Grace Notes

Grace Notes

Tuning Our Hearts to Christ's Perfection

by Sarah Guthrie | February 1, 2019

The weighted ivory keys beckoned me closer. Accepting their invitation, I drew out the piano bench, arranged my sheet music, and arched my fingers slightly. As the first notes of Beethoven’s Für Elise lingered in the air, I was transported from the parlor to a place of soul that didn’t exist before I began piano lessons. 

Let it be known — I am far from a piano prodigy. Unlike Jane Austen’s day, when every accomplished young lady knew how to sing, play, draw, and paint, I didn’t naturally inherit these traits. The progression of time between learning simple melodies to skilled pieces by Beethoven lack a cinematic storyline featuring a young girl who sat down on the bench and played an aria by ear before kindergarten. It was far less dramatic, far more ordinary; in fact, it went a little something like this. 

One day a young, unsuspecting Sarah skipped off the school bus and walked inside the front door of the elegant Victorian home whereupon she was greeted by an imposing grand piano standing in the front parlor. The room had been affectionately dubbed “the music room” because … well, it was just that. The house was full of quirks, cubbies, fireplaces, and even a secret passageway, and this particular room was designed to house a piano; the chief entertainment piece, focal point, and conversation starter of the Victorian Era — the period in which the house was built. Suddenly, my mother’s voice chimed, “You’re going to take piano lessons!” All at once I despised the architect for having the idea of hollowing out an alcove in the parlor. This was practically destined to happen. The house was built for the instrument, my mother didn’t play, and so my lot was cast — the family needed a pianist and while my brother pulled the “I want to play guitar” card, I got stuck with 88 keys. Music was an unexpected — and at first, unwanted — gift. And yet, as the metronome’s pace became a friend, I found that what I lacked in natural talent I could make up for in practice so I challenged myself to advance in skill. I knew I could never match Beethoven’s genius, but with determination and perseverance I could master grace notes and excel in arpeggios. Years progressed and piano lessons taught me that, in many cases, practice made perfect.

Perfection. I loved the fact that I could attain “perfect” in at least one area of my life as an awkward teenager. Perfect meant that there were tears in my teacher’s eyes when I let go of the sustaining pedal at the end of the piece. Perfect meant that I didn’t make one misstep at the annual recital. But perfect in and of my own strength, was actually ruining my hands. 

At the same time, one or both of my hands were in wrist braces. Pain radiated up to my neck and the tendons in my hands and arms burned after a few warm-up exercises. I barely wore the clunky splints because that would have been admitting defeat and looking imperfect — which was the exact opposite of what I wanted to convey. It was during this season that Jesus radically redirected my path and my heart, and I realized that the perfection I was seeking to find in piano was a replacement for the One who was Perfection Himself. While thoughts of pursuing piano faded into the background, my life-song swelled with greater meaning and purpose than I had ever known when Jesus had His rightful place. 

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For you, perfection might not be piano. Maybe it’s trying to finagle multiple full-time responsibilities all at once, or the glaring number on the scale, or checking off those boxes you created about what a “spiritual lifestyle” looks like. Many of us have confronted the ugly spirit of self-criticism that plagues our minds and occupies our lives with strife and comparison that — quite frankly — drains the life out of us.

Recently I have become acquainted with murmurs in mainstream Christianity that seek to comfort those who struggle with perfectionism, self-criticism, or negative self-image with soft-sounding answers that are pleasant to our feminine sensibilities. You might be familiar with a few of them: 

We should be giving ourselves grace. 

We need to embrace our imperfections. 

We must remember that it’s about progress not perfection, or being present over being perfect. 

Furthermore, these voices endorse that becoming free from the enemy of self is found in becoming a beautiful mess, just being ourselves, and living wild and free. Vulnerability, “keeping it real,” and self-care messages are offered as supporting methods, and have become wildly popular on social media and in bestselling Christian books. These whispers can feel so right, true, and spiritual. Yet as I sought Jesus’ perspective, I found that turning to self is the exact opposite of what daughters of the King should do when confronted with their imperfections. First, let’s take a moment to trace the origin of perfection to the beginning of time in a garden far, far away.

THE BEGINNING OF PERFECT

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…” (Gen. 1:26).

The story of Adam and Eve is a familiar one. Our heads know that we are made in God’s image, and being made in His image means being patterned after His perfection. Our hearts thrill over the concept of completion because of who God is and who He created us to be.

Take a moment to ponder who God is. He is love. He is faithful. He is all-knowing. He is just. He is holy… Because we are made in His image, we have a built-in desire to see His attributes in ourselves and in the world around us. It’s why we have an insatiable yearning for justice to prevail and for love to win. In other words, it is because God is perfect that we want to be perfect, but because of the devastating effects of sin, perfection was wrenched out of our makeup and our world — replaced with an innate longing to see wholeness once again.

Centuries roll from one to the next and we continue to chafe at the sight of our imperfections. But what if God was so good as to leave this ache as a means to lead us back to Himself, so that He could fill it? What if, rather than turning to ourselves to work harder or study smarter or reach further, we turned to Christ instead? What if perfection didn’t drive us to ourselves but to Christ? And what if, as we did, the answer to the perfection we can’t attain was found in Him?

