Avoiding Perfectionism

One of the pitfalls of Catholic living is perfectionism. At the personal level, the Catholic faith is all about striving for perfection in holiness to become closer to God. However, it is easy to get confused here and think we are called to perfectionism. Perfectionism is the misguided belief that we can be perfectly holy on earth. On the contrary, Catholics believe perfect holiness has its end in heaven, not earth. Therefore, we can improve on earth, perhaps to the point of sainthood, but not reach perfection. As holy as they were by the end of their lives, even the saints regularly committed sins (though probably all minor venial sins). Both perfectionism and striving for perfection involve the struggle to be perfect, but perfectionism is unhealthy and leads to disappointment while striving to be perfectly holy is healthy and leads to happiness.

The perfectionist expects perfection, maybe not immediately, but in some short timeframe. Then when they fall short of perfection, they get frustrated, angry, and stressed out. The reality is that all people on earth have committed sin and will continue to commit sin. Catholics strive for perfection in holiness and do make progress, but they know they will continue to make mistakes throughout their life. When failure hits them, they don’t get frustrated, they simply offer it to God and ask what they should do. It’s true that we believe in every moment we are capable of doing the right thing, but at the same time, we know that everyone eventually succumbs to temptation. This doesn’t give us a free pass but instead prevents failure from causing discouragement. We fail, learn from it the best we can, then continue striving for holiness.

Unfortunately, many Catholics believe living the faith means adopting perfectionism. Instead of becoming holier, better people, perfectionism leads to frustration and stress. Satan and his followers then latch on to fill the mind with thoughts of despair. Eventually, this can lead to giving up and abandoning the faith. Perfectionism can also lead to the sin of presumption, that we can somehow become holy enough to get to heaven without God. This tends to happen within people that are so successful they don’t see their own imperfections. Whether perfectionism causes an unhealthy frustration or the pride of presumption, it does not lead to God.

So perfectionism is harmful and can have disastrous effects. Instead, Catholics should simply strive for perfection (or holiness), do their best, and let God take care of the rest. In the long run, they will continue to make mistakes but slowly improve, slowly become holier, and eventually get to be with God.

The truth is that God knows all about our human struggles. His own Son lived as a human, so he knows how hard it is to be perfect. God knows we won’t be perfect on earth, so he’s not expecting it. At the same time, he knows we must be perfect to enter heaven. Anything that is lacking will have to be improved during the suffering of purgatory, so it’s to our own benefit to improve while still living on earth. Our efforts at perfection in holiness will lead to improvement, which will reduce our suffering in purgatory.

Furthermore, our struggles are pleasing to God, not because he wants us to suffer but because our continued determination in the face of failure is the biggest sign of our faith for him. We are choosing to suffer purely out of trust in God. He has told us what our reward will be for this faith, but we don’t have it yet, not for many years. Right now it’s all faith. That is a huge sacrifice for God and he knows it. A person doesn’t make that big of a sacrifice unless they really love the other person. God is greatly pleased to see how much we love him through this sacrifice.

The peace of the Lord be with you,
Jared

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The Challenge of Tough Times

As Catholics, we live our lives doing our best to follow the laws God and the Church have given us (CCC 2342). This is a hard enough challenge in itself, but it’s even harder when times are tough. It could be the death of a loved one, a good job lost, or a devastating injury. Whatever the case may be, these tough times shatter the peace in our lives. We may have felt like we were finally getting somewhere with holiness, but then some big obstacle appears that throws out all we have learned. We are like a baby learning how to walk again. These are the times when God sees what we’re made of (CCC 164, 272).

In most cases, there is no running away or ignoring tough times. No matter how much we resist, they will change us. The choice we have is how they will change us: in a negative way or a positive way. In the negative outcome, a person asks “Why me?” and becomes angry. When they eventually get through the tough time they remain bitter at what happened, complaining to everyone they come across about how the world wronged them. In other cases, sadness takes hold and when they get through that period, they end up depressed, forever scarred by the experience. I’m sure everyone has had an experience where you ended up angry or depressed, but that’s not how God wants us to be feeling.

In the positive outcome, the person realizes they don’t know everything, the world is more complex than they initially thought. They are not God. They thought they were nearing perfection in holiness, but they are actually still infants compared to God and still need him very much. With this new perspective on life, they gain new appreciation for all their blessings. Their life might not be going the way they wanted, but at least it still has a few good things. In doing this, they are able to be grateful to God even in the tough times.

In one outcome, the person loses ground in their battle for holiness. In the other outcome, the person ends up stronger and happier than where they started, gaining more holiness along the way. It can be very tempting to choose the negative path because that’s always the thought whenever something goes wrong. Maybe we want to blame someone for the bad things happening. Other times, we might want other people to feel our pain by throwing anger everywhere we go. God has told us how to act throughout life though.

The one commandment from which all others come from is to love (CCC 1823). Half of love is giving, but the other half is receiving. That means when times are tough, lean on God, your friends, and your family. Continue doing your best to serve others, but this is the time to reach out and ask for help in return for all the sacrifices you have made for your loved ones. Not everyone will understand what you are going through, but God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes without understanding they may help exactly the way you needed, a loving act inspired by the grace of God.

Besides remaining positive during tough times, the other big challenge is remaining holy. When life is tough, a person might feel so bad, they just want some quick relief. The problem is this can lead to bad decisions. In their struggle with suffering they might start up an old alcohol habit again or take out their suffering on friends. These things might feel better in the short term but leave deep regret in the long run. Then even when the tough times are over, they have lost all the progress they made against the alcohol or worse, permanently lost a good friend. Even worse, they could trigger another tough time. Maybe the alcohol habit becomes an addiction and now a job is lost, a continuing cycle of negative events. We are most susceptible during the tough times, so this is when we must be extra careful about everything we do.

Overall, the challenge of tough times is turning a potentially bad period in our life into a very good period. If we can do this, we are well on our way to sainthood. The goal of all Catholics is to go to heaven (the beatific vision, CCC 163), which requires becoming a saint. Tough times can be some of the greatest growth periods in our life, but we have to work extra hard. Otherwise, we will be worse off than where we started. I encourage you to slow down during tough times, so you have time to make good decisions before every action. There is no rushing holiness. Be patient every day, doing your best in every moment. Look at tough times in this positive way: the path to sainthood, through perfection in holiness.

May God bless you with his abundant grace,
Jared