Before I start my series on habits, I wanted to take a post to address the habit that you must break first if you want to form any truly life-giving and fruitful habits in the future. This is a little bit of my story; maybe it’s part of yours too.
I have always been a creature of routine and habit. Even as young as seven years old I remember making little schedules for myself and my days, deciding ahead of time what I was going to do or not do, and when I would do those things. Much of this was fueled by my painful addiction to perfectionism, and performance for the sake of pleasing others. And as good as it sometimes looked from the outside, ultimately it wasn’t life giving or fruitful.
For the first few years of our marriage, when my problem with perfectionism was becoming more and more obvious (to me) by the day, I cleaned the way I had always cleaned. I cleaned angry. I cleaned when I felt out of control and needed to “restore order” to my world. I cleaned when I felt like I had failed in some way, because I viewed it as a form of “penance” by which I could eventually acquit myself of whatever shortcoming I had discovered. Even though I would have said I was doing it for my husband, the truth is that I was doing it for myself. For pride. For an illusion of control. For the demanding voice in my head. Maybe you know the one I’m talking about.
Fast-forward to a few years ago: I was a young mother and the illusion of my ability to achieve perfection had well and truly shattered around me. I was in tumult, but it was a ruthless grace. I remember sitting at my kitchen table when I realized for the first time, the idolatry of my perfectionism. That I was more concerned about maintaining my own opinion of myself, than I was with God’s opinion of me. That I had spent the majority of my life worshiping at the altar of the opinions of myself or of those around me. I cared more about what those voices were saying than the voice of my Lord and King Jesus.
A few months later, we found ourselves relocating to Milwaukee Wisconsin for my husband’s job. In the midst of moving trucks and dozens of boxes, I remember so clearly the moment I realized that I was going to have to find new motives for the things I had always done. I hadn’t been beating myself up lately, and so the apartment was a mess! I wasn’t angry cleaning anymore, so how was I going to get the cleaning done? I needed to reset new daily habits for myself, and this time, not out of worship to the idol of perfection, but out of worship to my Savior King Jesus. In this new city, with my husband and seven-month-old daughter; hundreds of miles away from my family and friends, God invited me to start fresh.
I can’t say that it wouldn’t have happened if we had stayed in Colorado that year, but God definitely used that time away from everything to bring me back home to myself. He brought to life in me things I hadn’t even realized were there. I learned to love cooking, and baking bread. I canned my own applesauce. I bought catalogs and planned my garden for when we would return home. I even started my first ever garden from seeds by the south facing window of my bedroom, dreaming of the day that I could plant them in my Colorado home. These were the passions that were free to awaken in me, as I was being continually freed from the tyrannical taunt of perfection. They were passions I had not been able to truly embrace before, because of my deadly fear of failure. I was learning to be okay with risk. To not see anything that didn’t come out perfectly as a waste. I learned to clean out of a heart of pure service for my family, instead of in selfish service of my own image.
It wasn’t all successful either. I killed several rosemary plants in that apartment. Our mint also met its untimely end there. I burned the skin on a roast chicken and nearly set off the fire alarm. The seeds that I started and kept alive on the journey home to Colorado, quickly fried in the heat of the sun when I left on the plastic lid two days after we moved into our rental house. I couldn’t ever figure out how to deal with the hard water that seemed determined to stain and cake itself on everything I cleaned, depriving me of ever having the bathrooms “spotless”.
Sometimes I would still get sucked down the vortex of perfectionistic self-loathing, but not as often. The grey cloud I had been living under for most of my life had lifted. It felt like I had been living breathing city smog, and now I was getting my first gulps of fresh air. With each breath, it became harder and harder to go back. And as my drive towards perfectionism decreased, I began to bloom.
So you might say that the first new habit I ever made in my mature adult life, was actually the first habit I broke.
It was to stop listening to the voice of self-censure that had been allowed to influence my every move up until that point. When I felt myself being tempted to go down the road of self-loathing, I would stop. Look at the situation and ask myself; “Does this in any way affect how Jesus feels about me?” And if the answer was “No,” because it was of course always a resounding, “no”, then I decided to dismiss the thoughts I was having. I would speak over myself often my choice to “Accept the Judge’s Verdict.” Meaning, because God has chosen to proclaim me innocent, through the blood of His own son on the cross, WHO AM I, to say that I am a more righteous judge than God, and that my justice is better than His? If He who alone is holy and above all things has proclaimed me innocent, I must accept it.It doesn’t matter if I feel like I deserve it. (Because, I don’t.) It doesn’t matter that I’m probably going to screw something up again tomorrow. (Because I will while I am still in this body, on this Earth.) What matters is that He has called me Beloved, and He has done everything necessary to rightfully proclaim me innocent.
And if you believe in Jesus, He has done the same for you.
