Guilt Trip: In Search of Perfection

Guilt. I can’t seem to escape it. I’m not talking about shame, the sense of sorrow and regret that comes with specific wrongdoing. No, I’m talking about, in the words of Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : morbid self-reproach often manifest in marked preoccupation with the moral correctness of one’s behavior.” (A tip of the hat to my mother/English teacher for forcing us to write all those definition compositions.) In other words, I’m constantly pursued by a sense of culpability…even when I’m doing the right thing.

Example: Right now I’m writing this post, having just finished loading and starting the dishwasher, doing some much-needed photo editing work in preparation for a project, and getting lunch for the kids. I should be enjoying this short-lived bubble of peace while both children eat and I don’t have to nurse anyone, change a diaper, or field a thousand questions. But no, even though writing is my most fulfilling personal indulgence (maybe because?), I can’t truly enjoy the moment. Instead, the back of my brain is filled with a jangle of accusations. You should be finishing that tablecloth you started for the Christmas village table. Aaron’s gifts aren’t wrapped yet. The bathroom mirrors are still smudged. Why haven’t you cleaned that smear on the wall next to the high chair yet?

Even when what I’m doing is a useful chore, I’m followed by the guilt. It’s like a persistent toddler clinging to my leg, unreasonable and impossible to nudge away. Did I choose to spend some time hanging clean clothes in closets? The guilt tugs — “What about the baby clothes you still haven’t finished organizing?” Maybe I walk down the lane to retrieve the trash bins — “But look at the weeds in that garden bed! What is WRONG with you?” If I’m not careful, the million demands, each choice accompanied by anxiety about all the other undone things that I didn’t choose, can become so overwhelming that I retreat, usually into a book. Then I simply don’t finish any of it.

If possible, it was even worse when I was teaching, before I put that on hold to focus on being a mom. For one thing, I was responsible for twenty-five or thirty people, and responsible TO even more. For another thing, every choice I made to accomplish something meant that I was neglecting not just other tasks, but other people. If I spent six hours scoring my students’ writing assessments on a 6-point rubric and entering their scores into a spreadsheet that calculated their progress from the last time I did this same activity, that was six hours that I wasn’t spending with my son and husband. If, on the other hand, I spent just half an hour grading spelling tests and math timed tests and then went for a snowy walk with my family, that walk was two hours I wasn’t using to plan the next week’s lessons. There was no winning. Ever.

I’m sure that my ADHD is in part to blame for the constant awareness of ALL THE THINGS! that need to be done. But there’s more to it than that, and today I’m going to venture into the dangerous land of theology to talk about that extra dimension of anxiety and guilt. The more I think about it, the more I believe this needs to be said.

You see, I grew up in a highly religious setting, in one of a network of Christian communes, known as the Move, scattered across North America (there are a couple on other continents, as well). Some of this religious upbringing was beneficial; some, not. I’m thinking of two particular doctrines that are a common thread throughout all the groups and, I think through other fundamentalist-type churches as well: the doctrine of perfection, and the doctrine of death to self.

Perfection. It sounds so innocuous. So desirable. To the devout, the lure of being perfect in God’s eyes might be irresistible. It sounds so … well, so godly. It sounds like a worthy pursuit. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” said Jesus (Matthew 5:48), and it’s hard to argue with that. Those living in the Move, and perhaps those in similar churches, hear the message preached regularly. I heard it more times than I could count as I grew up. Here are the words of one of the church’s leaders, Buddy Cobb, taken from the same Wikipedia page I linked to above: “Therefore, what are you saved by? His life! What are you saved from by His life? Saved from living your own life; and when you live your own life you are always living in sin.” The idea is that every single aspect of a life ought to be given over to the pursuit of God; one ought to be entirely immersed in God, leaving nothing of the original sinful human.

It might be hard to see how embracing a doctrine of perfection could be harmful. But I’m here to say clearly and loudly, though with love and apologies to my family, that it is a poison. It creeps into every aspect of an otherwise healthy life, tainting good and pure choices with fear. Fear that this activity does not bring sufficient glory to God. Fear that what I’m doing might be too self-celebratory, too lacking in the edification of the spirit. Fear that the new skirt that looked so appropriate in the dressing room might be a fraction of an inch too short for the high standards of modesty, that my friendship with someone might override my “relationship with God,” that my pleasure in a school assignment done well might be a source of sinful pride. Once you become convinced that God demands absolute perfection, every action comes under scrutiny lest an accidental sin slip past, darkening your soul with a stain that must be scrubbed out through prayer and invoking of Jesus’ blood. Every choice has to be held up to the light and examined: Could I be doing something more godly, more useful, less selfish? The fear becomes all-consuming, blotting out the joy of a well-lived life.

