This semester I met with a group of interns on Friday afternoons (when I was around). Along with developing some musical skills we read selected chapters from Unceasing Worship by Harold Best. If you haven’t read it and you’re a Christian involved in congregational worship or the arts, I’d strongly encourage you to get a copy.
At our last meeting someone referenced this quote from chapter 11: “Authentic worship is not perfect worship. It stands in continual need of examination, repentance, increased depth and humility as well as outpouring meekness and humility.” That led to an extended conversation on the topic of perfectionism.
Most Christian musicians, worship leaders, and artists I know battle, have battled, or will battle perfectionism. A perfectionist can have different names. Overachiever. Compulsive. OCD.
Whatever they’re called, they share common attributes. They tend to fix every flaw, exhaust every possible resource, edit and edit and edit again, occasionally get by on little or no sleep, over-rehearse, anticipate every problem or weakness that might arise, and rarely be satisfied with what they’ve done. Perfectionists can also be highly organized, extremely punctual, over-attentive to detail, and potentially irritating if you have to work with them.
But perfectionists don’t always succeed. So they can beat themselves up when something doesn’t sound, look, or work out the way they planned. They procrastinate because they know what they’re doing won’t be as good as they’d like. They envy others who seem to have it all together. They can find it difficult to celebrate the successes of others, either because they think they could have done better or because they wish they had done as well. We can be frustrated perfectionists.
While musicians don’t always view it as a problem, my guess is that secretly we think if you’re going to have a problem, perfectionism is a good one to have. It’s almost noble. We’re so committed to doing the best we can that we’ll practically harm ourselves to attain our goal. We’re not sluggards or slackards. We care about what we do and we just happen to have the problem of caring too much. Is that even a problem?
Yes, perfectionism is a problem. More of a problem than we’d like to admit.
Perfectionism is a delusion.
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:23)
Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. (Eccles. 7:20)
When someone says they’re a perfectionist I want to ask (and sometimes do), “When was the last time you did something perfect?” Last time I checked, there’s only One worthy of the name “perfect” and we’re not Him. No matter how much energy, thought, and time we put into an activity we’ll never actually do something perfect. To think we will is a delusion. At the very best “perfectionism” is a misnomer that implies a degree of pretense. That’s not to say we shouldn’t work hard at what we do. Paul said, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). But when we describe working hard as “perfectionism,” it’s very possible we’re disguising the true nature of what’s going on in our hearts.
Perfectionism is idolatrous.
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:36)
So that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:31)
Striving to do things thoroughly, on time, and with excellence are great goals. But in the heart of a “perfectionist,” other things are going on. We notice when others don’t keep the same standards. We can be irritated, even angry, when we have to work with musicians who slow us down or make us sound bad. We can’t remember the last time we were really peaceful, contented, or satisfied. We struggle if our life isn’t in order or if our plans unexpectedly go awry. We say we aren’t seeking to please others, that we’re our worst critic. But why? It could be we want the satisfaction of knowing our standards are higher than anyone else’s. We could be wanting to impress more than serve. That’s called serving the idol of man’s praise. We inwardly enjoy the awe that others express for how well we do the things we do, how efficient we are, how intentional. John’s words are ever so relevant: Little children, keep yourself from idols. (1 John 5:21)
Perfectionism is destructive.
Good sense wins favor, but the way of the treacherous is their ruin. (Prov. 13:15)
All worshipers of images are put to shame, who make their boast in worthless idols. (Ps. 97:7)
In my book, Worship Matters, I wrote about a time in the mid-90s when my inner cravings for credit and control drove me crazy. I wanted a perfect world in which things went my way and I received glory for it. My failure to attain my goals led to panic attacks, confusion, thoughts of dying, and a constant battle against hopelessness. Because only God is perfect, our deceived attempts to reach perfection are destined to fail. We’ll end up arrogant because we think we’ve come close or despairing because we fail to achieve our goals. In either case, treading the path of perfectionism will destroy us.
The answer to perfectionism is the answer to every sin: the freedom Jesus Christ has purchased for us in the gospel.
The gospel tells us that the sum of all our best achievements and accomplishments led to the Son of God being brutally crucified, enduring God’s wrath in our place. (Is. 64:6; Rom. 3:23)
The gospel tells us that while God knows our deepest sins, faults, weaknesses, and inadequacies he loves us with an everlasting, unchanging love. (Rom. 8:35-39)
The gospel tells us that the power of sin has been broken and we can pursue good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:8-10)
The gospel tells us that God is infinitely more worth of glory than we are. (Rom. 1 Cor. 1:31)
The gospel tells me that whatever fruit does come from my life is ultimately the result of his Spirit’s work in me and for his glory, not mine. (Rom. 11:36)
The only people God has to work through are imperfect, but fully redeemed, sinners. What a joy to give up our pursuit of perfectionism, draw upon the immeasurable riches of grace we’ve received in Christ, and find our satisfaction in knowing the perfect Savior has purified all our imperfect offerings and efforts.
