Progress over perfection
Updated: Aug 19
At our language school, each Monday morning, a student shares a devotional with the school (staff and students, totaling about 40 people). The requirements are:
1) Biblically based content 2) Spoken exclusively in French! The purpose is to encourage the students and practice sharing for an extended period of time in French on a biblical topic. I decided to discuss the idea of perfectionism with my colleagues, we are constantly being corrected for our language mistakes. This correction is hard for a perfectionist and progress can be slow. My language partner sat several hours with me helping me pronounce correctly each word, get my rhythm correct and helped me fix my grammar. Jesse will have the opportunity to share in the fall.
Below you can read an English transcript of my devotional I shared:
I am wired to try to get things right, in all things. I think I am like many of you…
In school I always worked hard for the best grades and a high level of competency. I would feel very discouraged if I fell short. A personality of perfectionism is not fully bad or fully a good trait. It must be carefully kept in balance in life. Too much perfectionism leads to competition, unhappiness, isolation and constant disappointment. Too little may lead to laziness or messiness. But in reality, the 2 sides are false. God is the only one who is perfect and can achieve perfection, so my efforts to achieve perfection are useless.
When I arrived in France, I did not realize how much I was wired so strongly towards perfectionism. Simply put, a life wired for perfection as a foreigner is not possible or sustainable. We arrive optimistic, tired, hopeful and weak. Day after day learning a language in a foreign setting as a perfectionist, in hiding, led me to realize how much I desire perfectionism. France is not a place for a perfectionist. The system here is designed to prohibit perfection in school. 20/20, or an A+ simply does not exist. For me, I have to learn that 15/20 is good enough, but also truly a good score. Perfectionism is a false idol and if I continued to strive for perfection I would break, my family would suffer and God’s goal would not be achieved in my life or in his preparatory work.
I imagine the perfectionists and the planners among the Israelites wandering in the desert after their life in Egypt. Yes, life in Egypt was hard but maybe they could do their job while enslaved with perfection. They could make perfect square bricks to build buildings for the pharaoh, Clearing the fields for the pharaoh. They could serve the pharaoh really well and they knew what to expect in their day and how to pace themselves to survive with excellence. The conditions were horrid, but I imagine the perfectionists went through their day with an air of togetherness and confidence. A “this is hard, but I can do hard things” mentality. (Exodus 1: 11- 14) I imagine those perfectionists, like me, all of a sudden without a plan or proper preparation leaving Egypt; with only a bit of not so perfect matzah, their families and their hopes that life would be better free. You can imagine the perfectionist in the group of freed Israelites analyzing the best route, wondering about their passage through the red sea and the beginnings of a new life. Maybe it's the perfectionists who say “where is the food, where is the water, where is the correct route?” (Exodus 16: 1-3) I was not so different when I arrived in France. The perfectionism that I used to cover my faults was stripped away and I struggle (present tense). I would say where is the grocery store, the best this, the best that? And this was before I began learning the language. You see, the covering for my own weakness was my ability to do many things well, maybe similar to the Israelites. But God did not traverse the wilderness for 40 years with the Israelites to make them perfect. He traversed with them in the wilderness to help them learn, over time, that HE is perfect and we are to make progress. Over 40 years the Israelites made progress.
Stripped of their coverings that fortified them and made them feel safe and in control they were forced to rely on God’s provision. They made many mistakes, big ones and small ones and God continued to remain present with them while they made progress, not perfection. (Exodus 17: 1-4 ) It doesn't say in the bible that the 100 perfectionists in the group returned to Egypt to go back to their jobs of making perfectly square bricks. No, on the contrary, God stayed with them while they made progress, he stayed with them in their complaining and he was patient with them while they tried to find a better way. Thank God he wants us to make progress and not make perfect.
It’s a daily fight for me to remember I am supposed to make progress, not make perfect, especially in this setting. I worked for the better part of 3 months to say the word “loisirs” correctly and it will probably take me another 3 months to say “accueillir” and not to pronounce the final consonants like “t, s, p…” But I am making progress. I no longer say “ J’ai trois enfanTS” but I say “J’ai trois enfan.” Each day takes a conscious effort to be ok with my imperfection and be proud of my progress.
I read on instagram a few weeks ago on an account “liturgies for a life abroad” a quote: “God’s will is less about where you go and more about who you are when we get there.” Yes, God’s desire is for me to make progress. And at this stage, I must be willing. Willing to make mistakes. Willing to have my faults visible.
I have friends that begin the new year with a new goal or a word. Making a resolution doesn't work for a perfectionist. I’m likely to not succeed within the first week, so then I have in essence failed, so I give up. And the word thing never worked for me either. But this year, God gave me a word just before the A1 exam. A command of sorts. He reminds me to make progress. My word from the lord is progress. Seeing progress, searching for progress is work for the perfectionist, but it feels so freeing to celebrate the progress I can make through God’s provision, grace and power- not by an attempt to cover my own insufficiencies.
My full time work in the US was as a special education teacher. The primary goal of each student with a disability during the school year is to make progress. The benchmarks are not set at a perfect performance, but a percentage increase over the previous attempts on an average. I remind myself how we celebrated the progress of each student as they learned to spell their name one letter at a time, or speak beginning with the basic sounds or hand gestures. It was hard work for such small progress, but it was more significant given their challenges and their weaknesses. We need to be intentional about celebrating our progress, each sound we produce better than we did before, each sentence we make with fewer grammatical errors. We also need to document the progress and share it with others. I would keep logs for my students of their writing samples from when they began the school year, so we could see, while it was not perfect, they had made progress. I encourage you to find ways to document your progress and review that progress regularly. And finally we would get to the end of the year and it would feel like the progress was just not enough. ( It might feel that way for some of you as you draw near the end of your time learning French). And in those moments when I would graduate a student and both I and the parents felt like the progress that was made was still not enough, we reminded ourselves that the learning is not ever over and God doesn't give up on us. He looks at us from our beginning and sees further than we are now and continues to work helping us gently make progress.
I would like to close with reading from 2 Corinthians 12: 9-10
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong..
Make a small goal and document your progress-
1 Corinthians 13: 11-12
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
Celebrate the gains-
Psalm 150: 1-2
Praise the LORD!
Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!
Remember the lord is not finished yet
Phillipians 1:6 …being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.