Excellence Versus Perfectionism
By Bill Hybels
Be a great painter . . . that will be the only justification for all the pain your art will cause.
-Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev
Ellen is a gifted violinist. She started playing when she was only four years old and showed a great deal of promise throughout her early years. She excelled at a rapid pace because she loved to practice. When other girls her age were playing dress up, she was playing Mozart. One of her earliest and fondest childhood memories was when her parents took her to hear a local performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
As soon as the orchestra started to play, she cried. She was mesmerized by the different sounds of the orchestra and was held spellbound watching the violin section. That Christmas she asked for a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth and practically wore it out listening to it over and over again. Ellen loved the violin and she loved music.
Ellen also loved church. Her parents were Christians and very involved in ministry at church. When she was eight years old, she accepted Jesus Christ as her personal Savior. She even played a few violin solos in church and enjoyed doing that very much. But her big dream was to perform as a soloist with all the major orchestras of the world and record all the major violin concertos. She felt that was what God wanted her to do with her life. She eventually won a scholarship to attend a very reputable music conservatory. The competition at the conservatory was fierce, and though it was disheartening at first, Ellen realized that she wasn’t really good enough to pursue a solo career.
So right before graduation, Ellen scrapped her plans for a solo career and set her sights on performing as a member of a major orchestra. She graduated and went from audition to audition, trying to land a job in the string section of a major orchestra. It didn’t happen. She was becoming more and more discouraged. She thought maybe she wasn’t cut out to play professionally, so she decided to teach violin lessons. She started teaching privately, going to students’ homes, and it was rough going at first as she struggled to build up a clientele, but after a few short years she had a thriving teaching business.
Ellen met and married Tom, a fine Christian man, and she and Tom bought a house and set Ellen up to teach in their home. At this time they began to attend a nearby church, and Ellen began to play in the church orchestra. When they started having kids, Ellen had to cut back on teaching, but she was still pretty consistent in playing for church. At first it was a great outlet for her. It was a refreshing break from teaching. She liked the church, she liked the people, and they even asked her to perform a few solos, which she really enjoyed doing. But as time went on, she became more and more restless playing at church.
She still liked the church, still liked the people, and still liked the music, but she was unhappy with her playing. Her playing wasn’t up to her unusually high standards. She knew what she was capable of doing and felt she wasn’t anywhere near that. Someone would catch her in the hallway at church and tell her how moved he or she was by her playing, and in the back of her mind Ellen would be thinking, Well, yeah, but what about those high notes I played out of tune at the end? She had a hard time letting things like that go.
Ellen began to complain that she didn’t have enough time to practice. She joined a community orchestra to try to supplement and improve her playing, but the same thing happened there. She never got any complaints from the director. In fact, he was thrilled with her playing and moved her up to the first section right away. People would tell her what a good player she was, but she would invariably respond by cutting herself down in some humorous way. She was always frustrated with her playing.
She came to rehearsal discouraged and left defeated. She was disappointed because she didn’t sound like she did in college when she was practicing eight hours a day. Yet she didn’t have eight hours a day to practice anymore. She could maybe squeeze in an hour a day, but certainly no more than that. Ellen’s frustration built to such an intensity that she finally quit playing altogether. She stopped playing in the community orchestra, and she stopped playing solos at church. She didn’t even want to play for family and friends anymore. She missed playing, but she didn’t miss how playing made her feel about herself.
She said that if she didn’t have time to practice and couldn’t sound like she knew she could, she didn’t want to play anymore. In fact, playing had become a source of irritation for her. She was always down on herself because in her mind she didn’t sound good. She was convinced that everybody was so much better than she was and that she just didn’t measure up. She had high standards and great expectations, and she couldn’t bear the thought of falling short. Most people around her had no idea what Ellen was struggling with deep inside. In fact, many of them envied her because she played so well. But Ellen was in turmoil. Music had been a source of joy to her; she used to love music and used to love to play. But now she hated it. All the joy of music had gone out of her.
Ellen felt God must be disappointed in her, too. She felt guilty that she wasn’t using her talent, but in all honesty she was angry at God. Why didn’t He give her a solo career or a job in an orchestra? How come things never worked out for her? If God wanted her to play the violin, why was her musical experience always so frustrating? Whenever she had played, she had imagined God frowning in disapproval. Ellen continued to teach, but some say that even her teaching suffered, because Ellen just wasn’t quite the same. She seemed to have an edge about her. She was irritable. She hardly laughed or smiled, and she didn’t cry anymore when she heard Beethoven. She seemed driven, unhappy, and frustrated.
Questions for group discussions
1. Why has Ellen ended up being so miserable?
2. What are some indications that Ellen is a perfectionist?
3. Isn’t it good for artists to be perfectionists? Why or why not?
4. If Ellen came to you for advice, what would you tell her?
5. Is there any way Ellen’s extreme perfectionism could have been avoided?
6. What would it take to restore Ellen’s love for music?
7. What kind of frustration is in stare for those who know or live with a perfectionist?
8. What do you think God feels for the perfectionist?
9. Have you ever walked away from a conversation kicking yourself for something you said?
Having you done this recently?
10. Have you ever made a mistake in a performance and played it over and over in your mind?
Signs of Perfectionism
Ellen suffers from being overly perfectionistic. Perfectionism is one of the artist’s biggest battles. I’ve seen many talented artists like Ellen lose the joy of their art and give up altogether. What can be done for those of us who suffer with perfectionism? Is there any hope for all the Ellens out there whose perfectionism takes the joy out of their art and their ministry? Much of what I learned about perfectionism came from a book that unfortunately is out of print, called Living with a Perfectionist by David Seamands. Early in the book the author outlines some of the signs of perfectionism that I’m about to share with you, and I could see every one of those perfectionistic tendencies in my own life.
