Psalm 73: The Perfectionism Antidote
Do you have any touchstone passages of scripture? You know, the ones that are underlined in different colors, signifying truths unearthed at different seasons of life? Maybe there are dates or notes written in the margin, stretching back 10 or maybe 30 years ago. Psalm 73 is one of those passages for me. This chapter is one that I have returned to many times over the past several years, highlighting different verses each time, the familiar words pulling me out of spiritual funks and emotional confusion.
As I read it again the other night, it resonated with me on a deeper level. I realized this passage was the perfectionist antidote.
Since I was a teen (but probably earlier) I have struggled with perfectionist tendencies. I wanted to do good and right not simply because it was what was expected of me, but because I began to believe it would be the best way to be accepted by God, by my friends, by my family. I often think of what is the right thing to do before I even ask what I would like to do.
These lies are tricky, though, because for a long time, I didn’t even realize that’s what I was doing. But I was indeed pinning my self-worth on how I felt I was doing in life. If I was having a good day, then I was a good person. If I was having a bad day, then I was a bad person.
But my gaze didn’t stay inward. While, there is nothing wrong with shooting for high standards and pursuing excellence, those efforts quickly become toxic when you pick apart all that is wrong with the world around you.
So I do my best (red flag) to not hyper focus on what’s wrong or things that annoy me. I try to act like it doesn’t bother me. But actually, my surface frustration is masking deep disappointment, disillusionment and rage deep in the caverns of my heart.
Over the past several weeks, there have been a number of events (in varying levels of severity, none of which are connected) that have grieved me and unmasked this deep-seated anger. I know, I know, I don’t seem like an angry person. God’s “unearthings” surprised me too. But He decided it was time that He and I work on this, and He lead me to the foot of the cross and handed me this Psalm I was so familiar with, Psalm 73.
For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. (Psalm 73:3-4)
In the opening lines of this chapter, we see quickly that Asaph is deeply bothered by what’s wrong in the world, with evil collecting its $200 and skipping jail. He felt the isolation of those who were still holding to God’s truths in the midst of a godless society, but his effort was waning. Disillusionment was descending over his landscape.
This is what the wicked are like—always free of care, they go on amassing wealth. Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. (Psalm 73:12-13a)
In verses 12 and 13, Asaph is a slave to his own perceptions of the injustices around him, while also being enamored with his own efforts. He was trapped and double-trapped, unable to respond to God’s overtures. He writes of being so bitter and disillusioned that he reacted to God’s overtures like a wild animal.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. (Psalm 73:21-22)
When was the last time you felt that deep, guttural reaction to injustice or massive disappointment in your own life? I have been there. My heart has been grieved. My spirit has drunk deeply of bitterness. And I have snarled and recoiled from God’s tender overtures.
The Psalmist is viewing the world through the lens of all that’s wrong, but he doesn’t stop there. He starts to believe he is the only one who is doing what is right. That’s a distinct, much heavier burden to bear: thinking that you are the only one who cares about doing something right.
But Asaph comes to realize that God isn’t handing out gold stars in this moment for Asaph’s stellar behavior. God wasn’t even focusing on what was going on with the evildoers. In that moment, grace was being extending to Asaph, for in fact, he was in the wrong with his prideful, judgmental attitude.
You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. (Psalm 73:24)
His change of heart begins when he turned his gaze toward God. Instead of continuing to hold the world and all around him to impossibly high standards, he realizes that he doesn’t have to be perfect to enjoy God. God does not need his ceaseless vigilante efforts.
When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. (Psalm 73:16-17)
Notice the turn in his demeanor comes not with the resounding horn of justice, of all the evildoers getting what’s coming to them (though he realizes that will happen eventually), but with setting his feet toward God’s dwelling place. We could park it right there on this one verse, but continue reading with me.
In verse 25, Asaph admits that he truly desires God over justice and perfection, far from how he began the chapter. Just verses earlier, he had such unrealistic expectations of his own efforts that he starts to wonder if it was even worth it. I don’t care to admit how many times I have thought the same thing.
Do you truly desire God himself above perceived perfection in your own circumstances? As Christians still on this side of heaven, we have to battle against the often unspoken (and un-biblical) notion that the more you trust God, the bigger your shield grows around you, protecting you from any discomfort, large and small.
Until it doesn’t.
Maybe that moment happens when you’re young and you’ve been hurt, abused or betrayed by someone close to you. Maybe it doesn’t happen until you’re in high school or college. But we all arrive at that point of realizing that just because we follow Jesus doesn’t mean that trials don’t know where to find us.
I spoke of battling with perfectionism, and it shows up again when I face painful situations in my life.
Haven’t I done enough to avoid some of this? (Ugh, such a lie)
I have often (wrongly) thought my “track record” with God was enough to exempt me from such trials. I am guilty of desiring resolution more than a deeper walk with the Creator himself. Not only does said track record not hold weight with the Lord, but just like Asaph, I’ve been missing the point.
Asaph’s heart change continues in verse 26 when he does admit his own failure, pulling off the mask he so pridefully put on earlier. He is not perfect after all.
Finishing out the chapter with perhaps the most recognizable verses, Asaph acknowledges that while injustice still exists, it doesn’t have to affect his inner walk with the Lord or his standing. He realizes he is right where he needs to be.
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25-26)
He goes from demanding perfection of his circumstances, of the earth, and himself to demanding nothing except nearness with God. God’s presence is what sets his heart singing, not being right or perfect or having a front row seat to God’s vengeance.
So to anyone else that struggles with perfectionism (really for all of us), here is your invitation to take a breath and to reorient yourself to the truth:
But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds. (Psalm 73:28)