The Enslavement Of All or Nothing

Yesterday I preached on Mark 9:14-29, which includes that famous statement “I believe; help my unbelief!” I talked briefly about how desperately we needed to internalize the implications of this profound statement, and judging by conversations I have been having, this really struck a chord with many people.

So let me expound even further.

“I believe; help my unbelief!” is an affront to our perfectionism. I believe we are a society in bondage to perfectionist tendencies, and it’s turning us all into neurotic messes. I wish I could say this isn’t the case within the church, but unfortunately it may be even worse within the church. At least within the tradition I belong to.

Perfectionism, at its core, is the lie of all or nothing thinking. If it’s not perfect it’s worthless. The problem of course is that perfection, this side of glory, is unattainable, which then leaves us with perpetual worthlessness. But perfectionism is a lie that denies the complexity of our motivations, loves, longings, efforts, commitments, and so forth.

At the forefront of the passage in Mark is the issue of faith, and this is what I focused on in my sermon. The Christian is one who trusts in Jesus Christ, and it is this faith commitment that is the bases of our very salvation. Clearly, faith in Jesus is a big deal. Because of this, many Christians get into the paralyzing cycle of evaluating the sincerity of their faith. (This is only compounded by revivalist preaching style that uses every sermon as an occasion to get people to doubt their faith and rededicate themselves to Jesus. Another post for another day)

If you take the all or nothing paradigm of perfectionism and evaluate your faith, then you will never experience the joy and freedom that is yours in Christ. Faith is not as simplistic as I totally believe, or I am an unbeliever. Faith is a messy, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

Contrary to what your sinister perfectionism is whispering to you, struggles with unbelief do not make you an unbeliever. Thoughts of doubt and mistrust, unfaithful acts, moments of betrayal do not negate the very real faith that is within you. You are allowed to say, “I really do love you Jesus…and I need you to increase my love for you.”

So that’s the point I was making in the sermon. Jesus is okay with messy faith and we really need to become okay with it as well.

But this has implications that go beyond our faith. “I believe; help my unbelief” needs to set the paradigm for all that we do.

I’ll use my personal shame as an example. Sunday morning is the time of my week when I really encounter my perfectionism. When I step into the pulpit it really is because of love Jesus and His people, and I really do want God to be glorified above all else. But I also want to be famous in the eyes of man; I also want to control the moment; I also want to win the argument; I also want to promote my agenda. I hate that these vain motivations are there, but they are there.

So what do I do about it? The answer is to receive God’s grace, repent, and ask God to purge me of these defilements, but too often that’s not what I do. Far too many Sunday afternoons are spent in the prison of all or nothing thinking. I believe the lie that because the sermon was not preached with a completely undivided heart, it was a worthless sermon. I self-loath over the traces of self-promotion thinking that they completely negate the worship of Jesus Christ at TCPC. I know this sounds crazy to you, but your perfectionism is just as crazy.

Snapping at your kids does not mean you are a worthless parent.

Acts of selfishness does not mean you are a worthless spouse.

Your jealousy of your friend’s life does not mean you are a worthless friend.

Anything less than an A does not mean you are a worthless student.

A physical imperfection does not mean you have a worthless body.

What we need to do is take the messy confession “I believe; help my unbelief” and apply the paradigm to every area of life.

I really do want to pastor well; help me in my failures as a pastor. I really do love my kids; help my impatience with my kids. I really do want to serve my spouse; help my selfishness toward my spouse. Etc.

Life as fallen creatures in a fallen world will never be all or nothing. It is profoundly beautiful and profoundly broken and we need to be okay with that tension. We bless God for what He has done in our lives, we are quick to repent and receive His grace for the remaining hypocrisy, and we eagerly await the day of our perfection that is promised to us.

And now, for my sanctification and yours, I will end this post with a typoo.

Rev. Robert Cunningham