Personally speaking, perfectionism has been a lifelong battle for me. With God’s help progress has been there, but it’s been slow and often painful. If you don’t consider yourself to be a perfectionist, perhaps you know someone who is, or maybe you live with someone who is. Either way, since so many artists suffer with it, we can’t talk about nurturing the artistic soul without discussing perfectionism. So what are the signs of perfectionism? How can you tell if you’re being overly perfectionistic?
Maximizing the Negative, Minimizing the Positive
First of all, the perfectionist tends to maximize the negative and minimize the positive. I do this a lot. I can get ten letters of encouragement and one from somebody who’s unhappy with my work, and guess which one gets all my attention? The negative one. I’ll fret about that one negative comment, and I’ll blow it way out of proportion. I’ll keep playing those negative comments over and over in my mind.
Forget the fact that ten people felt so good about something I did that they took the time to write to me. I dwell on the fact that one person didn’t like what I did. We shouldn’t ignore negative feedback, but to blow it out of proportion isn’t right either. Have you ever heard of the dot syndrome? Look at a newspaper photograph and notice that it’s made up of many dots of ink.
Now focus on only one of those little dots. See how you miss the “big picture”? The dot syndrome is just like that. You make a little mistake and keep replaying it in your mind, crucifying yourself over and over for it. It’s a loss of perspective. Instead of looking at the big picture, you’re obsessed with one tiny dot. For the perfectionist, one thing gone wrong means everything’s going wrong.
Several years ago I did an arrangement of an old hymn for a Thanksgiving service at Willow Creek. I treated it in a variety of styles, and it was supposed to be fun, celebratory, and worshipful. Well, there was one section that I counted off at a tempo that was too slow, and the band locked on to that tempo and I couldn’t get them out of it. The arrangement played on at the wrong tempo. I don’t know how long it actually was, but it felt like forever to me. As a result of my little mistake, the dot syndrome haunted me for months. The rest of the service went very well, but I went home depressed because of that one short section (ironically, the hymn was “Count Your Blessings”).
I was sure the whole service was ruined and that I had ruined worship for thousands of people. And I was convinced that there were people going to hell on account of my failure. I was suffering from the dot syndrome. This problem also manifests itself when someone tries to encourage me. Sometimes someone will pay me a compliment, but I’ll be thinking to myself, Yeah, but this was off or that was out of tune or something else wasn’t quite right. We perfectionists are never happy with our work, because we tend to maximize the negative and minimize the positive.
What’s happening with the dot syndrome, and what happens to many perfectionists, is that we tend to internalize disappointment and failure in an unhealthy way. Other people can make a mistake and it’s no big deal, but not the perfectionist. Some of us make a mistake and we’re utterly destroyed. We can’t stand the thought that we messed up or that we let someone down. We beat ourselves up over things we regret saying or things we wish we had said. We can’t seem to forgive ourselves for making the simplest of mistakes.
The perfectionist is guilty of black-and-white thinking. Something is either all good or all bad. My performance was either all good or all bad. I’m either a good artist or I don’t even deserve to call myself one. There’s no in between. Perfectionists tend to be very critical, and they can come down very hard on themselves when they fail. As a result, perfectionists engage in a lot of negative self-talk. For example, “I can’t sing. I shouldn’t even be on the worship team. I’m no good” or “See, I knew I’d fail. I always fail. I’m not the artist I thought I was.
Everybody else is better than me. I’m lousy” Do you know any artists who, like Ellen, gave up performing or writing because they couldn’t live up to their own standards? No amount of practice or rehearsal could make them content with their abilities, because they are their own fiercest critics. As a result, they feel under pressure all the time. And they wonder why writing or performing is no fun anymore. In his book Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning says, It used to be that I never felt safe with myself unless I was performing flawlessly. My desire to be perfect had transcended my desire for God.
Tyrannized by an all-or-nothing mentality, I interpreted weakness as mediocrity and inconsistency as a loss of nerve. I dismissed compassion and self-acceptance as inappropriate responses. My jaded perception of personal failure and inadequacy led to a loss of self-esteem, triggering episodes of mild depression and heavy anxiety. Unwittingly I had projected onto God my feelings about myself. I felt safe with Him only when I saw myself as noble, generous, and loving, without scars, fears, or tears. Perfect! (Emphasis in original)
Self-Esteem Based on Performance Instead of Identity
We live in an age in which a healthy self-esteem is a very high priority. In fact, in some circles it is the be-all and end-all. At no other time in history have we had such a plethora of self-help books promising to make us feel good about ourselves. Yet so many people still feel inferior and don’t like themselves. Manning says, “One of the most shocking contradictions in the American church is the intense dislike many disciples of Jesus have for themselves. They are more displeased with their own shortcomings than they would ever dream of being with someone else’s. They are sick of their own mediocrity and disgusted by their own inconsistency.”
Many artists are extremely insecure because they’re overly perfectionistic. Because they criticize themselves over the smallest of mistakes, perfectionists struggle with self-esteem. When it reaches the point where your talent makes you feel no good or worthless as a person, your self-esteem is too wrapped up in what you do instead of who you are. Perfectionism can also be a way for artists to get people to like them. If people think I’m perfect or better than I really am, they’ll like me and I will be important’so goes perfectionist thinking.
High and Unrealistic Expectations
The perfectionist often sets high, unrealistic expectations. I frequently notice this in myself. It usually happens with a song or a piece that I’ve written. The more work I have invested in something, the higher go my expectations for it to come off not well but perfectly. So I walk into rehearsal expecting perfection, and I’m disappointed. I come to the service expecting perfection, and I’m disappointed. This is different from setting goals. Setting goals can be motivational and can bring significant growth. Even if we don’t achieve all our goals, we’re almost always better off for having tried. Now contrast that with constantly browbeating ourselves and others because we’re not living up to perfection.