But here’s the thing: This is not the life that Jesus lived. Jesus did not second-guess his every action. Nor did he recommend that his followers do so. He preached compassion, kindness, and living a life of purposeful goodness. Here is the context of the “Be perfect” command: Rather than adhering scrupulously to the law passed down over the course of two thousand years from Moses, Jesus asked his followers to fulfill the spirit of that law. Instead of being satisfied with refraining from murdering, his followers were told to not even insult another person. If an enemy sues you for your coat, give them your shirt also; if someone hits you in the face, offer them the other side to hit as well. Love your enemies. Be peacemakers. The whole point is not to live less of a life, but to live more. It isn’t about being restrained by a series of religious prohibitions; it is about accomplishing the original purpose of the law, to be guided toward God. Yes, Jesus said we ought to be perfect. And when, like a well-brought-up church-school student, we check Strong’s Concordance to see what the word “perfect” originally meant, we see that it means brought to its end, finished, complete, mature. Jesus was telling his followers that they should be living to fulfill their potential. I’m sorry, but Jesus did not once tell his followers to stop making their own decisions. Jesus did not say that living your own life is sin. That is a twisting and a perversion of what should have been a freeing message.

It’s especially damaging when combined with a second doctrine, that of “death to self.” This doctrine explains that the human self is miserably sinful. The only way to achieve rightness with God is by constantly denying oneself. A good rule of thumb when adhering to this doctrine is that if you like something, it’s probably your “flesh,” or human nature, guiding your desire, and you should quickly abandon it and go read your Bible for awhile. Of course, it’s a bit problematic if you happen to be a teenaged girl reading The Message, a uniquely down-to-earth and clear translation of the Bible, and you stumble upon the Song of Solomon. What could be more spiritual than reading the Bible? And what could be more fleshly than this beautiful and erotic love poem? That’s a dilemma, for sure. Anyway, the idea here is that to be perfect, we must deny ourselves. Constantly.

If you take these two doctrines seriously, you end up starving your soul of the good and beautiful things that God put into this world for our enjoyment. You like chocolate cake? Go on a chocolate fast! Feel like lingering outside to watch a lovely sunset? How trivial! Go wash the dishes and pray for stronger commitment to God! Have eyes for that cute boy? Pray all night for purity of mind. Enjoy a good romance novel? Better burn those books…No, who am I kidding, just tuck them under that loose floorboard, you can writhe in miserable contrition tomorrow when you’re done reading the last one. My point? We aren’t meant to be starved of earthly enjoyment. God did not create the earth as one giant temptation, to see how long we could go before giving in and enjoying something. I find it hard to understand how some Christian sects ever came to embrace that doctrine, considering that our founder (I’m talking about Jesus) was known for being a “wine-bibber,” enjoying a good party, and being frequently found in the company of harlots and other people of low repute. But somehow they did. I grew up being told routinely that all personal desires were wrong, and that God demanded utter perfection from me.

I know my mother will protest that she didn’t teach me this, and she’s right. My mother is an excellent example of a person who takes all this with a great big grain of salt. My parents don’t live a life of constant self-denial, nor do they fret endlessly over whether each choice they make is godly. They just live. But, as I tell them, when a child is raised communally, parents are only one source of input. When you attend three to four devotional times per day, two or three church services per week, and Scripture-infused classes at school, your parents’ practical example fades into the background and is overwhelmed by the desire to live up to all that goodness you’re bombarded with throughout the day. I know, logically, that most people, even in The Move, don’t actually take the dual messages of perfection and death to self literally or even all that seriously. If you ever stop in to the farm for breakfast when the world’s best Danish pastries are being served (crisp, light, melt-in-your mouth deliciousness), you’ll know that self-denial is not a big part of everyday life. But that doesn’t mean that the messages aren’t damaging. They are. For someone who’s grown up immersed in those messages, they’re inescapable. They are part of the blueprint of my brain. They’ve imbued my soul with a persistent stain of guilt that no amount of rightdoing will eradicate.

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m responsible for my perception of the teachings, for my own internalization of them, and for my inability to shake loose from the effects. I’m not out to point fingers of blame or to minimize my own culpability here. I am here to ask that we carefully consider the end results of teaching people that one’s own desires are wrong simply by virtue of being their own desires; that God demands literal perfection and absolute freedom from sin; and that the only way to achieve perfection is to sacrifice individuality on the altar of God’s will. If the logical consummation of following a doctrine is a life tormented by anxiety and formless guilt, then there’s something wrong with that teaching. It’s time to stop systematically telling children that the only way to please God is to reject everything that makes them happy.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons