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IMPERFECT, INCONSISTENT, AND IRREVERANT

THE ALL-OR-NOTHING PROBLEM

I’m a perfectionist and a procrastinator. To be more precise, I’m a perfectionist, and my all-or-nothing thinking leads me to procrastinate due to a foreboding sense that what I will produce will not measure up. This perfectionism wreaks havoc on all manner of to-dos that I need to do.

As a Ph.D. candidate, I’ve had the tendency to put off writing or editing my project because I tell myself I haven’t read enough, don’t know enough, am not smart enough, or don’t measure up adequately, so, I think, why try?

As a person that likes the thought of “getting more fit,” my rigid all-or-nothing thinking plays itself out in the form of starting over so many times that I become self-defeating and throw in the towel. For instance, if I start a 60-day workout program, I might be cruising along eight days in, but if I miss day nine, I tell myself that I must start from the beginning because I’ve got to remain on a perfect 60-day streak for it count or for it to work.

I have a tendency to let this perfectionism creep into my spiritual disciplines too. Maybe you’re like this also. Have you ever thought, “To have a good devotional life, I must study the Bible and pray in the same place, at the same time, and with the same clarity and attention each and every day”? I know I’ve thought like this before. Or maybe you’re rigid in another way: For you, the devotional time must happen “organically.” This doesn’t mean that it isn’t regular or recurring, but it means that you don’t want it to become a chore or a checklist because God-forbid you become like one of those liturgically minded folks who are just “going through the motions.” I’ve lived both of these sides of the same perfectionist coin when it comes to spiritual disciplines.

At the core of all of this is the issue that our own propensity to create rigid rules on top of the things that we’d like to do better at or do more of ends up leaving us down, out, and defeated before we ever gain any real traction.

As an academic geek, Bible reading is the spiritual practice that comes most comfortably to me, if I’m honest (although it didn’t always, mainly because of the reasons I stated above). As a pastor, I’m always reminded how daunting reading the Bible can be for most people. As a human being, I, like all of us, struggle with some spiritual practices more than others.

Today, since it’s a sweet spot for me and a discipline I’m passionate about helping others to do better in, I’m going to talk about three odd perspectives I’ve learned to overcome perfectionism and fear that keep us from engaging with Scripture regularly.

BE RIGID ABOUT READING, NOT THE WHEN, WHERE, WHY, OR HOW

My concern with doing something just for the sake of checking it off my list used to be the roadblock to me reading the Bible regularly. Then, one day, about nine or so years ago, my wife and I were hanging out with some friends and talking about this very subject. One of our friends spoke up in the conversation, and she said something that still compels me to stick to my Bible-reading habit each day. Here’s a fuzzy-memory paraphrase, but sort of direct quote from her,

“I like to just read the Bible every day regardless of how I’m feeling, what time of day it is, or any other peripheral matters are going on. Some days I’ll be very attentive, others I’ll finish reading and have no clue what I just read. But, if I keep reading through, year after year, eventually I’ll miss what I got clearly the last pass through and, even more importantly, I’ll pick up what I missed the last time.”

Her point was that merely doing a little bit, religiously, every day, will pay off in the long run. Since that conversation, I can confidently say that I’ve been consistently reading Scripture, cover to cover, year in and year out. Sometimes I’m focused, sometimes I’m not. But suppose spiritual disciplines are all about being open to God’s work in our lives and being in a relationship with him. In that case, I liken this first approach to reading the Bible to the way I would approach a relationship with a person. A relationship is only a relationship when the people show up. Some days it’s deep, others it’s shallow, most of the time, it’s nonsense, but the relationship remains strong because of the commitment to be there. Spiritual disciplines, and, more specifically, reading the Bible, for me, are like that: When I just show up, there’s a better chance that I’m going to grow eventually than if I never show up at all.

YOU DO GO TO THE BATHROOM, RIGHT?

In the spirit of breaking down the perfectionist hangups that keep us from practicing our spiritual disciplines, here’s a crass practice that I either heard somewhere or came up with on my own. I can’t really remember, and I’m not sure why anyone would want to take credit for this anyway, but here it goes.

