Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J.

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The journey of faith is the supreme adventure of life. As in all great adventures there are dangers and pitfalls. On the journey of faith these dangers arise not only from the temptation to sin, but also from a misunderstanding of spiritual principles and precepts.

One of the most disastrous of these misunderstandings is perfectionism, the striving for and demanding of perfection. It is a misunderstanding of our Lord’s precept to “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This misunderstanding has sent many on a mission impossible binge which produces only depressing frustration and unhappiness.

Perfectionism leads to arrogance, hypocrisy, or to a breakdown. I know, I took that route myself. I was a perfectionist. And striving to be perfect I became a spiritual hypochondriac, always self-consciously examining and analyzing myself, trying to discern if I was becoming more perfect. The result was paralysis by analysis. I hadn’t heard of Murphy’s Law.

Perfectionism is dangerous at best. If we discover that we are getting more perfect we become proud, which is the worse sin of all. If we discover that we are not getting more perfect we become discouraged, which is one of the greatest obstacles to spirituality. The truth of the matter is that we really never know. The closer we get to God, the further away we realize we are. It was their close proximity to God that made the great saints think of themselves as great sinners.

Striving for perfection is counter-productive. It turns life into a big “ego trip.” The motive behind everything I do is to become perfect. So, I love God, not because He is worthy of all my love but because I want to be perfect. And I help the neighbor in need, not because of compassion and love, but because I want to be perfect. But the paradox of Christianity is that we become more perfect by losing ourselves. We have to lose our life to find it.

Striving for perfection also makes me critical and judgmental, not only of myself but also of others. It also makes me proud. And God resists the proud and gives his grace to the humble, as we see in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Striving for perfection also makes us unhappy, because we are striving for the impossible. And the harder we try the more miserable we become. And we make everyone with whom we live equally, if not more, miserable. Perfection is always a by-product. The moment you seek it you lose it. The Christian does not seek perfection, he seeks only to love. And the more he loves the more perfect he becomes.

The remarkable truth is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Demand perfection and you will destroy the good that you can do. This truth is well illustrated in this scenario.
A sculptor carves a statue out of a block of marble and calls his co-workers to see it. They are awestruck. This is a masterpiece! It is a masterpiece to everyone except the sculptor, who happens to be a perfectionist. And with the critical eye of a perfectionist, he sees just one flaw. All this statue needs to be absolutely perfect is to take one more chip off the top left corner. He gets out the mallet and the chisel and takes off that last chip. Then he steps back and surveys the statue again. Now he sees that taking that last chip off necessitates taking one off the opposite corner. And then one off of the bottom. And then another chip all around again, and again. When he gets finished there is a pile of marble chips on the floor and no statue. “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Demand perfection and you will destroy the good that you can do.

The truth is that my imperfections are a blessing. They relate me to God. They remind me that I am not God, even though I often act as if I were. They also relate me to others. Friendship and community are not based on the things we prize most about ourselves, our talents, virtues, strengths and accomplishments. Community is based on our weakness, our imperfections and our sinfulness. Our strengths divide us, our weaknesses unite us. This is the secret of the success of the 12 Step Programs. The members identify with one another on the level of their weakness, their addiction. And this generates understanding, tolerance, empathy and charity. It is therapeutic to be with those we can trust, and in whose presence we can take off our mask and come down from our pedestal. And then begin to explore the latent power that lies hidden in our weakness and vulnerability. We are all wounded sinners who can become wounded healers.

Finally, my imperfections relate me to reality, to the facts of life. I am imperfect. I have physical warts, psychological quirks and spiritual infidelities. I have a “shadow” that Carl Jung tells us is the dark and unknown part of the human psyche that contains all the unwanted and undeveloped aspects of my personality.

There is a natural tendency to suppress this “shadow” in order to protect the ego. But it is essential for our psychological and spiritual growth that we acknowledge and accept it. We must humbly accept the fact that in spite of all of our efforts, we will never completely get rid of them. This “shadow” is rooted deep in our unique personality and in the dark recesses of our past.

If we refuse to accept it, if we keep repressing it, we are not only headed for failure but also for great unhappiness. There is a lot of wisdom in the serenity prayer: Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Confronting our “shadow” and coming to terms with it has a great transforming effect. Its very existence teaches us to be patient and humble. It saves us from self-righteousness and helps us to understand better the mystery of iniquity. It teaches us not to trust in our strength and ability but to put all of our hope and trust in the power and love of Jesus.

St. Paul is an excellent example of the transforming effect of confronting and accepting our “shadow.” He asked the Lord three times to remove this “thorn in his flesh.” The Lord replied, “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in infirmity.”
Paul accepted this “thorn in the flesh,” and became a great saint, certain that nothing could separate him from the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

“Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perhaps the key to understanding this precept of our Lord is to be found in the last phrase, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
God is love. That’s all God does. So we will be like our heavenly Father if we love, love God, love ourselves and love our neighbor. If we do this we will be perfect. Perfectly human, which is very imperfect.


© 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J. all rights reserved