Seeing the Best When It's Less Than Perfect
- Friday, December 07, 2001
We face two ongoing challenges in all of the decisions we make. One is to see the flaws in opportunities that at first seem only too perfect.
A friend tells me that he once had the chance to marry a woman he worshiped. I thank God now that it didn't work out, he says, for I would have ceased to be who I am.
My friend showed uncanny wisdom in turning away from this enchanting option. Although greatly attracted to this woman, he concluded that marrying her wouldn't be right in light of how God had made him as a person. It would have diverted his attention from areas where he needed to grow, and important areas of his potential would never have been realized.
It's often this way with opportunities that are too enticing. The most alluring prospects in relationships, jobs, and other areas can have a way of consuming us. We become so obsessed with our absorbing interest that we stop enjoying other areas of life as fully and our growth is stunted in many ways. Ironically, it's those opportunities that most perfectly match our dreams and fantasies that often pose the greatest danger, for we're least likely to consider the tradeoffs involved in pursuing them. Learning to think clearly in the face of such choices is no small challenge.
But seeing the imperfections in perfect opportunities is only half the battle in making healthy decisions. We also need to be able to recognize golden opportunities that come our way that at first seem to fall short of our ideals. God often has remarkable opportunities for us that we tend to undervalue. We see them as good opportunities but not perfect ones. Yet God sees them as the right opportunities for us given the total mix of factors in our life.
Appreciating these openings for what they are is a particularly difficult challenge for anyone who instinctively fears commitment. A major part of what fuels commitment anxiety is the dread of compromising, or settling. Most people who fear commitment are inordinately concerned about being drawn into situations that dont perfectly meet their ideals. Their sensibilities are finely tuned to imperfections in people, relationships, work situations, and all the opportunities life offers. They are slow to commit to opportunities others would find welcome and quick to bail out of situations that fail to live up to their standards.
Accepting that God's best for us can seem less than perfect is a major step in taming this perfectionism. Reaching this point of conviction is extraordinarily liberating, too, for it frees us from the compulsion of thinking we have to find situations that perfectly match our ideals. Yet it usually takes some careful reflection on biblical teaching to make this shift in outlook, for it differs from the idealistic notions so frequently taught in Christian circles. How often we hear statements like these preached --
- God has a perfect plan for your life, so make certain your choices reflect it.
- Don't marry someone whom you could possibly live without.
- If you have any doubts whatever about a decision, don't go ahead.
Scripture, though, never encourages such a perfectionist mentality in making our major life choices. Christ alone can perfectly meet our needs in any area, and any situation that purports to do so would become an idol to us. Having ideals for our choices is critical; yet setting them too high can thwart God's best for us as fully as setting them too low.
Let me suggest some perspectives for recognizing good opportunities without compromising the ideals Christ sees as important. Here are four principles for seeing God's best when it seems less than perfect from our end.
1. Let Go of Obsessive Concern for Guidance
While I've heard many stories about people who were excessively concerned with knowing God's will, one stands out above the rest. Robert was a member of a church in southern Virginia which taught an obsessive concept of guidance. Members were exhorted to seek God's will in all the small details of life. Uncertain about whether to get out of bed in the morning? Pray for guidance. Once you're up, ask God's direction about which socks to put on, which cereal to eat, which route to take to work, which parking place to choose -- about all the particulars of the day.
Robert tried diligently to follow this practice but was constantly frustrated by a lack of clear guidance. Things finally came to a head for him when he collapsed in a supermarket one day and fell to the floor screaming, God, is this really where you want me? Is this really where you want me?
Most of us are quick to see the fallacy in Robert's outlook and in the teaching of his church. We know that God should not be expected to give special guidance for minor choices, but wants us to grow through making them ourselves. Here, he gives us the privilege of following our sanctified preferences (Genesis 2:16). Stewardship demands that we not become too distracted by small decisions, but use our best judgment and move on.
Many mature Christians, though, become highly preoccupied with finding God's will for major decisions. Some get caught up in an extreme concern for guidance that goes well beyond the healthy concern we should all have. This is a common problem for commitment-fearful people, or any who demand unreasonable perfection in their choices. Their quest for perfect decisions begins with wanting absolute certainty they are in God's will. And their obsession -- and frustration level -- often matches that of Robert.
This search for clear guidance is usually well intentioned, based on a conviction that God wants to provide it. Apart from moral matters, though, Scripture never encourages us to expect God to provide perfect certainty about his will in personal decisions, not even in major choices. It does teach that he has a perfect will for these decisions. Yet it never tells us to become absorbed in finding it. Rather, we are to pray for willingness, then use the gift of judgment God has given us and make prudent choices. While God guides us, his guidance comes subtly -- usually unrecognized -- as we go through the practical process of making decisions.
