Eleven years ago, on a sweltering, humid summer day in Houston, Texas, I married my husband. In the words of my father, “Well! He certainly wasn’t what we were expecting!” Dennis is a proud, born and raised Texan, a true southern gentleman who loves proper barbeque, hot sauce, and his cowboy boots. A beloved friend has described him as being steadfast in faith while not being too serious. He leads our family with biblical conviction and a whole lot of fun. To agree with my father, Dennis was not what I was expecting in the best way possible.
The week before our wedding, a family emergency propelled us airborne to Alaska. We returned to Houston the day before our wedding. On the heels of a week of chaos and uncertainty, we were thankful to have invested in a wedding planner who cared for all the details we were too exhausted to consider. The wedding preparations were executed flawlessly, and in our minds, it was the “picture perfect” wedding day.
I thought we were more than prepared for marriage. We completed pre-marital counseling and navigated the waters of the biblical doctrine of marriage and its implications for our lives. We discussed the expectations we had going into marriage. Our pastor corrected, warned, and encouraged us when we needed it, and we heeded his wisdom. We knew who was going to be responsible for the different household tasks. We contemplated long-term future decisions and resolved that I would be a stay-at-home mom when the time came to bear children. We had a plan. We had it all figured out, perfectly.
Perfect. Ever since I can remember, various people have pronounced, “You’re a perfectionist, aren’t you?” Perfectionism defined me from an early age and performing perfectly was my mode of operation going into marriage. I don’t think I said it out loud, but somewhere in my mind I thought our “perfect plan” would spare us conflict and heartbreak.
Even more chilling was the belief that I had control. I believed the lie Satan fed to Eve in the Garden of Eden, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). At the heart of my perfectionism is the desire to “be like God,” controlling myself and others with my perfect plans.
Marriage was, and continues to be, the magnifying lens God used to reveal to me that I need the gospel to sanctify every area of my life. My desire to control and perform perfectly was a strain in our early years of marriage. My sinful thinking caused me to have unrealistic and ungodly expectations of my spouse. Remember the plan we devised in pre-marital counselling? I expected my spouse to fulfill those commitments impeccably; consequently, I was profoundly disappointed when my spouse failed to meet each selfish demand. I was angry and contentious when he didn’t live up to my external religious system of righteousness.
I remember the day the Lord showed me how unloving I was being toward my new spouse. I returned home from running errands one afternoon. I opened the door to our second-floor apartment to see bedsheets sprawled out on the living room floor while my husband was watching “how to” videos on the computer. He looked exasperated.
When I inquired what he was doing, I discovered he was watching videos on how to properly fold bedsheets. His rationale was that if he could finally figure out how to fold the sheets perfectly then I would be happy. In that moment, the Lord brought to mind all the many times I had been sinfully nitpicky about how my husband didn’t perform household chores, daily tasks, or other duties according to my standard of flawlessness.
In Matthew 23, Jesus addresses perfectionists like me who are trying to achieve a righteousness of their own. Jesus calls my perfectionism what it is: self-indulgent and hypocritical (Matt. 23:25, 27, 28). By attempting to live a perfectly controlled life, I was seeking salvation apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ. I was that white washed tomb that outwardly appeared beautiful but was full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness (Matt. 23:27-28). I was tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear, on my husband’s shoulders (Matt. 23:4).
My self-indulgent heart needed to be instructed by the “one instructor, the Christ” (Matt. 23:10). A heart that idolizes perfection foolishly and pridefully proclaims a person can achieve goodness apart from Jesus Christ. Jesus graciously warns me that He will humble those who exalt themselves. Jesus mercifully calls me to repentance, to turn away from my pride, and to ask for a humble, servant-like heart. My Saviour does not leave me a whitewashed tomb full of dead people’s bones. He washes me from the inside out and makes me alive in Him.
Occasionally, I have the privilege of having tea with young, new brides traversing the twists and turns of marriage. These sweet ones encourage my soul more than they know. I admire them for not only asking tough questions, but they also expect to be challenged to mortify sin and live lives worthy of the gospel. They remind me of my younger married self and how grateful I am for the lessons the Lord has taught me along the way.
If I were to sit across from that brown-eyed, twenty-something, newly married self, I would allow her to ask her questions, to talk freely, and to be heard. Then I would pray for godly wisdom to probe her heart and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to her why she is annoyed with her husband’s inability to fold bedsheets properly, to wash the dishes in the “correct manner,” or to do laundry according to the unwritten “rules.” Lord willing, she will see that perfectionism incorrectly teaches her she can have confidence in the flesh but that the cross exposes her wicked heart.
I would encourage this young dear one to see how the gospel frees her to love her husband, even when he doesn’t perform household tasks the way she prefers. The gospel frees her from the desire to control life because there is One greater who is in control, sustaining everything by His own power. Everything her perfectionistic tendencies tell her she can achieve in her marriage are to be counted as loss when compared to what is gained in knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. I would exhort my younger married self to remember that the success of my marriage is not dependent on my ability to live according to a perfectly manicured plan, but that my marriage is dependent upon the perfect plan of another who holds all things together.