We artists who suffer from perfectionism also have unrealistic expectations for other areas of our lives. We walk around with great expectations for our careers, our ministries, our marriages, our friends, and our kids. And we get disappointed and disillusioned when those expectations aren’t met. We come to the conclusion that we chose the wrong career or the wrong church. Or we married the wrong person. Or we shouldn’t have had kids. Or we don’t have any friends. I know a few artists whose expectations for a marriage partner are so high, they will probably never marry.
If you and I set unrealistic expectations, we’re setting ourselves up for frustration and disappointment every time. That’s why the perfectionist lives with a lot of “if only’s.” If only I had said this or done that. If only I had gone to that college. If only I had studied with that teacher. If only I had made that audition. If only I had married that person instead of the person I married. We somehow feel that all our expectations would have been met “if only”
People with unrealistic expectations often end up sabotaging themselves. Many artists like Ellen end up quitting altogether because they can’t live up to their own standards of perfection. We also see it in the person who tries to have regular devotions, misses a few days, and then feels so guilty about it that he or she gives up completely.
We need to work hard and aim high, but a perfect performance or a perfect life is an unrealistic goal that is more man-centered than God-centered. I think perfection should be spelled with an I in the middle instead of an e, because perfection really is “perfiction.” It’s pure fantasy to envision ourselves as being perfect. God is the only one who’s perfect. Perfectionism is a very subtle form of the sin Adam and Eve were guilty of in the Garden: wanting to be like God. For those of us who expect life to be easy all the time, perfectionism is also a way of being in control; if I can control my environment, I can protect myself from pain and disappointment.
Suggestions for the perfectionist
Even though perfectionists have a lot working against them, it is possible to change. I have a few suggestions based on what I’ve learned in my own battle against perfectionism.
Savor the Positive
First of all, savor the positive. Because we tend to maximize the negative, we perfectionists need to celebrate anything and everything positive that comes our way. That means that we don’t ignore the ten letters of encouragement that came with the negative one. We read them over and over as much as we would read the negative letter. It’s okay to savor notes of encouragement and save them instead of throwing them away.
If God uses us in a special way, or if something exciting happens concerning our artistic gifts, it’s okay to celebrate what God’s doing through us. Some of us are uncomfortable with that because it sounds as if we’re patting ourselves on the back. Savoring is not patting yourself on the back for a job well done. It’s letting God pat you on the back for doing what He’s called and equipped you to do. So it becomes a worship experience. It’s thanking and worshiping God for using us, because apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).
In 2 Samuel 6 David had defeated the Philistines and returned the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The whole nation celebrated, and David was so overjoyed that he danced “with all his might” (v. 14). And why not? He was savoring a great work of God that he’d had the privilege to be a part of. David danced before the Lord with humility and joy. He wasn’t taking the glory for himself. He was worshiping God.
David’s wife, Michal, on the other hand, wasn’t into savoring, and she sharply criticized her husband for his outlandish celebration. But God was not pleased with her negative attitude, and He cursed her with barrenness (v. 23). So you see, God doesn’t like it when we pass up an opportunity to savor Him. He delights in worship-filled celebration. Maximizing the negative is self-centered because it focuses on us and our shortcomings. Savoring is God-centered because it celebrates God gifting us and using us.
For those of us who have a hard time celebrating anything we do, this is going to be a difficult step. But it’s such an important one if we’re ever going to be healthy, God-glorifying artists. We’ve got to stop downplaying the good things that happen when God uses us. We’ve got to learn to savor, for the glory of God, the good things God does in us and through us. My wife once told me something very interesting about Amish crafts. The Amish, whenever they produce any of their crafts, purposely put a flaw somewhere in their work. It could be one piece of thread that’s out of line or a part of a quilt that’s slightly off center, but it’s there to remind them that only God is perfect.
When I gave this teaching about perfectionism to our vocal team years ago, I wanted to give them a visual reminder to savor the good things God does in us and through us’to stop minimizing the positive. My hardworking longtime assistant, Lisa Mertens, graciously volunteered to cross-stitch the phrase “Savor it” for everyone on the team and put each one in a nice frame. But in keeping with the Amish tradition that reminds us of our human frailty, she put a slight mistake in each cross-stitch. She purposely didn’t dot the I in it, to remind us that only God is perfect.
Let God be God. He alone is perfect. It’s one of the reasons why we worship Him and not ourselves. Artists who strive for perfection are chasing the wind. It’s folly. We’re not perfect’never have been and never will be. Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil. 3:12). In other words, he’s saying, “Folks, I am not perfect. I have not arrived.” And he’s right. Only God is perfect. We are frail human beings. We are but dust (Ps. 103:14). We make mistakes and that’s okay. God wants us to cease striving for perfection and to know that He alone is God (Ps. 46:10).
After the Lord convicted me of my need to savor positive feedback, I began to save meaningful notes of encouragement instead of throwing them away. I put them in a folder that sits in my desk, within easy reach. Sometimes I’ll pull that folder out and read a few notes, and I’ve found that it helps me to put the negative in perspective with the positive. I’m also trying these days not to discount or downplay compliments from people. Instead of writing off what they’re saying, I’m choosing to listen and believe them. In short, I’m trying to learn to savor the positive. As a family, we’ve used going out for dinner as an excuse to celebrate birthdays, special achievements, the end of the school year, or a surprise blessing. It’s our way of savoring the good things God has done.
