Finding Grace: Overcoming the Perfectionism Trap

Looking over my son that night, I couldn’t find any bumps or bruises. I searched as thoroughly as I could amidst the ear-piercing shrieks of pain that elevated my blood pressure to dangerous levels. I tried to replay the event in my mind, to calculate exactly in what position, and at what angle, and with what velocity the two-year-old had hit the ground like an X-games analyst would do after an athlete missed a landing.

Vlastimil Koutecky (CC)

One thing you should know about Abram is his propensity to destroy things. He takes special delight in ripping, tearing, throwing, popping or otherwise disintegrating whatever’s in his path. He’s perhaps the cutest child alive and has probably the best temperament of any of our four children as a toddler, but you can’t take your eye off of him for even one minute without discovering he has shredded another office curtain, dumped juice on the carpet, or yanked a wad of hair from his sister’s unsuspecting scalp.

Once at eighteen months he managed to toddle up to the dining table, wrap his stubby cheese puff laced fingers around a dining chair, and pull it away from the table. Then he mounted the seat, proudly surveying the landscape of the room from his four foot elevation. Unsatisfied with his feat, he turned 180 degrees towards the table, and, hoisting his right leg onto the place normally reserved for plates and elbows defied gravity and the odds to roll on top. Once aboard, he crawled to center where an unassuming aluminum can of orange soda rested. It was at this point that I walked into the room, but it was too late. Did he want to drink the soda? Nope. He wasn’t thirsty. He’d rather flip it upside down to watch the orange waterfall effect. 

Ah kids do the darndest things.

Just two days ago Georgia came to say, “Mom needs you.” And I found Abe repeatedly flushing the toilet, and therefore scalding Katie while in the shower.

I tell you all of this only to tell you that for the first time in our parenting lives, we installed a baby gate. None of the other littles pushed physical boundaries like this one. My other two boys nicknamed him “Abe the Destroyer."

But the gate’s not really a gate at all. It’s a storage bench we bought a few years ago to store shoes (and later, toys). It’s heavy enough that Abe can’t move it, and tall enough that he can’t mount it. The bench provides a barrier between the living area and the bedrooms. But the effectiveness of the bench is also its downside: it’s inconvenient. Traveling between sections of the house is like a camel going through the eye of the needle. Sometimes I pretend its a hurdle and I’m at Athens, leaping across to the finish line. If you’re heading from the bedroom area to the living area you can step on the seat of the bench then step down into the hallway leading to the living room.

On the night of the fall I was finishing up a load of laundry when Abe came crying for me. He walked up to the edge of the bench, raised his arms, and screamed “Daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy!” I picked him up and sat him down in the prohibited zone while I matched the remaining few pairs of socks. While I did that, he picked up some soiled spiderman underwear and threw them into the basket filled with clean, newly folded laundry—his version of helping. Then he wandered into his brothers’ room to see what he could break.

I finished my task and retrieved the munchkin, satisfied on a job well done (dirty underwear and all). Walking back to the kitchen to get a drink, with Abe in arms, I planted my left foot on the seat of the bench to hop over the barrier like I’d done a thousand times before. Abe likes when I jump a bit so that he gets the effect of a mini carnival ride. It always makes him laugh. But as I planted my socked foot, it immediately gave out as if I had attempted a 40-yard-dash on ice in rubber-soled sneakers. My momentum carried me forward over the edge, and there was nothing to brace our fall. My shin hit the top of the bench and in those precious few milliseconds I pondered what to do with Abram. I didn’t have time to rotate my body so he’d land on me, but at our current trajectory I would most definitely land on him. So, out of options, I did the only thing I could think to do. At the last possible moment, inches from impact, I tossed him. I threw him ahead of me so at the very least, I wouldn’t fall on top of him. Cue the ear-piercing pain-filled shrieks.

The Relief of Imperfection

While reading Romans a few months ago, I came across a verse you might know. In the third chapter at the twenty-third verse resides the following phrase, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” You’ve heard it, right?

I’ve heard it so many times, I don’t really hear it anymore. It is kind of like those safety lectures they give on airplanes. Once you’ve heard it a few times, it’s impossible to listen to their spiel anymore. Your brain tunes it out.

For whatever reason, on this particular day, a certain word in verse twenty-three stood out to me. “Fall.” You see the first part of the verse uses the past tense, “have sinned.” (Actually it’s Present Perfect, but I’m not going to go all grammarly on you.) We all have sinned in the past. But the word, “fall" is not past. It’s present. All presently fall short of the glory of God—even those who've already turned to Christ.

While Abe is a destroyer, I am a perfectionist (which is kind of the same thing). I have these quixotic notions about how a picture should hang, how many words per day I should write, how often I should pray to God and for how long. And when a project or task doesn’t live up those notions, I feel bad about myself. I should be better. I should do better.

So reading this verse that day in that way was a Godsend. I felt relief wash over me. We all fall short of the glory of God. We all fall, no matter how many years we’ve been walking. No matter how many times we’ve jumped over the baby gate.

I’m not one who believes you can’t go a day without sinning, and I absolutely believe in sanctification. But the truth is, even the sanctified fall short of the glory of God. That’s why God is God and we are humans.

As kids and adults we memorize Romans 3:23, but I think we should pay more attention to the verse that follows: "All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” We can be redeemed from our sin, helped up from our falls through the redemption that Jesus offers. We all fall, but the question is how we respond to the fall. Do we turn to Christ for redemption?

Next time you trip and fall, do me a favor before you get back up. Look around you. Everyone else is on the ground too.

God doesn’t demand perfection, but rather a contrite and malleable heart. Coming to Him is not a cure-all for struggle—it’s the way for redemption.

Fortunately Abe’s fall wasn’t as hard as I thought, and he turned out to be just fine. Maybe my maneuver did the trick or, more likely, God was looking out for us.

He’s looking out for you spiritually too. So next time you fall, reach out to Him, and He’ll pick you up.

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