Money, Beauty, Perfectionism, and Me
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus said that. In fact he talked a lot about riches, saying things like “you can’t serve both God and money”; and “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Jesus said these things (and others like them) because people believe that the opposite is true. We believe that life does consist in the abundance of our possessions; that we can serve both God and money; and that a rich man entering the kingdom of God is a fairly normal occurrence.
Why is money so potentially disastrous for one’s soul? One answer is that money can give people, immediately and in this life, what only the gospel can give eternally in the age to come. We learn this from the parable of the rich fool told in Luke 12. He finds security, peace, significance, respect, pleasure, rest, food, drink, happiness, and more – all through money and all immediately. It’s not money that’s so dangerous; it’s the immediacy. Money’s just the middleman – we want, we need – what it gives.
But let’s not be too hard on money without taking our other middlemen to task as well. And, make no mistake, there are more. One that works and walks hand-in-hand with money is physical beauty. I think that everything that the scriptures say about money, especially in regards to men, can be applied to physical beauty, especially in regards to women. Physical beauty can provide, immediately and temporally in this life, everything that only the gospel of Christ can provide eternally in the age to come. Think about it. How common is it for rich men and beautiful women to be found together in this world? Now, there is nothing inherently wrong or sinful about money or physical beauty. But they are such powerful mediators of immediacy and all our hearts were created to know they are dangerous. Like wine, certain gifts of God require greater wisdom if they are going to be enjoyed rightly and not abused.
My reason for raising these two issues is to raise the greater issue of perfectionism. Again, money and beauty are middlemen; what we are after is perfection. At least that’s one way to say it. Another way is to say that men and women want to be whole again, free from the consequences of sin – its guilt, corruption, and brokenness. And the good news of what God has done through Jesus is that perfection is coming for God’s people in the age to come.
Richard Winter, in his book Perfecting Ourselves To Death, writes that perfectionism is “the desire to be unblemished and faultless in some or all areas of life.” That is actually a good desire. It is the desire to regain all that was lost through the fall of mankind into sin and death. Our desires aren’t our first problem; our mediators are. Money and beauty make promises of immediate perfection, of salvation. In the short term they provide, but then thieves come in and steal and the flower of our physical life fades. We are left like the rich fool of Luke 12 with our “life required of us this very night.” Unhealthy perfectionists, like those described in Winter’s book, often find themselves with low self esteem, seeking to excel at any cost, controlling of others, exhausted and exhausting, depressed, impatient, self-blaming, irritable, fearful of criticism, avoiding challenges and risk, inordinately competitive, distant from others, and distrustful.
I’m confident of the accuracy of those adjectives listed above, because I am an unhealthy perfectionist. Or, at least I can quickly become one when the gospel slips into the recesses of my heart. I read (and re-read) Dr. Winter’s book and too many parts were more like looking into a mirror than reading. In chapter three he delineates between a “performance” perfectionist, then “appearance”, “interpersonal”, “moral”, and finally “all-around” perfectionists. As I read the chapter I thought, “Oh, I’m this one…no, this one…no, this one.” Then I arrived at the “all-around” perfectionist and was able to stop trying to choose between the previous four. I don’t remember if I laughed or cried.
Let me end this post by saying Dr. Richard Winter is coming to speak at our Growth and Grace Conference on February 6th and you should attend. His writings and lectures on perfectionism have been used of God in untold ways to spread the healing salve of the gospel over the wounds of my soul. And perfectionism is not just a personal problem of mine; it’s a cultural component of our life together.