This past Christmas I decided to get a real tree.
I'd grown tired of the fake, plastic tree and thought a live
one would be just perfect. It would give the place an old-fashioned,
"Christmas-postcard" look. So I bundled up and drove out to
the country where a friend of mine owned an evergreen farm.
When I arrived, my friend, Matt, said, "I've
got just the tree for you." When I saw the first tree my smile
turned to a disappointed frown as I said, "It's too small."
He showed me another one to which I replied,
"Sorry, Matt, too tall."
"All right," he said, "how about this one?"
"Won't do," I said. "It's too wide."
We then passed another to which he said, "I
know, too skinny," to which I responded, "Hate to say it,
but yep." Finally, Matt had enough and said, "Mike, I'm glad
you came out here but, if you're looking for the perfect tree,
you're going to have to buy an artificial one because we don't
have any here." His words stopped me right in my tracks. In
the drive for perfection, for "just the right tree," things
had become so fake. I was concentrating more on the wrapping
outside than on the gift inside. Style had become more important
than substance. I proceeded to pick out a nice but imperfect
Yet isn't this what you see and hear every day?
In health and fashion magazines, the models have perfect bodies.
They are fit and trim, wear the latest clothes and have perfect
smiles. In sports, athletes are in pursuit of perfection whether
it be for an undefeated season, an errorless game or a new
world record in an event. Participation takes a backseat to
In school, students feel pushed to get a perfect
grade-point average. The pressure to get good grades can overshadow
the possibility of formulating new thoughts and ideas. Once
again, the result is more important than the process.
You live in a culture that is obsessed with
perfection, where failure is not an option. Yet, experience
tells you that mistakes are part of life.
In this Youth Update, we'll take a look
at this drive for perfection which affects all of us. You'll
be invited and challenged to see how you can help yourself
and others avoid the "perfectionist trap." We'll look at what
perfectionism says about our image of God and see, most importantly,
the way Jesus expressed perfectionand embraced imperfection.
The Snake Comes In
The focus on appearances is almost inescapable.
Everyone looks good on the beaches of Baywatch and
in nearly every one of the endless supply of exercise videos
which promise you can look like this, too. At the mall, you
feel a lot of pressure to have this color and this style for
this season, to have the logo T-shirts and the right shoes.
One student remarked, "I flip through magazines
and notice that every female has the same kind of hair, the
same body shape and the same perfect skin, It's all done to
look absolutely flawlessnot a hair out of place, not
a zit in sight. Disgusted, I throw the magazine on the floor
and flip on the TV. There I see commercials for makeup companies
trying to sell us their products so we can look beautiful,
glowing and happy."
For many, being good has taken a backseat to
looking good. The message that you hear is that if you're
not wearing the latest fashions, watching the coolest shows,
listening to the hippest music, driving the newest cars and
hanging out with the most popular people then something must
be wrong with you. You are less than who you should be and,
therefore, must change.
Though it sounds new, perfectionism has been
around for a long time. Think of the story of Adam and Eve
in Genesis. Their sin, the "original" one, could be called
a sin of perfectionism. Their desire was to be different than
they werethey weren't satisfied; they wanted to be somebody
other than themselves.
Perhaps the most powerful truth that comes out
of the biblical creation stories is that humanity, represented
by Adam and Eve, is made in the image and likeness of God
(Genesis 1:26-27). Yet, as you experience, sometimes it is
so hard to believe that we humans are like God. The stories
that you read in the newspaper and see on television seem
to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that humans are much too
error-prone and sinful to be reflections of God, it doesn't
seem to make sense.
Here's where the snake comes in. The snake picks
up on Adam and Eve's feelings of inadequacy and incompleteness
and appears to offer them a way out when it tells them to
eat the fruit and be like God (see Genesis 3:5).
The snake doesn't want them just to disobey
God by eating the fruit. The snake wants Adam and Eve to question
the very goodness of creation, the goodness of humanity. When
they accept the fruit which supposedly will make them "like
God," they are rejecting that as humans they are already made
in the image and likeness of God! This leads them to feel
that they have to become something other than themselves in
order to be truly like God.
This temptation is echoed in the thoughts of one
young adult; "I put pressure on myself to strive to be perfect.
When I am constantly seeing people who are what I think are
ideal or are in what I think to be ideal situations, I feel
the need to change who I am."
You've heard it before, but it just didn't seem
believable: Jesus loves you as you are! Jesus also tells you
that, as important as your body is, you are so much more than
a body. You are a whole person made up of body, mind and soul.
Like a magician, perfectionism tries to make one
see what is not really there or see a distortion of what is
there. As one person reminds us, though, "Being real is so
much better than being perfectbut fake."
Another sums up what we've been talking about when
she writes, "I have learned to accept the way that I am and
the way that I will always be. If I want to change I can,
but it shouldn't be because of other unrealistic ideals. More
importantly than becoming someone else I should be myself."
Recognizing that Jesus loves you as you are doesn't
mean that you should always stay the same. Sometimes Jesus
calls you to change so you can realize your potential and
become your very best self. That is what he asked of his disciples
and what he asks of you.
How Do You Love?
