To be honest, I struggle at Harvard.
This struggle is not what you might think. It’s not a struggle to understand what’s taught in classes, or a struggle to get everything done. It’s not a struggle amidst a liberalized, pluralistic student culture, or a struggle to stay involved in Christian community.
I struggle against the urge to strive for perfection. I struggle to let myself do worse.
I’ve always been a perfectionist, just not in a stereotypical sense. I’m not the type of perfectionist who needs everything perfectly tidy or who dislikes change. I’m not even the perfectionist who requires pristine results. I’ve learned that I can surrender the results of all striving to the Lord, but this hasn’t kept perfectionism from turning towards my efforts. My perfectionism causes me to think that while I may not be in control of outcomes, I can certainly control how hard I try.
Surrender the results… but try harder, try better.
Throughout my freshman year of college, this effort-based perfectionism manifested in my work ethic. I struggled to let go of my impulse to maintain a perfect track record with my efforts, studying at every opportunity and feeling anxious when I couldn’t control my time. I wrestled to understand how to honor God by “doing my best,” when standards for that “best” were elusive and seemingly ceilingless.
This year, the Holy Spirit has done a lot to reshape my understanding of time at Harvard. The more I am convicted of my calling to the missions field, the more I see that school is for sanctification. I am not gaining a typical “career advantage” by going to Harvard (missions doesn’t require an Ivy League degree) but the Holy Spirit is using Harvard’s unique challenges to deepen my trust in Him, thus preparing me for ministry. I heartily believe that Harvard is my current missions field, and I am not called to focus solely on school but to invest in relationships and campus ministry.
For the first few weeks of sophomore year, this changed mindset was incredibly freeing, and my attitude towards my work ethic is now far less anxious. Yet now, more than halfway through the semester, I can feel perfectionism rearing its ugly face, this time towards my efforts in serving others.
This time it asks, “Why are you not investing more in your friendships with non-Christians?”
“Why are you not having more conversations about faith?”
This time it demands, “Just be more joyful; that will witness your Gospel freedom.”
“Just be a great sister to your Christian friends; that will encourage others.”
And just like that, serving others on campus has become a new race to run, a new treadmill of perfection. I fear that if I’m not loving enough, not joyful enough, not articulate enough, something is wrong: I am not testifying of God’s goodness, I am selfish, I am not using college to prepare well for ministry. Perhaps worst of all, I am missing opportunities to share eternal life with others, to love as He loves.
I used to think that seeing school as a missions field would free me from my urge to maintain a perfect work ethic. Yet here I am, still cornered by demands to do better, to be better– in ministry. This time, these demands feel much heavier because they are concerned with salvation. This time, failure seems consequential not only for myself but for others.
The problem is that perfectionism leaves no room for grace. Perfectionism stands in direct opposition to the Gospel.
Perfectionism demands that I try harder to escape consequence, while Jesus proclaims that I do not need to do anything to escape the greatest consequence of sin– eternity apart from Him. Perfectionism demands that my efforts be faultless lest I regret not trying enough; Jesus declares that He uses all efforts- no matter how broken- to achieve His purposes.
Regarding schoolwork, this means that nothing I could do or not do with my work ethic will move me out of God’s love and grace. This means that on days when I let work dominate my hours and on days when I fail to be productive, God is satisfied. He is satisfied not because of my efforts but because I am clothed by Christ’s righteousness, bought for me on the cross.
More importantly, when serving others at Harvard, I can rest in the knowledge that God chooses to use the imperfect and broken. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29,
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
The Holy Spirit is powerful to work through the blemished efforts of imperfect individuals to bring the fruit of transformation. In the end, God doesn’t need me to do His work. When I fear that my imperfect efforts to serve will bear negative consequences on another’s salvation, I place far too much importance on my own role in witness. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can open eyes to truth; all that I must do is be willing to submit to His direction.
In the end, perfectionism is a relentless master who leaves no room for failure. It is a tyrant that demands more effort, more efficiency.
As a Christian, I do not serve a perfectionistic king. Instead, I serve Jesus, who is the king of an altogether different kingdom. As it is written in Colossians 3:23-24, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”
This King, King Jesus, is indeed honored by hearty work and sincere efforts. But He does not demand perfection, and His reward is different from any worldly reward because it cannot be earned. Because of His death and resurrection, I am assured unending grace and eternal rest.
Because of Jesus’ perfection, I do not need to be perfect.
My Jesus, my Jesus. Thank you for this truth.