Spiritual Formation for the Perfectionist

By Bishop Todd Hunter

Fixing is not a biblical idea.

The underlying impetus for fixing too often comes from something us recovering perfectionists know all about: the deep desire to make everything neat and tidy, well-ordered and mended. Now. Not later. Longsuffering and fixing fight each other. They do not harmonize well.

The compulsion to fix, negatively construed, comes from disordered desire, no matter how much we try to rationalize it as serving, ministry, or justice. I genuinely care about others and want to be an agent of healing and justice. But it is also true that when things are right in the world, I feel better. And sometimes me feeling better becomes an ambition that eclipses love of neighbor.

Fixing too often comes from brokenness within us: ego needs, desperation, perfectionism, controlling tendencies, and our own ambitions. Along this wrong path emerges something Dallas Willard warned me about: some of the greatest evil ever perpetuated on the earth came from misguided attempts to “bring in the kingdom” or “do something great for God”.

No passion I can muster will halt inflation or hold off a possible recession. No expression of my willpower will change the activities of Vladimir Putin. Mere determination is too weak to eliminate racism. No sincere urge to fix the church will remake her into something perfect enough that my psyche, my soul could then rest in a state of peace.

I was recently given (what may seem obvious to healthier people!) this gift of insight: I am not going to fix our deeply troubling moment in history. I am not going to fix the challenges affecting the wider church. I am not going to make the Church perfect. I struggle to even fix myself.

I sometimes wonder if my Boomer generation believed too much of the press clippings about us and came to assume that we were so special that we were entitled to fix the world.

I have wrestled this down: all the major Christian initiatives of my lifetime: Billy Graham, The Jesus Movement, Church Growth, Mega-church and Seeker movements, Emergent church, Charismatic and Pentecostal revivals, Fresh Expressions, Alpha, the formational movement, etc., have not fixed the world or the church. Not only is the world currently in a particularly tough spot, but in many cases, Christians are also key perpetrators.

Idealistic expectations are false hopes. Unfulfilled, they depress the soul. They inflict wounds of discouragement and disillusionment. This pain forces us to see and acknowledge our limitations—a process that I hate! Limitations are to be conquered. Restraints are to be chucked aside. Nothing should hold us back, right? Push through, brush it off. Keep going.

But the sobering—and freeing truth, if we can grasp it—is that we can’t do everything, or “anything we dream or put our mind to”. The pain and loss associated with such knowledge alert us to our pride and calls us to turn to God, seeking healing and offering our surrender, striving to gain the humble perspective that God’s power works best in our weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Without an attitude that embraces weakness (Greek word astheneia: the want of strength or capacity to do or understand great or glorious things), cynicism will soon be knocking at the door of our hearts. And opening the door to pessimism leads to a yearning to quit, to give up on doing the good we are called to do in the world, those things which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

This is a better perspective: the world, the one precisely superintended by God, has always been in crisis in one way or another. Nothing in my piety or power will alter this pattern. But:

Seemingly intractable problems do not define me,
which in turn neutralizes their ability to destroy me.

As a recovering perfectionist/fixer, I have learned that I can best be present to the world’s and the church’s problems when they are specifically and particularly in front of me. But I can’t fix our broken form of partisan politics, the war in Ukraine, or tensions between China and Taiwan.

What then can I do? Surely my desire for all humans to flourish in the kingdom of God is not entirely broken over the rocks of disordered desire. Which parts of my motivation are holy? How do I make those parts livable and actionable?

I play my small part best in the spirit of letting go, of heart-based surrender, and yielding control as core aspects of the personal and societal transformation I seek. To fight ego and self-preoccupation, I must practice staying God-focused, submitting my work to Jesus, and believing the promise that:

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence… their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit.
Jeremiah 17:7-8

Staying God-focused puts fixing in a different context, one that emerges from the biblical story. This kind of fixing is specific, and it is not aimed at problems, it is aimed at a person:

Fix your thoughts on Jesus…
Fix your eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith…
Hebrews 3:1; 12:2

The Cooperative Friends of Jesus

Cooperation with a Person, fixing one’s eyes on Divine initiative and purpose, is the framework for service, ministry, justice initiatives, and peace-seeking. Acts of obedience are the outward manifestation of a desire to be the cooperative friend of Jesus. The desire to see what God is up to in the world, and to hear one’s calling as his cooperative friend is the biblical paradigm, the narrative from which comes a holy and effective imagination for ministry. Faithfulness to one’s calling and surrendering the outcome of one’s work to God are biblical notions that far supersede a neurotic need to fix everything.

