I don’t know about you, but I do not like doing things at which I am not very good. Sure, I’ve heard all the same trite sayings you probably have heard, such as: “You have only failed when you have failed to try.” But somehow these quotes don’t make me feel like being any more daring. All I think when I hear them is “Blah. Blah. Blah.” People can extol the virtues of failure all they want, but the truth of the matter is that failure hurts. A lot.
On the other hand, doing things successfully makes my heart sing. When I was in school, nothing looked as beautiful to me as a big red “A” on a paper or test. Even now, I like for things to be done “right,” and when I see someone doing something “righter” than I can (which is not unusual) it’s easy for me to put myself down.
I am not sure where I got this drive toward perfectionism, but I know it didn’t help that I memorized Matthew 5:48 before I understood the difference between literal and figurative language. In this verse, Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I understood this verse to mean that I was supposed to do things right—all the time. From being a good girl to a good student, I knew that Jesus expected me to aim higher than high.
As I matured as a student of the Bible, I began to understand Matthew 5:48 a little differently. Context helps. In the preceding verses, Jesus challenges his followers to love their enemies. Jesus knows his disciples cannot be perfect, but he does expect them (and us) to imitate the perfection of God’s all-embracing love as best we can. Jesus’ strong challenge to practice perfect love must be balanced with a deep and sure knowledge that God’s love is freely given. Salvation really is by grace.
A couple of years ago, I came across this powerful quote from Anne Lamott: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” Since reading that quote, I have been trying to go a little easier on myself and quiet the harsh criticisms of the “Perfecter.” Not long ago I decided to take things one step further and do something that would give me lots of opportunities to face my fears of failure. I would learn to play a sport.
I have never had much eye-hand coordination, so all of my life I’ve avoided sports like Charlie Brown’s Pig Pen avoids baths. Lately, though, my husband Arty has been teaching me the art of softball. I am now the proud owner of a Rawlings leather glove that has pink stitching, and I can even catch a softball with my lovely glove—sometimes. I can also make contact with the ball when I’m up at bat, although during this part of my tutoring sessions Casper, our little Maltese, has to take refuge inside since where the ball will go when I hit it is totally up for grabs.
Anne Lamott also said, “Perfection is shallow, unreal, and fatally uninteresting.” If this is true, then I am one deep, real, and enlivening-ly interesting ball player. I “fail” a great deal during practice sessions, but I also laugh a lot. I am enjoying where I am and looking forward to where I might go—not just in playing softball but also in living life. It may seem silly to think that softball could be a spiritual discipline, but for me, for now, it surely is.
Amy Finkelberg is associate pastor for adults, Northminster Baptist Church, Jackson, Mississippi.