Be Kind to the Artist in You
Whether we perform or create, there’s an artist inside who wants so much to blossom and flourish, to be able to grow, and to be given a chance to express. The way we treat each other goes a long way in whether that becomes possible, but the way we treat ourselves is equally important. Some of us are in situations in which it’s difficult for the artist to flourish’a discouraging situation at church or too little encouragement or support at home. Some of us have fallen into patterns we learned in childhood, in which we put ourselves down when we don’t feel we measure up. Ephesians 4:32 tells us to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” That’s a great verse. Have you ever thought of applying it to yourself and the artist in you?
The perfectionist is not kind to the artist inside. As we’ve seen, the perfectionist constantly criticizes the artist inside, sets unrealistically high expectations, and sees only the negative. But God made us to be artists. When we mistreat the artist in us, we diminish someone God made and loves. Some of us wouldn’t dream of treating others as badly as we treat that artist inside us. A fellow artist who also struggles with perfectionism once shared with me a new insight she was learning. “I don’t mess up on purpose,” she said, “so I just need to relax and not get so down on myself all the time.”
Easier said than done, of course, but I appreciate the fact that she sees how wrong it is for us to crucify ourselves over something we never meant to say or do. Kindness goes a long way in healing anybody’s wounded soul. Be kind to each other and be kind to the artist in you. Life as an artist is tough already. We don’t need to make it worse by being our own worst enemy. The next time you’re tempted to cut yourself down for not measuring up, remember that no one whom Christ died for deserves to be treated badly, not even you.
Does God Really Like Me?
The world is not always a pleasant place to live. You can start the day off feeling pretty good about yourself, until you encounter a cutting remark that sets you back. You may find yourself in a situation that exposes your weaknesses instead of your strengths. You may run into people who make you feel inferior by the attitude you perceive in them. You may experience one put-down after another. Some intentional, some not. Some said in jest, some not. It’s hard to have a healthy self-image in this careless place we call planet Earth.
Even the accolades and applause that an artist receives are nice, but you can’t base your self-esteem on them. If you base your self-esteem on what you do instead of who you are, your self-image will go up and down depending on your latest reviews. Building your self-concept solely on your gifts and talents is like building a house on shifting sand. Instead build your self-esteem on who you are as a child of God. I know artists who have become involved with ministry to satisfy their need for approval. The problem is, they only feel good about themselves if they do well. The key to a healthy self-image is not about doing. It’s about being: being a beloved child of God.
I have struggled with feeling loved by God. I know He loves the world, but does He love me? Okay, I’ve heard that He loves me, but does He like me? The Bible is all about a God who knows us intimately and loves us personally. He demonstrates His love for us daily in the context of our personal relationship with Him. He became a man and walked among us; He looked at people individually’one at a time’with love in His eyes. Then He laid down His life for us’out of love. What people saw in Jesus was a God who was truly interested in their lives and really cared about them. God loves you and me personally. I know that if I understood a fraction of all that means, it would dramatically change my life.
Many of us artists are feelers. We relate to the world around us based on our feelings, but that’s dangerous because our feelings change. However, the worst thing you could do to those of us with artistic temperaments is to tell us to ignore our feelings. We can’t ignore our feelings. In many of us those feelings are too strong, too real, to ignore. What influences our feelings most, though, is what we believe in our minds. If we fill our minds with the truth about God’s love, we will feel more of His love, but making the connection between the brain and the heart is not always easy.
I know someone who embarked on an exhaustive Bible study about God’s love, listing all the verses that tell us He loves us, and there are a lot of them. It’s simply overwhelming to come face to face with the fact that the God of the universe loves you. And He loves me. Whether I feel His love or not, I can’t argue with the truth of God’s Word. One verse that helps me feel God’s love is Psalm 18:19, because it says that God delights in me. This is also affirmed elsewhere in Scripture (Ps. 37:23; 41:11). Did you know that God delights in you? He created you and He enjoys being with you. He enjoys seeing you grow He enjoys watching you be what He created you to be. He enjoys watching you use your talent’every time you perform or create. He delights in you.
Another verse that puts me in touch with God’s love is Romans 8:3839: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This verse has become especially meaningful to me because it reminds me that nothing’absolutely nothing’can separate me from the love of God. Even if I’m having trouble feeling His love, it’s still there. Nothing can take it away. Memorizing this verse has helped me feel God’s love more deeply. Every time I say it, my heart is filled. It’s like food for my soul. It helps me live in the reality that God loves me personally.
The only hope non-Christians have for a healthy self-image lies in their ability to think positively and to focus only on positive feelings about themselves. The only hope believers have for a healthy self-image lies in our concept of God. That’s the key. Our God-concept is more important than our self-concept. It’s a paradox. You find your life by losing it (Matt. 10:39). You find your worth and your value by losing yourself in God.
Let the Lord Love You
Now, let me warn you that it’s not enough to memorize verses about God’s love. At some point you’ve got to let Him love you. Some of us are really good at taking the Bible literally on all points except this one. Have you ever been sitting in church during worship and just been overwhelmed by the thought that God loves you? What was your response? Have you ever sensed God trying to tell you that He is pleased with you? Did you ignore Him when that happened? I’ve had many experiences like that, and my knee-jerk reaction every time is to think, No, that’s not from God. I must be making it up. God sent an angel to tell Daniel that He loved him (Dan. 10:11, 19). Why wouldn’t He try to get through to us to tell us He loves us?
Once when I was working out at our neighborhood gym, out of the blue I sensed God trying to say to me, “I am pleased with you.” (I hope that doesn’t sound weird. I didn’t hear a voice or anything. I just had that thought quietly but strongly enter my mind.) My initial response was to think, No, that’s not from God. He’s not trying to tell me He’s pleased with me. I must be making it up. But then I realized I couldn’t be making it up, because at the time I had been struggling severely with feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. So the thought occurred to me: Maybe God is trying to tell me He loves me. So I listened (as I continued my workout), and I sensed God saying to me, “And I like your music.”