The mindset toward cooperation is energized by a deep, intuitive realization that my life is hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3), not in what I do for work or where I do it, or how my work is going in a given moment. Alongside this knowledge, I keep before me the commitment that my primary, leading-edge calling is to a lifestyle of repentance, of being bent by the Spirit ever in the direction of Jesus and the kingdom of God. This effort toward kingdom-formation means I cannot let my God-given humanity get politicized by the state or the church. It means I can live free of their anger, fear, warped worldview, and the various manipulations that flow from it.

The Time in Which We Live

Eschatology, among other important things, is a contextual idea. It is meant to have the power to guide one’s life, to orient it to Divine reality. It alerts us that we live in a time between the times, to quote George Eldon Ladd, between the inauguration of the kingdom of God in Christ Jesus, and the consummation to come.

To the great disappointment of fixers, this context means that presently we will not be able to fix everything. Fixing is bound up in God’s timetable and requires his omnipotence. In the meantime, I can cooperate with what God is doing between the times by observing the words and works of Jesus. They alert us to the trajectory of the world, its final destiny, and the nature, quality, and practices of our cooperative place in it.

Eschatology is meant to lead to mature observations of the world leading to rest and peace. It gives us a way to understand spiritual warfare, to realize why there is both healing and suffering, war and peace, addiction and deliverance, faith and doubt. I sometimes kick against it, but pastoral work is bound by the time between the times. I pursue mission, justice, and peace best when I thank God for his chronological wisdom and rest his creative love—which will someday result in a new heaven and earth, saturated with his perfections.

The Gift of Disillusionment

A friend recently alerted me to the book, The Gift of Disillusionment. In it I noted many freeing thoughts, two of which I want to share here:

Coming through the other side of disillusionment, we become like Jeremiah, the voice of suffered hope (Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination), having the ability to run toward suffering regardless of the cost.

Faithful service requires us to walk into pain. To feel the hurt. To see the reasons to despair. To know suffering, disappointment, and challenges. And yet to cling with desperation to the God of hope.

Grit and resilience, when coming from our own strength or ability, will come to an end. Best construed, they are the overflow or manifestation of our rootedness in, and surrender to, the God of hope. They are the fruit, not the root. They are a product of genuine encounters with the Holy Spirit, filling us with power, giving us gifts, and producing his fruit in us.

Repent and Believe

I know that if I want to help heal the world, I must first heal myself. That means formation in Christ is the primary meaning and activity of my life. Everything else I do or will accomplish flows from that. Thus, what occupies my days is the desire to reclaim my soul for the purpose of loving the world. Parker Palmer (On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old) gives us a vision for this:

We want to work toward a supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, one that can grow into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.

A few months ago, I re-read a favorite book by Jean Pierre de Caussade: The Sacrament of the Present Moment. I especially appreciate the title of the French version: Abandonment to Divine Providence. De Caussade unlocks the mental prison fixers live in—our own orientation with its obsessive, compulsive motivations.

Reading De Caussade always renews my soul by shaping my imagination and renewing my commitment to the story God is unfolding, not the one I wish for. This orientation has the natural effect of increasing my confidence in God, which in turn gives me the ability to abandon myself to him, to be entirely absorbed by duty [that which is in front of me to do at any given moment], to think not of self, nor of what may be necessary for me, nor of how to obtain it.

Abandonment to Divine providence is the undergirding power for being a non-anxious, peaceful, effective presence for doing ministry in the turmoil that certainly awaits the world and leadership in the church.

My Coin

MaryKate Morse is Dean of George Fox Seminary. I heard her speak recently and, in her talk, she gave the idea of carrying on our person—in a pocket or purse a physical memento, a reminder of a present commitment we have to some element of spiritual growth.

I took her up on it.

A couple of years before I heard her talk a friend had given me what looks like a large gold coin. One side, in hefty letters, exclaims: Finish Strong. The back, in smaller type, encourages: fight the good fight…finish the race…keep the faith. I found the coin in my desk drawer and put it in my pocket by day and by night on my dresser with my wallet and keys.

Every morning, noting my spiritual struggle to let go of perfectionistic fixing and bringing before my mind the desire to be a kingdom agent of healing and redemption, after dressing, and just before heading out of the house, I hold the coin to my heart and pray:

By your Spirit,
Lord, may I finish strong…
May I fight the good fight…
May I finish my race…
May I keep the faith…

Throughout the day, when my energy or faith wavers, following the advice of MaryKate, I simply touch the coin in my pocket, bringing myself back to the reality that:

Because I am committed to being the cooperative friend of Jesus,
I am setting aside my fixing tendencies.
Rather, abandoning myself to Divine providence,
I am seeking to live, on behalf of the least, the lost, the last, and the marginalized, a life of constant creative goodness
through the power of the Holy Spirit.

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