Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Thoughts on Earthly Perfection, Part Three

Part One
Part Two

So is earthly perfection worth striving for?

Of course we all know that it’s an impossible goal. On earth, the law of entropy is always at work. Moth and rust corrupt; whatever we do is soon undone.

So why try, right?

Probably only the truly depressed among us would agree with that statement, however. Most of us have a God-given longing for order and beauty—for perfection, even--in our homes and in our souls. We willingly put forth great effort, day after day, to create little spaces--little moments of near-perfection--for ourselves and for our families, short-lived though they may be. And many of us find that our daily efforts are rewarded: We’re able to find things, our kids take over chores we’ve helped them learn, we have more peace.

But for some of us, how easily that good desire can become twisted into an irrational craving for perfection—and the sense of order and control that it may bring us. And most of us like to be in control. As a friend of mine says, “We want what we want when we want it.”

It’s human nature, it’s understandable, and there is a balance to be found. We’d like that floor to stay clean because we don’t want to wash it again real soon: Understandable. But it’s irrational, isn’t it, to expect it to stay clean forever? Naturally, we teach our families to remove or wipe off muddy shoes before they come in the house. But if they forget?

At the point where things go wrong, our reactions are telling. We all know the wrong responses—anger, frustration, blame, and overreaction. We’re too hard on our families, and then later, too hard on ourselves.

What’s missing is grace. We need grace to accept our earthly circumstances, in which imperfection is inevitable. Things get dirty, they break, they rust, they get lost. We lose our tempers, we yell at our kids, we argue with our spouses. If we accept—no, EXPECT--that these things will happen, how much more graciously we can live. But we experience a frustrating tension: On the one hand we strive for order and beauty; on the other, we must accept that they will not last.

It’s a lot like the tension we experience regarding our own souls. Our characters will always be deficient; our sin natures will always have a hold on us, this side of heaven. Yet is it a fruitless pursuit to seek to be more like our Lord? No, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are produced as we do! And though the journey begins on earth, this quest for perfection is one that will be satisfied one day in heaven.

Knowing we will fail and acknowledging our failures are part of a perfect response to our own imperfections:

"That man is perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of his feelings and desires, without a glow or aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects and wandering forgetfulness, and say to him, 'Thou art my refuge.' " (George MacDonald)

I am not writing as one who has mastered this tension, but as one who so often fails to find the balance between high expectations--(Aim at nothing and you'll hit it every time, right?)--and grace when I and others fall short. But it's sinking in to me lately that it's hard to give grace to others when I so infrequently receive it for myself. I push and push myself and my family...but perhaps the starting point needs to originate not with my good goals, but with daily--no, hourly--refuge in God's grace.

I don't even know what this looks like for sure. Prayer, surely, takes me there; so does surrender of my goals to His on a regular basis. I need to regularly remind myself that "Who I am is more important than what I do." I must be careful not to get so caught up in task mode that I ignore relationship--something I struggle with, especially at stressful times like these. (We're moving in under three weeks!)

Yesterday morning I sat down with my older children and I asked for their forgiveness. Because I'm under great stress right now, I've been extra-impatient and demanding, I told them. I told them I hoped I could change and be different--that I want to--but I couldn't promise it. I asked them for grace to bear with me for a few more weeks, to forgive me as needed, to please take more responsibility for their schoolwork and chores as they can.

I know they're going to continue to behave childishly and irresponsibly. I know I'm going to continue to behave badly. But I'm drawing nearer, through all this, to a fount of grace. In this world of imperfection and unmet expectations, there is a refuge for my disappointed heart that is just a prayer away. In its shelter, the disappointment in myself and others is acknowledged--and dissolved. And when I leave that place, I find that my grip on my necessary expectations has been loosened. Having received grace, I am better prepared to extend it.

Now if I can just remember, in my busy-ness, to visit that place often.


Amy @ Experience Imagination said...

Thank you.

Emily said...

Boy can I relate to what you've written here... thank you. I will read it again and let the truth of it sink in deeper.

Tracy B. said...

Thank you for psoting this message, this week. I am reading a book about grace right now, and your message could not have come at a more opportune time. No coincidence, I am sure.

Kirsten said...

Bless you, Jeannie, for these 3 columns! Good words for me to live by as I'm in the midst of scrambling to get final papers written this week. Praying for your move...

_kirsten guidero

Annie said...

Amen, and thank you for these posts! I think I'll turn off the computer and go seek a little refuge in prayer for my grace-deficient self! I'm praying for your packing.

hopeinbrazil said...

Thank you for the good thoughts.