Well, that just about moved me to tears because I had been struggling with disappointment over my songwriting. Lord, are you sure you like my music? I asked Him in my mind. You know I’ve written some real duds in my day. “I don’t care,” I sensed Him saying. “I like them because you wrote them, and you’re my beloved child.” I had to leave the gym right then and there because I couldn’t control my emotions. I sat in my car and cried. I’d had an encounter with the love of God that was deep and real and personal. I shudder to think that I almost missed it. I almost dismissed it and completely ignored it. We need to listen to God’s truth about who we are in Him; however, somewhere along the line we have to let it touch us deeply. We have to let Him love us.
My wife has struggled with low self-esteem. The lyrics at the end of this chapter are from a song I wrote for her. When we got married, I thought I could cure her of self-esteem issues by simply loving her unconditionally that certainly helped, but I could not do for her what only God can truly do. Even though she feels she’s not there yet, she would admit that she sees progress. She would also say that it takes time. You can’t undo years of hearing negative things about yourself (and believing them) overnight.
Don’t Make Self-Esteem Your God
There’s one caveat I’d like to throw in here. Don’t make self-esteem your god. I know some people who are obsessed with having a good self-esteem. They think they’ll never be happy until they can fully love themselves. Their joy level is determined by how good they feel about themselves. As a young Christian, I remember hearing that if you don’t love yourself, you can’t love others and you’ll never be able to truly love God. I couldn’t for the life of me get anyone to explain the logic behind that. It seemed as though the world’s obsession with self-esteem had infiltrated the church.
The Bible doesn’t teach that at all. We are to love God above all things and above all people, even ourselves. Jesus said that we are to love the Lord with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. This is the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:37-38). Loving others and then ourselves is the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:39). We must never get that out of order. Loving Jesus is more important than loving yourself. Loving others is more important than loving yourself. While God wants us to know how precious we are in His sight, loving ourselves was never meant to take the place of loving Him. In fact, when we love God first, we can truly love others and ourselves. So be careful not to make self-esteem your god. Seek first God’s kingdom, and things like having a healthy self-image will be granted to you (Matt. 6:33).
Set Realistic Expectations
With God’s help set realistic expectations. God deserves our best efforts, but does God expect us to perform perfectly? Of course not. Can God use something or someone that is imperfect? Can He use a song that is sung or played imperfectly? Of course He can. The major source of frustration in my life stems from me walking into situations with expectations that are unreasonable and too high. Psalm 62:5 tells us, “My soul, wait thou only upon God, for my expectation is from him” (KJV).
Our expectations need to come from God. We need to give our expectations over to Him and exchange them for what He expects, not what we expect. While we might be expecting artistic perfection that might be the furthest thing from God’s mind. Try to keep the big picture in mind. God cares about all the details of our artistic endeavors, but He’s also in the business of saving souls. What’s more important? That our efforts come off perfectly or that God’s name be praised and that lost people come to know Him through our ministry? Try to keep things in His perspective.
If God doesn’t demand perfection, what does He expect? He expects us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Him (Mic. 6:8). God expects us to grow spiritually. The end result is His responsibility. Our job is to cooperate with the process. We put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect (the end product), when God is more concerned with the process (that we walk humbly with Him).
So what’s realistic to expect when we minister for God? Every time we use our gifts for Him, we need to go into it wanting to do the best we can but trusting God’s will to be done, not our self-centered, lofty expectations to be met. People look at the outside and expect the appearance of perfection, but God looks at our hearts (1 Sam. 16:7). He looks at the inside, at our motives and intentions. We can’t control how well we perform or how people are going to respond. But we can control our motives and how prepared we are to minister with our talents. We simply have to do our best and trust God for the results He wants.
As I’m writing this, I’ve been struggling with expectations I had for a weekend service I was just involved in here at Willow Creek. I arranged the music for what I thought was going to be a big orchestra, but illnesses and unexpected emergencies decimated certain key sections, so I ended up with a smaller orchestra. I had some great players, just not as many as I had arranged for. Nobody had bailed out on me because of a lack of commitment.
Everybody who couldn’t make it had a very valid excuse. I tried hard to get replacements, calling everybody and anybody who ever owed me a favor, but to no avail. So I rearranged some parts and we went with a smaller orchestra. When it was all said and done, we ended up with no gaping holes in the arrangements, no melody lines missing, but it didn’t sound as good as what I was hearing in my head. Now, in the past this would have set off a couple of days of mild depression for me, but this time I decided to practice what I preach and give my expectations to God. Growth in this area has been slow and painful, and I still have such a long way to go, but praise God’I handled it differently this one time. (Maybe there’s hope for me yet.)
I told the Lord that this was His battle and that I was going to trust Him for the results. He reminded me that His grace is sufficient, that His power is perfected in my weakness, and that the big picture was not how great my arrangements sounded but whether people were coming to know Him (2 Cor. 12:9). God also used some close friends to help me deal with the frustration created by my unmet expectations. Instead of trying to hide my insecurity, I confided to those close to me that I was struggling with perfectionism. (It’s hard for perfectionists to admit they’re weak.)
People whose opinion I trust said they hadn’t noticed any decline in the music and that I was the only one who would ever know we’d had any musicians missing. When I heard that from people who I knew were being honest with me, I realized that I had been fretting over unrealistic expectations. The size of the orchestra had changed, and I had never adjusted my expectations. They were way out of line with the situation.
By now some of you might be saying, “Now, wait a minute. Didn’t the masters and the great artists of history have a perfectionistic streak that catapulted their art into greatness? Wasn’t perfectionism part of their genius?” It’s my observation that pursuing perfectionism is destructive to the artist and his or her art. Perfectionism is unhealthy. It inhibits performance and stifles creativity. I think the best artists pursue excellence, not perfection. In fact, I’d like to propose that perfectionism is more or less the evil twin of excellence. While perfectionism is destructive and man-centered, pursuing excellence is constructive and God-honoring. Instead of pursuing perfection, we need to pursue excellence.