I realize now that perfectionism, people-pleasing and comparison have very little to do with a deficiency in “self-esteem” as our humanistic culture would have us believe, but in fact it has everything to do with a lack of “God-esteem”. When we esteem Him, when we choose to believe that what He has said is true, we realize how changeable and shake-able anyone else’s opinion might be. As that wonderful hymn goes; “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.” (Edward Mote)
It is not the thing you do itself, but the heart behind the doing that counts. I remember the moment I first realized that I could be “serving God and others” and be totally sinning. Be doing it completely sinfully, with only wrong motives. It didn’t matter how it looked on the outside, because God cares about my heart. I realized what filthy rags my good works really were. My inner pharisee wailed. Despaired. I felt desolate, because that’s how it feels when the idols of wood you have carved yourself topple over. But this made way for the true light of the Gospel to break through.
If you are like me, even just a little bit, this blog may be attractive to you because it promises solutions. Maybe you want to be more fruitful, you want to live a fuller life, and you aren’t sure how to get there. Maybe you know me in real life and Satan has convinced you that somehow I’m doing something “better” than you, and so you are here reading hoping to glean some quick tips on “how-to-something-better.” But hear me when I say this; the first habit you need to make is not a habit of doing anything differently. It is a habit of thinking differently. It’s the habit of choosing to believe that what God has said about you is absolutely true.
Please don’t overlook this. Don’t long to skip on to the part with the tips and tricks. Sweet Sister, before you can make and build habits that build to a fruitful life, you need to break the habit of idolatry. Break the habit of listening to any voice, except for that of your Creator God. Choose to accept the judge’s verdict.
Even if you think that from the outside you look like you’ve got it all together. Like you’ve figured this thing out. Maybe your house is clean and your kids are obedient and you know how to make people like you. But inside you feel like you are slowly wasting away, and the exhaustion of maintaining this facade has you wondering how much longer you can hold up the mask.
Or maybe you are just the opposite. Maybe you live in wretched daily guilt for the fact that your house isn’t spotless. And maybe you feel like you are failing at work, or you are afraid to take that next step into something that you want, because you are afraid you will fail. Or maybe you are afraid that people will see you as lazy and incompetent because you avoid any situation that might trigger feelings of frustration or failure, and that includes figuring out how to keep house. Maybe you wear a mask of shame around, and your daily hope is that nobody asks you about it.
Here’s the truth that may bless you and scare you in equal measures: Jesus isn’t fooled by our taped-on fruit. He isn’t tricked by our attempts to generate the fruits of the Spirit by writing one on our mirror every week until we’ve mastered them all. (Ask me how I know…) And He isn’t intimidated by our lack of pursuing the things that we feel we shoulda/coulda/oughta do. He isn’t impressed by our Pharisaical righteousness, and He never turns away from our desperate neediness. He knows just how to meet each one of us in the middle of our mess; and He calls you Beloved.
Only when we break the habits that have kept us enslaved, will we be able to fully embrace the new habits that will in turn cultivate more fruit in our lives. Because God isn’t so concerned about what we do on the outside, but with what is in our hearts. And though maybe you have known the truth of that for sometime, maybe you haven’t really believed it until now. Maybe it hasn’t hit you this way before. Maybe you didn’t realize that the person believing lies is you.
Now that I am on the other side of these revelations, I realize how much freedom I was missing out on before. How much joy. How much life. I want this for you, sweet sister. Whoever you are, wherever you are at. Whatever pit of despair you have found yourself in today. And the truth is that it can be yours. Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said “the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) I absolutely believe that the Gospel has the power to break the chains of bondage, and for some of us those chains are invisible, and for some of us, the cage has been so gilded that we didn’t realize we were trapped to begin with. But how can such a “positive” trait as being a perfectionist, such a simple desire as the desire to be liked by others, actually be a road to devastation and destruction? If you’ve lived like this for any length of time, I think you know the answer.
Fruitfulness does not require perfection; in fact it necessitates the opposite. You aren’t going to find some really ripe peach tree growing in the center of a sterile operating room. Perfection is sterility after all, it’s not fruitfulness. It’s order without any of the ordered disorder that leads to a beautiful full life. Life is so much more wild and organic than that. There is dirt and sunshine; bacteria and worms. Not every single insect should be eliminated; not every leaf will be perfectly healthy all at once. You might have to add some compost or some manure to get things going. There might be some pruning to do. Rain is necessary and good. This is life.
God wants to set you free. To free you up to live the kind of fruitful life you were always made for. You don’t have to be content with the constant hum of anxiety. You don’t always have to wear the masks forced upon you by fear, or by shame. If this is your story, even in part, please know that I am praying for you. That I am for you.
Drop me a line in the comments, or shoot me an email if there is some way I can serve you better in this area. If this post resonated with you in anyway, then you are who I am writing this for. This space on the internet is for you and me both. Recovering perfectionists, trading the scarcity of the pursuit of perfection for the abundance of a real and fruitful life in Christ. Building new habits that cultivate a fruitful life on the firm foundation of faith by grace alone.