The first hang-up I mentioned, where everything around us has to be perfect so we can be perfectly attuned in our disciplines, is the issue that I hear from more church folk than I can count. And the truth is that no one has time to make their circumstances perfect, and no one ever has the ideal time to do something with the full focus they’d like. To that, I’d say, “So what?” Suppose regular engagement with Scripture is more critical than some self-righteous push against the “meaningless checklist habit” approach to reading the Bible. In that case, this suggestion breaks down our need for clean, perfect, and pristine “devotional time.” 

What am I getting at?

Well, here it is: Stop telling yourself you don’t have the time to read the Bible or to keep up with a particular devotional time and space. If you go to the bathroom, like everyone does, read you’re Bible there.

There was an episode of the television show Scrubs a few years back where the janitor of Sacred Heart Hospital installed a toilet on the hospital’s roof, and it became his special get away where he had time to contemplate life and discover a eureka moment or two. Eventually, while some were hesitant to try out a toilet in the open air, the secret got out, and all of the hospital employees lined up to use the toilet as their much-needed space to discover profound epiphanies about their lives. 

 

Many of us say we don’t have time because we think our time and space have to be a particular way for it to count. The truth is, though, we’re really good at wasting time and opportunity. If you read through the Bible cover-to-cover over a year, it breaks down to a few chapters a day. If you use “downtime,” like going using your time on the toilet to do that little bit of daily reading, you’ll have that daily devotional time you keep telling yourself you don’t have the right time and space for. 

I told that “tip” to a class I was teaching a few years ago, and a mom and son were both attending together. A week later, I got an email from the mom, overjoyed when she saw that her son had moved his Bible next to the toilet in their family bathroom. He started reading regularly and told his mom he was glad someone was willing to give that “sort” of advice.

SYSTEMS VERSUS GOALS

The last thing I’ll add is that my mentor encouraged me to read the book Atomic Habits since I’m a perfectionist procrastinator, and while I’m only a quarter of the way through the book, a core tenet of the text already stands out. Many of us try to form good habits with a goal-oriented approach; that is, we believe that if we set a goal, the goal will propel us to adopt whatever practice we’d like to form and stick with it. Sadly, for a variety of reasons, the book outlines that the goal-oriented approach almost always fails. Instead, the author, James Clear, suggests a systems-focused approach. He uses the example of athletic competition to show the difference: The goal-approach is like a coach stating that he’d like his team to win the championship and assuming that the goal will propel them to victory. The problem is that every team has the same goal, and not every team wins the whole thing. Instead, a systems-focus encourages small, seemingly insignificant changes that add up over time and lead to significant and desirable outcomes. 

The point is, Bible study implies two things, engagement with the text and learning the contextual things that are important to understand the text you are reading. If you set a goal to read the whole thing cover-to-cover or to understand “what the Bible means,” you’ll psych yourself out quickly. But if you take a systems approach, read a little bit each day, and try to learn just one new thing each day that will illuminate what you read, that small systematic way of approaching Bible study will yield a lifetime of understanding, wisdom, growth, and connection with God.

A FINAL WORD ABOUT STUDYING THE WORD

Too many people approach Bible study thinking they’ll never know enough, they’ll never be as smart as [fill in the blank with a random scholar, preacher, or theologian]. Even if they thought they could, they don’t believe they have the time, energy, or presence of mind needed to do it.

I did not grow up going to church as a kid. I came to Cincinnati Bible College in 2002, only having been a baptized, believing Christian for a couple of years. Yet, for nearly 20 years since, I’ve devoted myself to studying the Bible in the most imperfect and inconsistent ways. I study because in it are God-breathed words, “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NRSV).

Timothy Peace

Timothy Peace

Timothy Peace is husband to Angie and dad to Leonidas. He is the Teaching Minister at Mount Carmel Christian Church, in Batavia, Ohio, and a PhD Candidate at Radboud University, in Nijmegen, Netherlands.

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