Nancy Beach, our programming director here at Willow Creek, defines excellence as “doing the best you can with what you have.” No matter how much or how little talent we’ve been given, we can all try to do our best. For all of you perfectionists out there, note the word try. God understands that we’re not perfect. All He’s asking us to do is try. No matter where you are in your development as an artist, we can all try to do things with excellence. You don’t have to be a professional to do the best you can with what you have. You don’t even have to be an accomplished artist. You just have to be willing to try to do your best.
Pursuing excellence means we do our best with what we have, to the glory of God. He is worthy of our very best. We serve an ultimately creative God. When He created the world, He imbued it with breathtaking beauty and awe-inspiring majesty. God didn’t just throw things together when He created the universe. He modeled creative excellence for us. Seven times during the Genesis account of creation, God stands back, looks at what He’s created, and says, “It is good.” It’s obvious that we serve a God who delights in creativity and values doing things with excellence.
Excellence is also a powerful witness for Christ. Most non-Christians who ever end up in church expect the music to be lousy and outdated. They don’t expect to be moved by drama or dance or the visual arts. Wouldn’t it be great if they were to come expecting the worst but instead found the arts produced with creativity and excellence? Wouldn’t it be great if the local church were leading the way in artistic excellence for our culture? Proverbs 22:29 says, “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.” When we do things with excellence, the world will sit up and take notice, and we can point them to the God who created us, gifted us, and loves us.
Artistic integrity-developing skill
When we talk about excellence in the arts, we often talk about artistic integrity. Having artistic integrity simply means that an artist performs or creates with skill. Psalm 33:3 tells us to “play skillfully, and shout for joy” Don’t strive to be perfect; instead try to perform or create skillfully. In other words, do the best you can with the talent you’ve been given. It doesn’t glorify God to be mediocre. He’s the God who exhibited ultimate skill and creativity in forming the universe. He delights in creativity and assigns value to things produced with skillful artistry.
There was a vocalist in the Old Testament named Kenaniah who had a reputation for being skillful (1 Chron. 15:22). He was singled out for leadership and responsibility because of his talent. He had artistic integrity. We need to shoot high artistically. We need to aim for quality over quantity and substance over show. We need to take the development of our artistic skill very seriously. First Chronicles 25:7 tells us that the artists in the Old Testament were all trained. We artists need training and ongoing development. We need to take classes and lessons and get good coaching.
We need to read books and magazines that will help us improve our craft. After all, how can you develop your singing, your playing, your writing, your acting, your dancing, your painting, your drawing without some type of ongoing training? Many music directors who have been in ministry for a long time don’t feel challenged musically anymore. What can you do to challenge yourself artistically?
We also need to expose ourselves to great art and learn from it. How can you be a great artist without studying great art? Don’t stay away from great art just because it’s not “Christian.” Franky Schaeffer points out that there are only “two kinds of art, good art and bad art. There is good secular art and bad secular art. There is good art made by Christians and bad art made by Christians (and all the shadings in between).”
We can learn a great deal and improve our skills by exposing ourselves to quality art inside and outside the church. Philippians 4:8 instructs us to let our minds dwell on things that exhibit excellence. We should be attending art exhibits, concerts, plays, movies, and musicals to broaden our artistic horizons. That’s part of our ongoing development as artists. The idea here is to expose yourself to excellence, which unfortunately would exclude much of what’s on TV Don’t subject yourself to the brain-numbing junk that’s on TV when you could be reading a good book, listening to a CD, or going to a play or an art gallery. That’s the kind of entertainment that enriches our lives. Why settle for anything less?
Artistic integrity involves hard work. There is a price to be paid for excellence. Don’t kid yourself and think otherwise. If you want to pursue excellence in the artistic disciplines, it takes hard work. This is no time for us artists in the church to be lazy. God is on the verge of using the arts in a mighty way. The days of us in the church producing art in a mediocre fashion are over. Being lazy with our talent is more a sign of being comfortable than being committed. Schaeffer is talking to you and me when he says, “Of all people, Christians should be addicted to quality and integrity in every area, not be looking for excuses for second-best. We must resist this onslaught.
We must demand higher standards. We must look for people with real creative integrity and talent, or we must not dabble in these creative fields at all. All of this does not mean that there is no room for the first halting steps, for experimentation, for mistakes and for development. But it does mean that there is no room for lazy, entrenched, year after year established mediocrity, unchanging and unvaried” (emphasis in original).
For too long artistry in the church has been thrown together without much regard for quality. For too long we’ve muttered under our breath, “Aw, it’s good enough for church,” and the result is that church art (especially music) has come to be associated with insipid mediocrity. Some of us only do enough to get by. God deserves so much more than that. He deserves our very best. A friend of mine once noticed that I wasn’t working on my writing gifts, that I was kind of coasting along. He confronted me about this and said, “You’ve learned how to do just enough to get by. Shame on you.”
He told me he would kill to be able to do what I can do. Those words, spoken in love, changed me. He was right. I was being lazy. I realized I was taking my gifts for granted. Remember, God has entrusted each of us with a talent, and we are accountable for how we steward that gift (Matt. 25:14-30). It must really grieve Him when we take our talent for granted. It must make Him sad to see people with talent not putting for ay effort. Pursuing excellence involves hard work. Remember, we’re not talking about perfectionism; we’re talking about doing the best you can do with what you have, and that involves effort.
