filled perfectionists will inevitably find out the hard way that they’re not nearly as in control of the circumstances of their lives as they think they are. It’s horribly frustrating.
We often lay out rigid timetables for ourselves that include things like “By 27 I want to be married and have a boy and a girl. By 30 I want to make my first million. By 40 I want to be the CEO of my own company. By 65 I want to retire comfortably.” Now careful and faithful planning is great, but there are so many considerations and variables to this plan that you have almost zero say in. When that Mr. or Mrs. Perfect doesn’t come along by age 30 or I lose my job or health or whatever else, we’re then tempted to think either A) something is wrong with me, or B) God isn’t fair. And it might not be based on anything other than the “shoulds” we’ve established for ourselves. That makes us miserable.
If you are a prisoner to your own “shoulds” a worthwhile exercise is to sit down and write a list of the “shoulds” you have for your life. Some of them will be very good and healthy goals. Others may range from fairly silly to downright unhealthy. If you have a “should” that is a budget that’s part of an extended plan to help yourself become debt-free, probably a healthy goal. However, if you have a “should” that causes you to feel like a failure until you get an advanced degree or a degree in general, probably a destructive should. Going back to school may be a great option. However, it might not be right for your family at this moment. And it obviously will require some time. Preventing happiness until then would be destructive. So……still have dreams and goals, but the key is to make them realistic and not don’t obsess about them so that you are inclined to feel incomplete without them.
Feeling complete and contented simply comes from recognizing your completion in Christ and being “okay” with everything else. In his first letter, John uses the term “complete” numerous times to describe the joy that believers have in Christ. We were created in the “image of God”. We lost part of that with sin, but Jesus came to restore it in us and for us. Practically what that means then is that I don’t have to accomplish another single thing in this life or have a single enviable item in my life that would cause the world to stand and applaud, because God still sees me as the crown of his creation and that’s all that really matters. I don’t have to put any pressure on myself to be anyone or do anything. That won’t make me lazy. It will inspire me and set me free from perfectionist expectations. It’ll allow me to take chances in life, fail, learn, grow, and succeed. And throughout the process I can feel great that I had the courage to try and find comfort in the fact that God will work this all out for my good.
Likewise, I don’t have to put any undue pressure on others in my life. My 5-year-old is not going to be able to always effectively communicate with me. My husband is not going to always understand what I’m feeling. My co-workers aren’t going to always buy into my vision or share my industriousness. The person in line in front of me is not always going to have their act together when I’m in a hurry and need things to move along. I can’t control them and I can’t expect them to be perfect because I’m not perfect. When I stop unfairly expecting perfection out of them and myself, and make my expectations more realistic, I will stop being so disappointed by everyone and everything. The pressure will melt away.
Simple Rule: Find contentment in your identity as God’s beloved child. Anticipate life in this sinful world to be filled with mistakes. Allow yourself to be human. Anticipate perfection in the next life.
If there is undue, self-appointed pressure in your life right now, I guarantee you’re not as happy as you could be. Step back from it all and understand that life just shouldn’t be lived that way. Allow yourself to live as though God is in control, because he is. Don’t worry about what others think. Laugh at the simple, innocent mistakes. Repent over the moral mistakes and enjoy Jesus’ forgiveness. Release that pressure and leave the mistake-free perfection to be enjoyed where it can actually exist – in God’s presence in heaven.