Recently pop singer Alanis Morissette wrote a song
entitled "Perfect." It contains the lyrics: "Sometimes is
never quite enough. If you're flawless, then you'll win my
love....Push a little farther now. That wasn't fast enough
to make us happy. We'll love you just the way you are if you're
In a similar vein, a student writes, "I am so stressed
out over school that sometimes getting enough sleep at night
is an impossible task. I have to pass scary tests, and I have
to get good grades or I flip out. I feel that I have to be
perfect to impress my parents."
Finally, there is an old legend about a great and
wise man. He was respected by all far and wide. One morning
while taking his usual walk he passed the village church and
seeing that no one was around, quietly entered and walked
up to the sanctuary. He prayed, "Jesus, please keep me from
ever disobeying you." No sooner had he said this than he heard
a voice say in reply, "My son, I want to grant all your
prayers. It is my greater pleasure to promise thateven
if you should disobey meyou will always know that I
have for you a very special love.
I'm sure that there have been times when you've
said to yourself, "If I make a mistake God (or my parents
or my teachers or my boyfriend or girlfriend or my best friend)
won't love me." You may have allowed yourself to think you
have to "earn" love by succeeding, by winning, by being the
best, rather than simply being yourself and doing as well
as you can. You don't mean it, but often you place conditions
on the relationships you're in with others: "As long as you
do this, I'll do that."
Jesus tells us that God loves us not so much because
of who we are or what we do but because of who God is. God
loves you unconditionally. God loves because God loves. It's
as simple as that. This love will always be there, in your
moments of success, but also in your moments of failure.
Naturally God wants you "to do the right thing,"
but God's love for you will remain even when you don't measure
up. The popular author Harold Kushner expresses this poetic
truth when he writes, "If God could not love flawed, imperfect
people, God would be very lonely, because imperfect people
are the only ones around."
There is still a part of us, however, that refuses
to acknowledge or to be satisfied with our limitations. Asking
for help is too often seen as a weakness. As a result, life
becomes a competition.
Many people fear that if they fail at something
or make a mistake they won't be accepted. Yes, doing good
is the ideal. But a mistake isn't necessarily a moral evil.
And even your human sinfulness becomes the very way that you
can experience the mercy and love that is God's forgiveness.
In the midst of pain and failure Jesus is there to bring healing.
However much you may want to avoid imperfection
and pain, there is no growth or maturity without suffering.
As you continue to discover, life is often a process of trial
and error where you learn not despite your mistakes, but because
Perhaps you've heard this saying: 'The only real
failure is the one from which we learn nothing." Perfectionism
tries to leave no room for failure which leaves no room for
growth. It denies the truth that there is an unfinished quality
to human life.
Jesus: Perfect God, Human Man
Was Jesus perfect? The answer depends on what you
mean by perfect. One definition of perfect states, "something
that is excellent or complete, beyond improvement." Another
definition reads, "without any flaws or shortcomings." As
one teenager observed, 'We can't even get a perfect definition
According to these definitions, Jesus was imperfectnot
a sinner, but a limited human being. For instance, in Luke's
Gospel you read, "Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor..."(2:52).
When asked when the end of the world would come, Jesus speaks
of signs but admits that "no one knows...but the Father
alone" (Matthew 24:36). In another place, after a healing,
Jesus asks, "Who touched me?" (Luke 8:45). In these passages,
Jesus is presented as someone who is fully human, someone
who doesn't have all the answers, someone who has to grow
and learn through experience.
As we realize when we think of Peter who denied
Jesus and Judas who betrayed him, Jesus was not perfect when
it came to choosing friends. We can all relate to that. In
his earthly life Jesus took the stairs of "gradual growth"
rather than the elevator of "instant perfection."
As God, though, Jesus was perfect. His perfection
can be summarized in the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta:
"God does not call us to be successful, but to be faithful."
Contrary to the ways of the world, Jesus' perfection is not
to be found in his successes but in his faithfulness.
Though Jesus faced pain and temptation, he never
wavered in living out the will of God in his life. Jesus always
said yes to God. Jesus always said yes to the call of service
and love. It is in this sense that Jesus is perfect. This
is our calling too.
You've probably heard the biblical citation, "So
be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew
5:48). Taken out of context it can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.
When Jesus says this, however, it is beneficial to read the
preceding lines of Scripture. There Jesus challenges his listeners
to love not just their neighbors. "Do not the pagans [those
who don't believe in God] do the same?" he asks. Here
Jesus explains that perfection lies in loving your enemies,
even praying for your persecutors.
Another place where the word "perfect"
is used is when the rich young man asks Jesus what he must
do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says to him, "If you
wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the
poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" (Matthew
From the perspective of Jesus, perfection is about
love and service, about letting go of the things that get
in the way of your following him. It doesn't have anything
to do with getting good grades every time or always being
in the winning team.
Perfectionism, as seen through the eyes of faith,
is about wholeness. It invites you to love and serve others
without concern for gain or notoriety, to accept and care
for all of God's people. At the same time, the path to wholeness,
or humanness, recognizes imperfection.
As you continue to be "in process" it
is good to know that God perseveres with you. God waits and
loves and calls us to respond to one another in the same way.
This Youth Update was critiqued by
Jason Kremer (18), Cherie Nagel (16), Rene Suchland (18),
Chad Topp (16) and Wayne Topp (17), all of Holy Redeemer Parish
in New Bremen, Ohio. Rose Meyer, director of religious education
and youth ministry, invited them to gather for pizza, to read
the manuscript, critique it and offer recommendations.