It means that if you’re acting and there’s one little spot in the script where you’re having difficulty, you try to work it out. I you’re dancing, you don’t keep practicing mistakes over and over again. You put in the hard work to get it right. If you’re a vocalist, you vocalize regularly and keep your voice in shape. You practice. You take the time and put in the effort to fix wrong notes or learn those tricky rhythms.
Having a strong work ethic is a sign of character, and people with talent should never settle for less than their best. I saw somebody wearing a T-shirt the other day that said, ‘success comes before work only in the dictionary.’ How appropriate. I like what the famous conductor Sir George Solti said, near the end of his life, about the need for artists to work hared. He said, ‘I feel more strongly than ever I have an endless amount of studying and thinking to do in order to become the musician I would like to be.’ That was spokes by a man who was already an international success and in his mid eighties.
Giving God our best
King David, a skillful musician according to 1 Samuel 16:18, said something that has always stuck with me in regard to this matter. The Lord told David to build an altar, and a man named Araunah offered to give David everything he needed to build the altar. However, David refused, saying that he didn’t want to offer the Lord that which ‘cost me nothing’ (2 Sam. 24:24). David didn’t want to offer the Lord that which didn’t take any effort. He didn’t want to offer the Lord anything half heartedly. What a great example for us to follow. We can’t be offering the Lord that which cost us nothing. We need to offer God our very best because He deserves it.
The artists who worked on the temple used the best gold they could find for their work, because they wanted to give God their best. Second Chronicles 3:6 says, “Beautiful jewels were inlaid into the walls to add to the beauty; the gold, by the way, was of the best, from Parvaim” (LB). The clay for their bronze work came from the Jordan valley, and it too was the best they could find (2 Chron. 4:17). In Malachi 1 the Lord reproved the nation of Israel because they weren’t bringing their best sacrifice to the altar. Instead of offering Him their best cattle, sheep, or goat, the people would offer a blemished animal’one that was sick, old, or lame. It doesn’t honor God when we bring Him less than our best.
He deserves so much more. Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” My fellow artists, God is worthy of our best efforts, so let’s honor Him by giving Him our very best. Because I’m addressing artists who struggle in this area, I need to stress once again that I’m not talking about perfection. I’m talking about doing the best we can with what we have. Excellence is a moving target, and hopefully each year our standards reach a little bit higher than the year before. If we resist the human tendency to only do enough to get by, we will grow in the area of excellence. When I look back on what I did five years ago, I realize that it’s not as good as what I’m doing now, but it was the best I could do at the time.
Being creative and original
Pursuing excellence also means being creative and original. Francis Schaeffer points out something very interesting about the artistry involved in the making of the tabernacle. When they made the priests’ garments, the artists were instructed to create blue, purple, and scarlet pomegranates (Ex. 28:33). Schaeffer draws our attention to the fact that pomegranates can be purple and scarlet during various stages of their growth, but never blue. Imagine that’a blue pomegranate. In other words, the artists didn’t have to make exact duplicates of nature. They could bring something new and refreshingly different to their work.
Schaeffer’s implication is that there is freedom in God’s economy for artists to be creative and original. That’s why God’s Word encourages us to sing to the Lord a “new song” (Ps. 33:3). I feel very strongly that every church needs to encourage the writing of original music. Original music is an expression of church life. It’s a good way to document what God is doing in your church. If God is doing something unique in your church, let’s have a song about it as a testimony to the community. If there’s a teaching that God has been impressing upon the congregation, let’s have a song about it, like a landmark that enables us to remember the teaching every time we sing it. If there’s something your church is celebrating, let’s have a song that commemorates it. This “new song” principle applies not only to music but to all the arts. Let’s encourage the creation of new art to reflect what God is doing today in every one of our churches.
We need to pursue excellence in our ability to communicate effectively. Great art communicates a message, an idea, a thought, a feeling, or an emotion. Art at its best stimulates the mind and moves the soul. If we in the local church don’t get serious about how to communicate effectively, our art will move no one. No matter how accomplished or sophisticated we are, if thought is not given to communicating clearly, how are we going to reach people with our art?
Paul has an interesting point in 1 Corinthians 14:7-9: “Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.”
Isn’t it true that if our message lacks clarity, we might as well be speaking into the air? We need to make sure that art produced for the church says something and says it clearly. All artists need to know that communication is just as important as technique. I’ve been greatly moved at times by singers whose technique was not as developed but whose communication skills were strong. On the other hand, an artist who has great technique but gives no thought to communicating clearly and effectively will move no one. Christian art will never become a force to be reckoned with if we ignore what it takes to communicate meaningfully.
People in theater usually have a better handle on this. They know how important it is to give thought to every line. “How am I going to say this?” they ask. “What should I be feeling, and what’s the best way to express it?” Dancers have no spoken lines. The best dancers know that they have to use their physical movements and their faces to tell us what they’re trying to say. Visual artists don’t have the spoken word or their own facial expressions. Most of the time they’re not even present when people observe their art, so they have to fill the canvas or the page with emotion and meaning that effectively communicates.
The artists who I think are more oblivious to good communication are unfortunately the musicians, especially vocalists. There’s been a sentiment in the church for far too long that singers who perform without any facial expression or emotion are somehow less distracting and more spiritual. In the churches in which I grew up, vocalists would sing with their arms perfectly still at their sides, and looking straight down at their music. No eye contact, no meaningful gestures, no facial expression at all. The irony here rests in just how unnatural that really is. When we’re talking about something important to us, we don’t stand at attention like robots. We move our arms to emphasize our point.
