This is one of Lisa Dye’s first essays she wrote for us. Lisa is one of our iMonk writers who shares her life in a very real and vulnerable way. Because of this she touches hearts like none other.
Years ago, I remember hearing Derek Prince during a radio broadcast tell of a moment in his ministry when God revealed to him that his ideas of perfection were something other than divine. Prince, a somewhat decorous Englishman, was ministering with his wife in a remote tribal village when its people, mostly naked, broke into song and dance as an expression of thanksgiving to God. Initially, the event offended him. Surely God could not be pleased with such uncontrolled exuberance—especially unclad exuberance.
Nevertheless, time stood still for Prince as a flash of revelation flooded through him and he realized his ideas of Christian perfection, whether in modes of worship or anything else, were born out his culture rather than intimate fellowship with Perfection Himself. In that moment, Prince threw off his long-held cultural constraints and began to dance with abandon.
The story has made me re-evaluate my ideas on a fairly regular basis. Born a perfectionist in the traditional sense, I naturally enjoy having every t crossed and every i dotted. I like things black and white, neat and tidy, safe and secure in every sense. (I will even admit to initially coming to Christ out of a desire to be perfectly compliant rather than a realization of my profound destitution without Him.)
I could categorize my spiritual life into three phases thus far: a pagan era search, a Christian culture hop and finally, a panting and desire for Perfection Himself.
Starting even before an awareness of the need for salvation, I felt a longing. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NIV). Yes, the longing was for eternity, but also for the completeness I instinctively knew existed, but which eluded me. I was driven by some vague notion of perfect fellowship and place enjoyed in God’s original creation. Isn’t all of life a striving to revisit it? If there was a way to know God, I wanted to discover it. If there was a way to rise out of the pain and confusion of a broken, alcoholic home, I wanted to find it.
Since my search began at the ripe age of eleven, the details of my exploration are a bit colorless and uninteresting. I was limited by age, lack of funds, lack of freedom, lack of mobility and a certain lack of imagination that comes with maturity and opportunity. Nevertheless, I did my best to achieve and experience perfection by the means I thought available. I was a people pleaser. The happier I could make my unhappy parents, the better chance I thought I had of obtaining the prize of perfection.
Depending on age and circumstance, everyone I’ve known, almost without exception, has conducted a similar search. Sometimes the modes have been different. Occasionally, the heights or depths or lengths to which someone will go are breathtakingly astounding—sometimes breathtakingly alarming. Without making any judgment on the relative wisdom or foolishness of any of those activities, the bottom line is that trying to achieve perfection of feeling, perfection of circumstance, perfection of being by means incapable and unintended to impute perfection is, well, fruitless, unsatisfying and decidedly imperfect.
Time wore on and I wore out. Seriously, I was tired by age fourteen. I knew that what I was doing was unsustainable. I had friends just as tired as I was for the same reason. I still meet tired people every day caught in the trap of looking for a perfect life in all the wrong places. None of this is really news.
What is scary is that many, maybe most, continue to operate on the same principle even as Christ followers. I did it for years, beginning at age fourteen when I made my commitment to Him. Yes, I can name the day, August 25, 1975. My reconciliation to the Father was sealed on that day. I knew when I awoke the next morning that something of profound significance had occurred. I have been sure of it since, however old habits die hard. Thus began the era of my Christian culture hop.
It’s a crazy dance that involves jumping through hoops repeatedly. All the striving and unrest that characterized my pagan era search manifested anew. How surprised I was to discover that trying to be a good Christian made me even more tired and my goal of a perfect life seem even more elusive. True, none of the new pursuits seemed inherently bad. In fact, one could argue that a natural consequence of pursuing the spiritual disciplines is refinement.
What’s so tiresome is focusing all that energy and devotion on pleasing other Christians and striving to make ourselves more desirable in our own eyes. Oswald Chambers refers to it as having “our eyes upon our own whiteness.” Hoop jumping puts the emphasis on doing rather than being, on personal performance rather than abiding in Perfection.
Although anything taken to an extreme can be harmful or master us in an unhealthy way, I refuse to slam the spiritual disciplines. Prayer, Bible study, fasting, service, and Sabbath have only enriched my life. I do have a few other regrets. There was the time I replaced my Sunday business-type wardrobe with only denomination-approved dresses of a certain length and style. I nearly gave up a life-long study of ballet because a delegation of elders came to tell me I was in sin for wearing leotards. I’ve worn myself into misery and depression being present every time the church doors were open and saying “yes” without fail to every single request for service thrown at me by church folk. And I’m ashamed to say I’ve judged others for a whole host of similar stupid stuff from time-to-time.
Focusing on rules does not get us a perfect life; it only gets us tired and filled with despair. Maybe that’s the point we need to come to in order to realize along with Solomon, Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun (Ecclesiastes 2:11, NIV). It was the point I came to during a time I refer to as my Great Depression.
That era lasted two years. To reverse the opening line of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, it was the worst of times; it was the best of times. What made it the worst of times was being utterly weak and utterly failed. What made it the best of times was being utterly weak and utterly failed. All that weakness and failure forced me to my Father’s feet. I remember clearly a moment when I lay in bed one morning dreading to get up and face another day. The thought occurred to me that I was a liability to my family and everyone would be better off without me. That’s when He whispered in my ear, “I love you for who you are, not what you do.”
That day (in 1986), my compliant surrender to Christ (of 1975) turned into a love affair, desperate and needy. That was the day I quit striving (except for brief lapses) after a perfect life and began running after my perfect Lover. A perfect Lover is perfect in His own being, but He also loves with a perfect love. Perfect love defies and supersedes and envelops its unlovely recipient with perfection. Indeed, the more unlovely the subject, the more shiningly apparent the Lover and His love.
Martin Luther, in his letter to Philipp Melanchthon, said, “If you are a preacher of Grace, then preach a true, not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.”
May I draw on this quote to make a point about God’s perfection? If we preach God’s perfection, then we must preach a true, not a fictitious perfection; if perfection is true, we must bear a true and not a fictitious imperfection. God’s perfection eludes us when we strive to achieve one of our own making. If we are imperfect—and indeed alone we are—then we can be boldly imperfect, reveling and rejoicing in the enveloping presence of Perfection.
After all of Job’s long trials and a deep depression, he made a statement near the end of the book named after him. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you (Job 42:5, NIV). For a long while those words mystified me, but began to make sense that depressed morning in my bedroom. As long as I was trying to achieve my own perfection, or a perfection someone else demanded of me, I was holding Him so far away that I could really only hear of Him. The minute I gave up and embraced my utter weakness and failure, Christ revealed Himself in a way that has had me panting for and longing after Him since that time.
Derek Prince, in the beginning of his story, saw only an act of creative movement demonstrated by unclad tribesmen, decidedly imperfect by the Christian cultural standards he was accustomed to. In the end, he danced before God, perhaps as David did when he brought the ark of God into Jerusalem. What is the difference? Law versus Love. Culture versus Christ. Performance versus Perfection. Ability versus Abiding.
Jesus said, I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one (John 17:23, KJV). As for me, I will take my Love. I will take my Christ. I will take perfect oneness. I cannot do without Him and He will not do without me.