Picture this: while working in a childcare setting you sit down with a rambunctious four-year-old. He decides to pull out one of those puzzles where you stick a shape into its matching cutout. You feel a little uneasy about it because a lot of kids have trouble with this puzzle – will he be able to handle it? Surprisingly, he gets most of the pieces situated correctly on his first attempt, and you start to feel relieved. But, on the very last piece, the shape is upside down and he cannot figure out how to fix it for the life of him. In a state of “rage quitting,” he throws the puzzle across the room, declaring himself over it, refusing to try again.
As dramatic as this scene sounds, all of us suffer under the very same stressors. What is this force that moves us so? We may not (often) physically throw things across the room when life doesn’t fit neatly in the cutout of our expectations, but the same inner turmoil is present. There’s an emotional pandemic that leaves us trying to claw our way upward through life, well acquainted with a sense of isolation and shame when we get anything wrong. It’s the subtle, but powerful work of anxious perfectionism.
Anxious perfectionism fosters a pervasive lie within us: “If I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do it at all.” The phrase might come across as overly binary, and perhaps even childish, but we see variations of this innate idea all the time in others regardless of age. Hearing friends and people I work with identify and process this force in their experiences serves as a mirror to understanding my own.
I might argue anxious perfectionism is, in fact, a product of the fall. A product of the law. Rules and standards create expectations of perfection. I have valued the wisdom of a friend of mine on a similar topic: “Children are great listeners but terrible interpreters.” From an early age, we learn to guard our sense of self and our sense of pride closely. We pick up on little things here and there that reinforce two false, internal beliefs:
- What others think dictates who we are
- What we do dictates who we are
We start to enact perfectionistic tendencies early – just like our four-year-old friend who threw up the puzzle because he felt his failure – because if what we do impacts who we are then when we fail, we are failures. And our fragile, child hearts can’t handle the feelings we associate with failure. Unfortunately, this childlike fragility doesn’t dissolve when we become adults.
The pervasive nature of anxious perfectionism has gotten me wondering: if we do this in nearly every part of life, do we also do this in our reading of scripture? Do we try to perfect our scripture reading, and if it isn’t just right, do we stop altogether?
Let’s take me as a case in point. As a woman in what I would describe as the intermediate, maturing years of her faith (no longer a “baby Christian,” leading out in ministries, but not yet walking with the Lord longer than I haven’t), I have been through many phases of reading scripture and exposed to many different “correct” ways of reading it.
I went through my passionate phase: reading scripture all the time, hungry for more and more because the words of life were brand new to me, not having any theological clue, but relying on the Spirit to enlighten me. Too quickly, the “newness” of scripture wore off and my callous heart got bored. So, I started to learn there are actual tools for reading. Books on Christian living. There is even something called “Theology” and several subsets of theology within Theology. [Insert mind-blown emoji.]
I also learned how bad theology hurts people and I began to love learning and using new tools to glean as much as I can from the Bible. However, because of my sin that distorts beautiful things, these good, useful tools (to protect against this hurt) became rules. Consider a few of the following:
- Don’t do the blindfolded, finger-pointing approach where you open up the bible and pick a verse and start reading. A verse taken out of context is bad news.
- Don’t read the Bible emotionally. Jesus isn’t your boyfriend, and the bible isn’t a self-help book for you to get your daily pick-me-up.
- Do study the text in its historical context.
- Do consult commentaries, but do not only read commentaries, theological books, or Christian living books– you need to love Scripture the most.
And on and on. These rules, and more, have played on repeat in my mind. Then, I feel stuck. I don’t use any of them. I don’t even pick up my Bible sometimes because I fear if I choose one, I may be offending or not doing the other correctly. There’s a sense of worry that I will be wasting my time because I won’t actually encounter Jesus in my time reading because I think there is a “right way” for me to get to him. Further, both of the false internal beliefs spin out in a way that makes me question my sense of worth and value.
The first one, “what others think dictates who I am” proclaims: If I read and interpret using one of the wrong methods, I will be disappointing one of the people who taught me said tool, and if I disappoint one of these teachers, then I will be a disappointment! If I am a disappointment, then I am worthless.
Or the second internal belief that “what we do dictates who we are,” chimes in even louder: If I read and interpret using one of the wrong methods then I will be doing it wrong. And if I am doing it wrong, then I am incapable of doing it right, indicating I, myself, am incompetent and even inadequate.
So yes, even in reading scripture, I tend toward wanting to make myself right by what I do and of my own accord. I create new laws to achieve my desired end of being perfect. And perfectionism says, “you can’t do it wrong.” Then anxiety pulls the thread further: “Just don’t do it at all.”
Here is where Jesus brings a better word to anxious perfectionists like me.
After his resurrection, he appeared to his disciples and said to them, “These are the words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45, italics added). We could use every good and useful tool, read every theological powerhouse book under the sun, even earn a Master’s in Divinity, and yet still have a veil up to understanding the true meaning of the Bible. But, Christ himself is the Word, and his death tore the veil to the barrier of understanding scripture. He was torn on the cross for us, in order to mend our separation from God; and not only is the separation removed, but he actually walks towards us, just like he does the two guys getting this Bible lesson in Luke 24. He doesn’t hide behind the correct tools or interpretative rules, waiting for us to get it just right. He wants to be known and is actively revealing himself now through the Holy Spirit, just as he did to the two men on the road 2,000 years ago.
When we trust in Jesus and not our perfected reading of scripture, our approach to reading the Word might even manifest itself in surprising ways. In this season of my life, one of the ways Christ has been meeting with me and healing my anxious perfectionism is through The Message (a loose paraphrase of the Bible written by Eugene Peterson). The Message has been a balm to my hard heart and has helped my mom-brain settle and receive Christ. While far from perfect, and not even considered a legitimate translation, it has helped me experience the gospel and move away from simply having a cognitive understanding to having an affective, heart understanding.
If you’re in a season of drought from reading the Bible due to having too many tools in the tool belt, or perhaps don’t feel equipped with any tools at all and don’t know where to begin, hear this: you don’t need to read the Bible perfectly. Take my word for it. My contribution to Bible reading is anxious perfectionism. But the gospel tells me I’m not the only one present when I open up these pages. Jesus is alive and his non-anxious presence casts out fear through blood-bought love. He desires to be known, therefore, you don’t need to employ every tool you’ve ever learned every time you open the Bible. Instead, take up and read knowing that the veil has been torn. He is our rest, even when it comes to reading the Bible.