It's in this spirit that the Israelite king Jehoshaphat instructed judges he appointed: the LORD . . . is with you in giving judgment. Now then, let the fear of the LORD be upon you (2 Chronicles 19:6-7 RSV). He didn't tell the judges to expect direct revelations of guidance from God. He did promise that God would guide them through their normal process of exercising judgment, providing they revered him.
In the same way we're assured throughout Scripture that we can find God's will through careful decision-making. To this end Paul tells us that we who follow Christ have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthains 2:16). Through taking responsibility for our choices we grow in ways that wouldn't be possible if God always made it easy for us through direct guidance.
Even in a decision as far-reaching as marriage, Scripture never counsels us to wait for special guidance from God before taking the step. Rather, Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 7:2, Since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. Paul's admonition in the Greek literally reads, let each man have his own wife and let each woman have her own husband, and comes close to being a command. He is saying that the person who needs marriage should take responsibility to find a reasonable opportunity. He obviously means his counsel for those who can find such an opportunity and not to belittle those can't. Yet his clear intent is that one should take personal initiative in seeking marriage. He says nothing about waiting for special guidance before going ahead.
The fact that God wants us to take responsibility for our choices comes as welcome relief to those of us who are tied up in knots looking for an unreasonable level of guidance. We're not expected to wait for perfect certainty about God's will, but are free to take initiative. Far from forcing God's hand by doing so, we're fulfilling his intention that we become responsible decision makers. If we pray earnestly that our choices will reflect his will, we may trust that he will guide us in his will as we make practical decisions.
2. The Principle of Suitable Choices
In regard to seeking marriage, it's not only intriguing that Paul says nothing in 1 Corinthians 7 about waiting for special guidance. He also says nothing about looking for the perfect spouse. He obviously wants Christians to use good judgment in choosing whom they marry. But never in his extensive teaching on the marriage decision in 1 Corinthians 7 does he suggest that we should wait until all of our ideals are met before deciding to marry someone.
I find it particularly interesting that Paul simply assumed his Corinthian readers can find someone appropriate to marry. Their church was only about five years old at this time and it had many problems. It was not likely a huge congregation either, and the pool of potential marriage candidates was certainly small. In spite of these limitations, Paul doesn't counsel his readers to go on a search for the ideal mate, or even to look outside of their church for a spouse. He seems to assume that many of them, at least, can find a good opportunity within the Corinthian church itself.
Did Paul believe that God has one ideal choice for each person he wants married? If pressed, he would probably have answered yes, given his emphasis on predestination. Yet Paul never recommends that we should dwell on this thought in our search for a partner. His counsel on the practical level can best be summarized not as, God has one perfect spouse for you, but, God will help you to find someone suitable to marry.
This is one of the most critical shifts in perspective we need to make in seeking marriage. If we're caught up in the belief that God has one perfect mate for us, we're likely to assume that this person -- and the relationship -- must be perfect. If we think, rather, in terms of finding a suitable partner, we're much more likely to see the marriage potential in a relationship with someone who, like ourselves, falls short of perfect.
Beyond the marriage decision, it helps to aim for suitable rather than perfect choices in all of our decisions. Thinking this way allows us to maintain good standards of judgment without being paralyzed by impossible ideals. Regarding work and career, for instance, Scripture never suggests we can find a job that seems perfect. Our career can provide considerable fulfillment and the Bible encourages us to take pleasure in our work (Ecclesiastes 3:13, 5:18-20). Yet a certain burden is always involved in work as well (Genesis 3:17-19). We cannot escape this dynamic tension, even in the best job.
3. Confidence in Providence
Learning to think in terms of finding suitable opportunities is not our only need, though. We also need to be able to recognize these special opportunities when they occur.
Nothing helps more to increase our awareness of them than a strong conviction about the role of God's providence in our lives. Scripture teaches that God is working continuously to provide us with good opportunities that offer solutions to many of the needs we face. We need to believe this as a matter of faith.
Subtle differences in how I think about God's providence in my life, though, can strongly affect whether I recognize the opportunities he presents or am oblivious to them. My belief that he has a perfect plan for me, for instance, may lead me to think that choices I make must be perfect. In fact, this conviction should lead me to the opposite conclusion. It should help me realize that he is providing excellent opportunities through situations that appear less than perfect from my standpoint. It should inspire me to see his best in my imperfect circumstances.
The fact that God is actively working out his plan in my life, in other words, means that many of the opportunities I face are indeed golden ones. To wait indefinitely for more ideal circumstances before committing myself can show a considerable lack of faith.