To God alone be the glory.
Thanks for this article.
I was asked to be the worship leader in our church two years ago. I am still learning and growing.
I agree totally with what you said
” We could be wanting to impress more than serve. That’s called serving the idol of man’s praise. We inwardly enjoy the awe that others express for how well we do the things we do, how efficient we are, how intentional. ”
The greatest lesson I’ve learned is how to let go.
There was a time I wondered if I was a good enough musician. If people enjoyed or “got” what I did. It was pressure on myself that was not at all constructive.
Since I began to lead worship I’ve learned that it’s not me I’m called to bring attention to but the One who is Perfect. What a load off of my shoulders! Now when I play and sing, all of the attention is on Him and I’m just a tool or a guide pointing toward him with the skills He’s given me. It’s all about Him and He’s already Perfect so the pressure is off and I can play without worrying what others think. Praise the Lord!
Something I just learned about recently is the Navajo art where the artisan would intentionally place a flaw to demonstrate that they were human. The flaw was believed to be a place where either evil spirits exited the art or where the Great Spirit would enter the art.
In the manufacturing plant I administer, we have quality standards. These serve two purposes. First is to guarantee a level of quality that customers should expect. It also serves to limit the level of quality we need to invest in so we keep the cost at an acceptable level.
Even pagans know that humans aren’t perfect. “Giving God our best” should entail an understanding that our best will never be perfect. This should free us from the fruits of our labors so that God can be known through his grace in accepting our humble offerings. Otherwise, the message is that everything depends on us and we are to be glorified for getting it right.
I have a lot of friends who need to hear this. By the way, u miscapitalized “over” in the fourth paragraph.
Nathan, spoken like a true perfectionist! Thanks for letting me know.
Great thoughts and encouragement. It can be hard to find the balance between giving God our best and taking it to a point where it becomes unhealthy. It’s something we should all wrestle with and examine our hearts.
Thank you for this. I most definitely needed to read this and be reminded of these truths today! God bless you
Another great article that every worship leader could benefit from.
I’m pondering your last one I read where you shared about getting “lost in His presence” when you were singing scripture based songs focused on HIM. This leads me to the simple truth that perfectionism leaves no room for HIM TO BE ON THE THRONE. Most people caught in this trap do A LOT OF talking about THEIR NEW SONGS, NEW bla bla bla bla bla…King David ALWAYS gave God credit for the plans he sought to be able to win a war, and the blessings he had. He even stated that everything that had a purpose because of God! So, it’s a bit baffling when musicians, artists, singers get caught up “in themselves and their ways and means” when humility is the greatest strength a servant of God can live out and teach. It is radiant and strong and raises one up to be ALL THAT YOU ARE OR WERE EVER DESTINED TO BE.
Perfectionism will ALWAYS NEED TO BE FED with PRIDE. Scripture says pride comes before destruction. So maybe some more wisdom, humility and exaltation of Christ who ALONE DESERVES THE GLORY will weed out the self servers and call forth from the fields ALL THE David’s who are willing to cry out: Is there not a cause?
TO GOD BE THE GLORY, NOW AND ALWAYS! :-)
Thank You for this Bob. For me, as I am about to finish up my first year leading a congregation, this is refreshing to read for my self deprecating perfectionism. God Bless.
While the extremities of seeking perfectionism are easier to describe (as described in the article), i find the “tipping point” between doing our best and being perfectionist harder to identify!
At best, i would define one as self-seeking in nature (perfectionism), where individually perceived and valued standards are what drives the person to do what he/she does. Naturally, those expectations often spill over to be imposed on others.
Doing our best seem to imply being excellent to the extent that God demands. Col 3:23-24 comes to mind quickly as a guide and motivation to the servant who seeks to excel in what he or she does.
Oh, and Bob, now that the worshipGod conference is headed to the UK, would bringing the conference and workshops to Asia be a ministry priority at the moment? :)
Thank you, Bob.
I confess I have pleaded the perfectionist argument so many times in my life. It grieves me to think of how many things were not accomplished because of my standards and my lack of trust. I appreciate this word from the Lord. I have repented. I am praying for the grace to fully surrender to the next thing that the Lord calls me to do. The only desire of my heart is that He will be perfectly visible to whoever comes in contact with what He is calling me to do.
Thank you so much!
Thnks for this! I have dealing with this for a while. Excellence vs. perfectionism… Lord help me… its such a delusion… and I was always disappointed in everything… I’m working on it… My excellent is different than yours… as your is from mine… What does excellent look like as a team?
Thank your for this open forum.