In our church sanctuary, we display a large open Bible on the communion table located on the back wall of the stage. Can anyone read it from where they’re sitting? Nope. Neither can I, and I stand way closer to the Bible than the rest of the congregation. The print in the Bible is large, but even at my closer distance, and even though I wear contact lenses that give me perfect vision, there’s no way I’m reading it. Maybe if I used binoculars. That might be interesting to try! But we don’t display the open Bible because we want people to read it. Why do we have that open Bible displayed on our stage for all to see? Keep reading, and I’ll tell you. I’ll also admit to you how that open Bible engages my struggle with perfectionism.
We’re studying Ecclesiastes 7:15-8:8, which is filled with proverbs to help us make sense of and live faithfully in our perplexing world. In the previous post, we saw in verse 15 the Teacher give us an ironic proverb. Let’s keep reading, because the Teacher has a flow of thought he’s working on:
Dorsey’s Translation: “16 Do not demand of yourself perfect righteousness or perfect wisdom, because such perfectionism can destroy a person. 17 On the other hand, do not abandon yourself to evil or folly; why should you die before your time? 18 So shun both perfectionism and wickedness. The man who respects and obeys God will find the pathway between these two evils. 19 Such wisdom will give the wise person better protection than a walled city commanded by ten rulers.”
The proverb that summarizes this section? Avoid destructive perfectionism. Wisdom is found in respecting and obeying God.
His flow of thought from verse 15 to 16 is this: because the righteous die in their righteousness, don’t demand perfection of yourself, because that can kill you too! That verse is where this teaching really started resonating with me. How many of you have ever struggled with perfectionism? It can get weird sometimes, can’t it?
Remember the open Bible in our sanctuary? In reality, no one ever reads that Bible. We don’t have the Bible up there in case someone has forgotten their Bible, and they need to borrow it. We display the Bible as a symbol. It is a visible reminder that we are a people who hold high the Word of God. Here’s where my perfectionism comes out. Even though I cannot read a single word on that Bible, I can tell you exactly what it says on the page it is open to. Do you know how? Not because I have memorized it, but because every week I go up there, and I flip the page on the Bible to the exact spot we’ll be talking about in the sermon. When I preached the sermon this blog post is about, the Bible was open to Ecclesiastes 7. Does that matter? Not even a little bit. Except to those of us who are perfectionists, who might be thinking, “Oh that’s a nice touch. I get that.” But those who are not perfectionists could think, “What a waste of time.”
What does perfectionism look like for you? Could be a perfectly manicured lawn, clean car, straight picture frames, English grammar, recycling, driving the speed limit, or all of the above!
The reality is that perfectionism can get out of control. It can consume us. Including the pursuit of perfect righteousness and perfect wisdom. In other words, even the pursuit of very good things can become neurotic. We can be emotionally and physically enslaved by our perfectionism.
But there’s also the other end of the spectrum. Wickedness. Evil. Folly. The Teacher says in verse 17 that we should avoid that too, noting that it can lead to us dying before our time. That’s another proverb: When you live a foolish, wicked live, you die sooner.
So if wisdom says, “Don’t pursue perfection, and don’t pursue wickedness,” what should we do about these extremes? We should shun them! Sorry perfectionists. There is another, wiser, way. Look at verse 18.
Pursue what? Respecting and obeying God. In verse 19, the Teacher says that respecting and obeying God will lead us to the most powerful wisdom, that is like a fortress protecting us.