While the theme of Gods presenting good opportunities through imperfect circumstances permeates Scripture, it is especially clear in Jeremiah 29. Here we find one of the Bible's most treasured statements about God's providential role in our lives: 'For I know the plans I have for you,' says the LORD, 'plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope' (v. 11 RSV). God assures us that he is taking profound initiative to work out an incomparable plan for each of us.
Seldom when we recall this verse, though, do we consider the context in which it occurs. The Israelites have been deported to Babylon and are severely depressed over leaving their homeland. They see no good whatever in their current situation and are reluctant to make any long-term commitments in it. Yet Jeremiah instructs them:
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 'Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease' (Jeremiah 29:4-6).
It is following this exhortation to take initiative to rebuild their lives that God then declares, I know the plans I have for you .
Because he has good plans for them, God says, the Israelites should see his best in their present imperfect situation. They shouldn't wait for more ideal circumstances before taking steps to meet their vital needs. And God notes three major areas where the commitment-fearful Israelites should take initiative:
- to find suitable living situations (build houses and settle down)
- to find work (plant gardens and eat what they produce--a symbolic way of saying, be gainfully employed)
- to find marriage and family life (marry and have sons and daughters)
Strongly implicit in God's counsel to the Israelites is that he is providing good opportunities for them in each of these areas. Yet they won't find them by being idle or skittish about commitment. They must take earnest initiative to discover the best God has for them.
We should consider this passage and its implications often. It suggests the need for a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we approach our decisions. Rather than insist that a situation must prove itself flawless before we commit ourselves, we should assume that a good opportunity is very possibly one we should choose. Of course we should use good judgment and weigh each option carefully. But we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss an opportunity because it fails to meet all of our ideals. Appreciating God's providential role in our lives should increase our conviction that an open door may be his answer to our needs.
Take a typical relationship situation. Alice and Jon have dated seriously for three years and have a deep, caring relationship. Each is a mature Christian in his and her late twenties, and each personally wants to be married rather than remain single. Yet even though they are very attracted to each other, they cannot resolve whether to marry. Alice worries whether Jon will perfectly meet all of her needs, and Jon wants a clear sign from God before going ahead.
Jon and Alice should put the burden of proof upon why they shouldn't marry, however, rather than upon why they should. Apart from a compelling reason, in other words, they should choose to get married. The fact that God has allowed them to tie up several years of their adult lives in a serious romantic relationship is itself a compelling reason to consider marriage, particularly given the level of their personal need, and the fact that neither they nor any of their friends see any red flags indicating major problems.
4. The Personal Growth Factor
One factor more than any other can help us see the value of opportunities we would otherwise overlook. It's the advantage they provide for personal growth.
Many underestimate the marriage potential in a good relationship because they are focusing solely on the issue of their own happiness. The question of personal fulfillment is important, to be sure. Paul clearly teaches in 1 Corinthians 7 that unless we have a fundamental desire to be married, we should stay single and enjoy the special benefits of being unattached. Scripture teaches, though, that God gives us marriage at least as much for our own development as for our fulfillment. In marriage he places me for life in a relationship with another imperfect human being. I'm also thrust into a variety of new relationships, with my spouse's family and, especially, with the children we raise. Through all of these encounters God stretches me and broadens me in countless beneficial ways. My compassion for people is deepened. I learn to love and relate to others who are different from me, and learn how to handle numerous new challenges.
If you're in a good relationship, yet cannot finally decide about marriage, it may be that your principles of judgment are skewed. Are you looking only at how he or she can make you happy? That is a dead-end question, for no individual can remotely begin to meet all of your needs for fulfillment. Consider also how God may use this person to help you grow. Looking at a relationship from this standpoint can make a remarkable difference in seeing its full benefits. It can even be the turning point in deciding with confidence to marry.
The personal growth consideration helps resolve many other difficult choices as well. Whether it's a job prospect, a living situation, an opportunity to join a church or serve within it, or some other option that seems less than perfect, look carefully at how this situation may help you develop as a person. Will it teach you new abilities? Will it help you better understand others who think differently from you? Will it help you develop better social skills? Will it help you grow in other areas where you need to mature?
We should each pray often that God will help us recognize the potential for growth in situations that otherwise seem less than perfect. Even more, we should pray that he will deepen our desire to mature in all of the areas that he considers significant. Developing a greater thirst for personal growth can be the most important step we take toward breaking the inertia of commitment fear. It can give us the impetus to risk, and to find joy in the challenges that arise in even the most carefully considered decision.
This article is adapted from chapter 2 of Blaines The Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment (InterVarsity Press, 1995).
Copyright 2001 M. Blaine Smith. All rights reserved.
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