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If Something Can’t Be Done Well, Should You Do It?

Anything I’ve learned to do in life, I began doing poorly. It’s the way we learn. Think about the things you’ve mastered that you failed at initially: Talking – parents celebrate even the most elementary words of their one-year-old Walking – toddlers repeatedly fall down Playing a sport – we h…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Anything I’ve learned to do in life, I began doing poorly. It’s the way we learn. Think about the things you’ve mastered that you failed at initially:

Talking – parents celebrate even the most elementary words of their one-year-old

Walking – toddlers repeatedly fall down

Playing a sport – we have to practice – “practice makes perfect”

Relationships – we start out awkward

Skills – we apprentice and become better over time

Driving – insurance rates for young people tell you all you need to know

Yet there is this notion some people hold that “If you know in advance you’re going to fail, it’s better not to try.” A corollary is that “if you know you might hurt people by doing something you’re not sure about, don’t do it.”

What we believe about practicing in public is important. If we begin holding people accountable for being perfect before they’ve practiced, then we may be handcuffing them to the status quo. How can they grow if they’re not allowed to practice?

As a nation, we seem to be moving toward an ethic of perfectionism. We seem to be moving away from grace. Young people are continually being evaluated and are growing up with this expectation of having their act together in public. The selfie is a polished version of ourselves we post to Instagram. We hide out in private spaces and post public selfies. 

Reversible commitments

Growing up in a digital world makes our commitments continually reversible. Don’t like something about yourself? Just erase it or edit it. Regret the purchasing decision you just made? Just cancel it. Don’t like your looks? Get plastic surgery.

This issue is especially important in the spiritual realm. Almost nobody under 25 likes the legalism of old religion. But there is a new kind of legalism that says, “You can’t work out your faith if it has the potential to hurt people.”

The problem is that faith is messy. Faith is not certainty, it is risky. It can feel scary, like climbing a rickety ladder that might slip. Faith is a wobbly thing to stand on in a culture of no mistakes allowed. Because of the new ethic of perfectionism, young people are losing their capacity for faith.

The other problem is that perfectionism is a tyrant. It is exacting and exhausting. This study revealed that young people are struggling under the weight of perfectionism. They are increasingly anxious. Mental illness is at an all-time high on campuses.

God loves to be trusted

God loves faith. He loves to be trusted, even though we can’t see him. The Bible tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please him.” (Heb. 11:6) Faith is what gets us to intimacy, but it always comes wrapped in the wrapping paper of messiness. When you try something for the first time, the odds of failure are great.

Short missional journeys were one of Jesus’ primary means for activating faith. They placed his disciples in strange places where they were dependent on God to show up and were exposed to adversity. Before he sent them, Jesus warned his disciples that there would be mistakes and problems along the way. He told them they’d be flogged, prosecuted, and put to death. (Matt. 10)

Why would Jesus subject his disciples to all that pain? Furthermore, think about the pain they must have been inflicting if that was the response they aroused! When Jesus preached, people sometimes wanted to kill him on the spot. And he was asking his disciples to do the same thing. He was asking them to go start a ruckus. Not a politically correct approach to faith.

But not a license to insensitivity

Does this mean that Jesus was giving his disciples license to be obtuse and insensitive? No. He asked them when they went into a new village to look for a local person. Such a person would understand the local customs and would be trusted. Better to work under such a person. Better to move with humility, knowing that God would direct through his representatives in new places.

Somehow the potential for bringing good news to people who needed it was worth the risk of making mistakes along the way. The potential to pray for healing for those who were sick was worth the negative fallout. The potential to trust God more to show up at the last second made the inevitable slip-ups worthwhile.

David Foster Wallace’s talk “This is Water” was about how it’s hard to see a paradigm from inside that paradigm. A fish doesn’t know it’s swimming in water. And so, it’s hard to see the implications of our cultural ethic of perfectionism on a process of growing in faith. Cultural sensitivity has become more important than faith. It has become the shorthand for empathy in a culture that is increasingly not empathic. Inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings and you may have much to apologize for.

But what if God was more interested in his children learning to walk spiritually than he was in the potential for them to fall down along the way? What if trust was more important to him than quality of effort? What if the opportunity for grace was worth the mistakes that were inevitable?

It might change the way we walk. Maybe we’d become quicker to take risks if we knew that they potentially could lead us to a deeper relationship with our Creator. Maybe we’d be quicker to go to new places if we knew that he would meet us there and guide our steps.

Comments (10)

  • In my 6th year as a high school teacher and just seeing them finish midterm exams, I see that pressure. Students who even a 95 causes them to be upset with their performance. It’s a scary time for young people but Jesus is in control.

  • My friend Tim Hansel used to say “Ready, aim, fire!” He wasn’t trying to promote lack of preparation, but just dealing with this perfectionist thing that paralyzes so many.

  • Thank you Seth! I absolutely agreee. It is amazing how when we leave our cultural bible we realize the depth that the Lord has for us. Trying and failing seems like it’s not accepted, however, we need to in order to break through the walls and expand out capacity! Failing is hard, but wow it keeps our heart alive! I appreciate your writing and believe your influence in our American culture, it constately challenges me for more growth and deeper understanding.

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Andrew. “Failing is hard, but it keeps our hearts alive.” That is so good. It’s a truth I need to hang onto as I get older.

  • But there is a new kind of legalism that says, “You can’t work out your faith if it has the potential to hurt people.” This hit me hard and I need to sit with this and ask some hard questions. Thanks for writing this.

  • That’s such a needed reminder, that mistakes and what our culture calls failures are worth walking through for the sake of the One we follow and what He has for us on the other side of our shortcomings. Jesus scorned the shame of the cross (which seemed like a failure to everyone who loved Him) for the joy set before Him. As a Millennial and a recovering perfectionist it is so nice to hear that mistakes are not a sign that there is something wrong with me but simple an amazing opportunity to choose to trust God over myself. I pray that God gives me grace to receive it. Thanks, Seth!

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.



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