The words in the second half of this sentence will likely induce a little laughter in those who know me well, but the truth is that I’ve never seen myself as a perfectionist.
To me, perfectionism is not being okay with getting a 98% on a test, whereas I have always been fine with whatever gets me an A, even if that score is less than 100. To me, perfectionists keep a clean room, and a clean car, and a clean lap when they’re eating. I am messy in all of these areas, and pretty much clumsy in general. I do need to be seen as capable, as among the best at work or school, but I’ve never been conscious of needing to be seen as actually perfect. “Perfect”, to me, has never felt achievable.
That said, as an Evangelical Christian, I was also never okay with actually needing grace. I’m not sure how many of us truly were, or are. Yes, the whole religion--or vague-ish sect, if we’re talking specifically about Evangelical theology--is based on our fundamental need for God’s saving grace. “Saving” in the literal sense, of course, for without it none of us is capable of being good enough to earn entry into Heaven. And yet I was also regularly bombarded with intense guilt trips about how my sins either angered God, broke God’s heart, or, my personal favorite, nailed Jesus to the cross one more time.
It was a strange dichotomy: I knew I wasn’t capable of being perfect, but it seemed like I wasn’t allowed to mess up, either. No matter how many times I was reassured of God’s unconditional love, the message was belied by a very vocal focus on all we could possibly be doing wrong, and making sure we were constantly asking for forgiveness, which was apparently a necessary part of the “unconditional love” equation.
Somewhere along the way, probably very early on, my goal became to need as little of God’s grace as possible. I was not conscious of this, either; I just didn’t want to feel bad. I didn’t want to carry the shame of needing grace at all, and it was shameful to be a messed up human in the Christian church. On the other hand, if you were a good disciple (no premarital sex, no law-breaking, no cussing, etc., etc.) you were commended and thoroughly accepted by the group. Over time, never having to apologize became my highest priority. Of course, being raised female I was apologizing right and left for every silly little thing, but that was more socialized manners than real repentance--and, in fact, being willing to say “I’m sorry” for things that didn’t actually require an apology was a pretty effective way of keeping myself in good standing with the world.
I never wanted to owe anyone anything, because I had never learned that it was possible for people to still love me if I wasn’t getting things right. I was too scared to take the risk of finding out. I never learned that my imperfections actually weren’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, and that, in general, people are understanding of a lot. Basically, I never learned that it was okay for me to screw up. I had no idea that I had value beyond being dependable. To this day, I still struggle to believe that I do.
I wasn’t until I left Evangelicalism, and Christianity on the whole--until I got out into the real world, that is--that I noticed that plenty of people were living lives that depended on others’ being okay with their flaws and annoying habits. People were saying mean things sometimes, and missing things at work sometimes, and making selfish decisions sometimes, and they weren’t pariahs; they just had to be okay with needing their friends and family and co-workers to forgive them, and they had to be assuming, on a certain level, for the sake of getting on with life, that they needn’t be perpetually ashamed of being less than good.
One day it dawned on me: I, as a Christian, was so much less accepting of grace and so much less willing to rely on it than these heathens I'd been taught were living in perpetual terror of dying unredeemed. I was the one living in terror, despite having a worldview in which the joy of my salvation was supposed to be my greatest strength.
How pathetically ironic, right? Even worse, how hypocritical. But it wasn’t my fault, I don’t think. Forget whatever loving acceptance your local congregation is pitching on its church sign. The dark truth is that those of us who grow up in conservative communities are taught not to be okay with being less than pure. We are shamed. The pain and sorrow and weight of Jesus’s crucifixion is handed over as our burden to bear, regardless of how antithetical that seems to the whole point of God’s sacrifice in the first place.
The truth needs to be told: we weren’t offered unconditional grace. And we were bullied into being the enemies of ourselves. We were taught to self-scrutinize without mercy, to dig around for all the manifestations of our inherent evil. We were taught that we were not lovable unless we earned that love. And the only way to earn that love was to never screw up.
But here’s the thing, and here’s my reason for writing about it at all--it’s a lie. I want to tell you, fellow raised-Evangelicals, that I jumped the fence and found a place where folks know that nobody’s perfect, and they think it’s ridiculous to expect anybody to be. Where as long as everybody’s allowed to make a mistake now and then, and as long as you’re willing to learn from it and apologize, it’s all good. It’s called ‘not Church’. It’ll take a while to unlearn all the bad habits, maybe even the rest of your life. That’s okay, though. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “We’re all mad here.”