On Perfectionism and Servanthood
by Rhoda Hostetler
I sighed. It was 4 PM, time to make supper. I’d planned to study for three hours, and work on my fledgling business for three hours. Evening approached, and I’d not given an hour to either of those two concerns. “Think of how much I’ll have to work just to catch up!” Ignoring such despair, I stroked my baby’s cheeks, and relaxed deeply.
Perfectionism places demands on myself and/or others; it requires my goals to be achieved via my methods, on my timeline, for my purposes, because I am greatly important. It berates oneself or others for perceived failure. It is pride, dressed up to look like a good work ethic. A biblical approach to our responsibilities disarms it.
The Biblical Solution
John 13 invites us to listen in as Jesus—Master, Teacher, Messiah—exemplified servanthood to the disciples. He was Master: they, His servants. Shortly after being served by Him, Judas would betray Jesus and the others would run. Despite knowing this, the Master washed their feet.
Servanthood is an integral part of a Christ-follower’s identity. Romans 1:1 ESV starts, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus...” Philippians 1:1 begins, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus…” James also introduces himself as a servant. Paul introduces himself first as a servant and secondly as an apostle in Titus: “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ…” Peter does the same in 2 Pet. 1:1. Jude introduces himself as a servant before mentioning a family member. In Christ, we are servants first.
Ephesians 6:7 reads, “…rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man.” Good will is not used frequently in modern English; according to Logos Bible app, it can be translated a good attitude, affection, and enthusiasm. Servants are not the only ones instructed to fulfill such servitude. Eph. 6:9 instructs those who have subjects under them, “Masters, do the same to them…”
My time in Cambodia showed me some of the realities of a master/servant relationship. Earthly masters won’t serve unless they believe they will benefit. Servants must be trustworthy, no matter the amount of money or the impact of the secret. Servants forfeit their rights to benefit not only of their own time and skill, but also their best ideas because the master is always right. Servants quietly receive both reward and punishment. Masters are typically very wealthy, well-respected individuals in the community: servants typically are not, although the most trustworthy are sometimes granted extra responsibilities and favors. While some aspects of servanthood are difficult, servants are typically thrilled to have found a place in the lives of their masters. It is more about who they serve, and less about what they do.
We are servants who are deeply grateful to be associated with God. We’ve found a place in His home, at His table, and life now revolves around Him. We commit to fulfill His goals via His methods, on His timeline, for His purposes, because He is worth everything. Brilliant ideas hush themselves under His wisdom. We serve both our authorities and our own subjects, be they our children, employees, or students. This serving-the-subject is the piece that turns perfectionism on its head. How can I scorn another for not performing well enough? We must thoughtfully teach, train, encourage, and rebuke, yes, but scorn? If my highest priority—serving Christ—is fulfilled through servanthood, should I not be satisfied that I have been trustworthy before my Master? Why would I punish myself with despair over not meeting my own perfectionistic standards when I have fulfilled Christ’s example of servanthood?
To try to serve our own subjects and our enemies without grace is to hold oneself to impossible standards. Christ’s example of service requires everything. To serve out of grace—the sheer joy of knowing God, the happiness of being made acceptable to Him—is more than possible. It is rewarding.
At 4 PM, my perfectionism nagged me to work the last hours of the day away rather than give my disgruntled baby the care he needed. Why could I instead relax deeply into his snuggles? I’d spent the day prepping freezer meals for my family, an act of servitude which took longer than anticipated. In Christ, I am a servant first, so my timeline took second place to others’ needs. I restructured the following days’ schedules and enjoyed the peace of one job done well for others.
Your 4 PM moment is coming. Did you accomplish only one task? Your ego may not be pleased, but one task completed with wholehearted affection, considering others above yourself, is acceptable in a biblical work ethic. Embrace the peace!
Rhoda is a wife and mom. She and her family are readjusting to 'normal' life in America after several years on the mission field, and well over a year in missions training before that. Ordinary days include lots of laundry, some college study, and some work on an online business.