These questions don’t have to be what-ifs, they are to be liberating truth and actual fact for the believer. Sadly, when we strive for perfection found in our own image, we become disenchanted at the victorious, poured-out, others-focused life Jesus desires to live through us. As I’ve reflected on the journey God has led me through, I wanted to share three mindsets that satisfy my inner perfectionist with the saving life of Christ. They continue to help me sift through the mantras and messages presented today while keeping me in the way of truth, and I pray they do for you as well.

1. Gaining a God-Sized View of Grace

Just like the boy who cried wolf, in today’s age many Christians cry “grace” when they aim and miss at perfection. However, grace doesn’t act as a concealer for our imperfections or apply a duct tape fix to what is broken to make it look half-way decent or “perfectly imperfect.” On the other end of the spectrum, grace is not merely inaction or resting from strife. These are limited — and powerless — views of grace. What is so amazing about grace is that it is literally the strength and power of Christ living through us! Ian Thomas used the following illustration, “Oil in the lamp, gas in the car … and Christ in the Christian. It takes God to be a man, and that is why it takes Christ to be a Christian, because Christ puts God back into a man, the only way we can again become functional.”

I previously mentioned the popular “give yourself grace” motto, and it’s one that, again, sounds lovely to the ear. Yet taking a closer look at God’s Word shows us that we cannot give ourselves grace. We read that bestowing grace is God’s job, and He did so in the Person of Christ. Scripture clearly addresses this issue: Ephesians 2:8-9 states that grace is “the gift of God, not of works.” John declares that those who are in Christ have received the fullness of His grace. (See John 1:16.) And Paul said that this grace is active, as it caused him to work, “more abundantly than they all, yet not [himself], but the grace of God which was with [him]” (1 Cor. 15:10). 

While it is true that in Christ we rest from attempting perfection in our own strength, it does not mean that we give in to the mindset that we can throw in the towel, “give ourselves grace,” and slip into inaction. Rather, we can access the enabling grace of God to do what He has set before us with acceptance and joy. 

Take it deeper: 2 Corinthians 9:8; 12:9; 2 Timothy 1:9; 2:1; Hebrews 4:16.

2. Chasing the Perfect One

Trying to “chase perfect” is like grasping for the wind. And trying to attain Christ’s righteousness outside of identifying with His work on the Cross is impossible. It’s logical that those of us who get tired of chasing perfection wind up embracing our imperfections to soothe the sting of falling short. After all, if we can’t measure up, it’s easier to give up. Right?

However, neither pursuing perfection nor embracing imperfection provide a true solution to a self-critical spirit. If you have laced up your shoes to run after "perfect" or are kicking them off to coddle that which isn’t measuring up, I want to encourage you towards another goal — pursue and embrace the Perfect One — Jesus Christ. 

Our Heavenly Father is never demeaning or critical of our flaws. He sees that we all have fallen short, but have you ever thought that it’s not a surprise to God that you can’t measure up? His Word reminds us that, “He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14). The fact that God knows our weaknesses and limitations is not an insult, but an overwhelming comfort! Friend, it’s the reason why He sent His Son — to satisfy the perfect, righteous requirements of the law and implement salvation by grace through faith! Salvation that is full and free and that saves us from the enemy of “self.”

It’s important to go straight to the heart of a self-critical spirit. Upon examining the perfectionistic tendencies in my own life, I discovered they were founded in things like: pride, fear of man, comparison, and self-righteousness. This humbling realization pointed out that any standard we use to measure our lives, success, or performance outside of “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13) will let us down or lead us astray. These verses center our hearts around the purest motives for any course of action:

“And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” Colossians 3:17

“…whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31

Take it deeper: 2 Corinthians 10:12; Ephesians 4:13; Luke 6:40; Hebrews 12:1-2; Matthew 5:48; 1 Peter 1:16.

3. Approaching the Throne of Grace

Our self-righteous attempts at perfection will never be anything more than dirty rags before the holiness of God. Rather than embracing them or running from them, He has authored a different course for our lives. We have been invited into the very presence of God to access that which we are yearning for — marvelous, infinite, matchless grace to help in time of need. 

Run to Jesus and ask Him to remind you of how He alone is able to present you flawless and faultless before the throne. As you anchor your life — not on your merit, but His — you will find that He is eager to equip you with all that’s needed for life and godliness! Our Father’s promised grace will surely abound so you will have a sufficient supply for every good work and His strength for every lack, weakness, and imperfection you will face.

Take it deeper: Isaiah 64:6; Hebrews 4:16; Jude 1:24; 2 Peter 1:3; 2 Corinthians 9:8; 12:9.

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Years passed and I began tapping on the keys of a computer rather than a piano. But the test came much later when I was asked to serve as an interim pianist for the church choir.  While that’s a story for a different day, it can best be described as a humbling victory; a season in which God took my hands in His own and guided me not to the correct chords but to the correct heart strings the season required. My best was far from perfect, but I was able to underscore the messages of God’s love, power, and finished work each week. He supplied just what was needed. And I know it’s because my heart was tuned not according to my own perfectionism but to the praise of His glorious grace. 

Soli deo gloria!