Our faces register an emotion that matches our words. We look at people when we talk to them. Vocalists, when you rehearse, do you give as much attention to how you’re going to communicate a song as you do to your technique? Do you just sing the notes, or do you throw yourself into communicating a message? Unlike the dancer, you have the luxury of words. Are you enunciating clearly? Are there any vocal licks getting in the way of your message? Do you know what the payoff lyrics are, the ones you don’t want anybody to miss? Unlike the visual artist, you have the luxury of being able to use your body and especially your face. Does your face reflect what you’re singing about? Are you using gestures that are meaningful and natural for you?
Some of us are stiff and reserved onstage because we’re more concerned with how we look than with whether we’re communicating. We’re too self-conscious. I like Peggy Noonan’s advice on this: “When you forget yourself and your fear, when you get beyond self consciousness because your mind is thinking about what you are trying to communicate, you become a better communicator.” Professional dancer and choreographer Mark Morris had this to say about throwing ourselves into communicating effectively: “As a performer there’s nothing better than moments where you feel that you have the option’within the given text’to do exactly as you want, where you’re not worried about what you look like or whether you’ve warmed up enough. You just seem to be involved in a pure expression which is completely appropriate.”
I don’t mean to pick on vocalists. We all must submit to what the art form needs to communicate clearly. For example, if you’re an instrumentalist, you don’t overwhelm the lyrics with intrusive notes or volume. If you’re a songwriter, your songs need to have a clear focus and a logical progression of ideas. We in the church need to take communication seriously, because we’ve been given the charge to communicate the Good News. We have the most important message there is, so let’s communicate it boldly and clearly. Effective communication is a vital part of pursuing excellence.
I’m including spiritual preparation here in our discussion on excellence because I’ve discovered over the years how crucial it is for Christian artists to prepare their hearts and minds spiritually before they create or perform. The apostle Paul knew the importance of spiritual preparation before ministry. After his dramatic conversion, he didn’t hit the lecture circuit right away. He spent three years in relative obscurity, preparing himself spiritually.
He already had speaking and teaching gifts, but he needed to prepare himself spiritually for the ministry ahead of him (Gal. 1:15-2:1). In fact, he put in fourteen years of spiritual preparation before his ministry really took off. And this was one of the greatest religious scholars of all time. We need to take spiritual preparation as seriously as rehearsal. It’s as much a part of pursuing excellence as is practicing.
At Willow Creek we are blessed to have Corinne Ferguson leading, shepherding, and coaching our vocalists. She understands how important spiritual preparation is to a fruitful vocal ministry. Rehearsal with Corinne is more than just practicing notes. There is a great deal of soul work that happens as well. Sometimes she’ll lead the vocalists in a discussion of the lyrics, by asking probing questions. Or the group might pray over the lyrics or pray for the congregation to receive those lyrics with open hearts. Many of us refer to Corinne as our secret weapon, because she literally works behind the scenes and greatly impacts our ministry by inspiring the vocalists to let each song they sing reflect their souls.
She gets them to personalize every lyric of the song, to own what the song is saying, and to communicate that message in the most effective way. If a song doesn’t first minister to the one singing it, it won’t minister to anyone else. I’ve also learned a lot about spiritual preparation by watching some of our veteran vocalists here at Willow Creek. I’ve seen them take lyrics to a song they’re working on and journal on them. They’ll pursue a Bible study on the main theme of the song during their quiet time or meditate on Scriptures that relate to the lyrics. I’ve heard them share insights they’ve gained from applying the truth of a particular song to their own lives. During the days leading up to a service, many of them pray fervently that God would use them to their fullest.
This is all part of what it means to prepare yourself spiritually to minister in the arts. The most important ingredient for effective communication is sincerity. If you can communicate what you believe with sincerity, people will sit up and take notice. Sincerity was a trademark of Paul’s ministry and gave his ministry power and integrity (2 Cor. 1:12; 1 Tim. 1:5). More than anything else, the world is wondering whether we Christians really believe what we sing about. They’re wondering how sincere we are, how real Jesus is to us. And you can’t act sincere. It’s not something you can fake or manufacture. Either you are or you aren’t. But you can cultivate a sincere heart.
That’s where spiritual preparation comes in. Scripture can renew our passion for the things of God and strengthen our convictions. It constantly challenges me to know what I believe and then to live what I believe. Saturate your mind with God’s Word so that when you perform a song or drama or dance about God’s grace, for example, you feel a conviction down to the depths of your soul about how wonderful that grace is and how no one should live without it. Don’t neglect the potential for God’s Word to deepen the sincerity of your soul. If your heart is passionate about the things of God, you will communicate with sincerity.
The other thing we need to do for the sake of our spiritual integrity as artists is to live a Spirit-filled life. Acts 1:8 says that when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we become powerful witnesses for Jesus Christ. If you and I want to have spiritual integrity, we need to walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16; Eph. 5:15).
That involves a day-to-day, moment-by-moment decision to walk intimately with God, to seek Him first and follow Him wholeheartedly (Matt. 6:33; Luke 9:23). If we walk in the Spirit, the Lord will anoint our work as artists, and we will minister powerfully in His name.
Come to Me
What would Jesus say to the perfectionist? I think He’d look us straight in the eyes, hold out His hand, and say, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). That’s a great passage for artists who are weighed down with perfectionism, who have become weary trying to live up to their own expectations, who are heavy-laden with negative self-talk. Jesus says, “Come to Me just as you are, warts and all.
Come to Me and be free, free from the pressure of your self-inflicted perfectionism.” Notice that Jesus is not the slave-driving, impossible-to-please God that we make Him out to be. He is gentle and humble. Sounds inviting, doesn’t it? Compared with the demands we perfectionists put on ourselves, His yoke is easy and His load is light. He’s there, ready and willing to help shoulder our burdens. So lay it all down at the foot of the cross and find your rest in Him.
This article ‘Excellence Versus Perfectionism’ was taken from ‘Heart Of Music’ by Bill Hybels and may be only used for research and study purposes only.