by Johnathan Arnold
As a wounded and broken public school teenager, perfectionism was a coping response. When especially stressed, I would wander around the house aimlessly straitening things and aligning nick-nacks into tidy right angles. This attraction to symmetry was so consuming that I would rewrite entire paragraphs so that they did not end with the letter “y.” I hated the asymmetry. My perfectionistic tendencies have subsided by God’s grace, as you can see from the previous sentence.
For many, however, perfectionism does not easily go away; for some, it “is an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. It's a fast and enduring track to unhappiness, and perfectionism is often accompanied by depression and eating disorders. What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation. And love isn't a refuge; in fact, it feels way too conditional on performance. Perfection, of course, is an abstraction, an impossibility in reality, and often it leads to procrastination. There is a difference between striving for excellence and demanding perfection. The need for perfection is usually transmitted in small ways from parents to children, some as silent as a raised eyebrow over a B rather than an A" (Psychology Today).
Perhaps you can relate to the above description which alludes to childhood expectations as a common source of this kind of brokenness. Sam Allberry recently Tweeted, “What 15 years of doing pastoral [counseling] has taught me: If childhood is about preparing for adulthood, adulthood is about recovering from childhood.” While there is a kind of self-centered perfectionism that is prideful, most perfectionists are just wounded.
Paul Hewitt notes that at a very young age, some children “develop a sense that they’re not worthy, that there’s some flaw, defect, or otherwise something wrong with them.” He notes, “Perfectionism develops as a way to cope with that defective sense of self and a sense of not fitting in with others, not fitting in with the world, not having a place in the world.”
If you feel this pain, God knows. God knows and God has good news. The good news is there is Good News.
God is For You
Many perfectionists are spiritually paralyzed because their view of God is heartbreakingly flawed. They view God like the parent with the “raised eyebrow over a B rather than an A.” They serve a god in their head: a god that they love, but don’t like. The god in their mind is a harsh judge, swift to strike them down. Their god inflexibly demands a standard to which they cannot attain. This god is not the God of the Bible.
The gospel is the Good News that God is good. Really good. The true God is incredibly patient and gracious in His dealings with all of His children, especially His children with perfectionist tendencies. God is a shepherd: He guides, never drives. God is a friend: He whispers, never yells. God is a lover: He desires, never pushes us away. God is a present help: He sees us through, never leaves us alone.
By sending His Son to die for us, God showed perfectionists that He is for them. God loves perfectionists. God shows Himself good to perfectionists. God is for perfectionists. God is for you. He paid the price for you, and He isn’t even close to ready to throw you out.
God foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and plans to glorify you (Ro. 8:29-30). You are God’s masterful work in progress. He has made your life’s intricate details His eternal business, even before you were conceived in the womb. He will see you through, even to the very end, and ensure that not a hair falls from your head without His knowledge. As surely as the sun rises in the East, “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Ro. 8:28). Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
“Be Ye Perfect” Doesn’t Mean What You Think
Satan loves to turn God’s Good News on its head, distorting it into a yoke of bondage. From the garden to the desert, our adversary distorted what God said in order to accomplish his purposes. Whenever we approach Scripture, we must remember that God’s Word is Good News on every subject. For every one of His expectations, the full provision is made through Christ. God’s yoke is easy and His burden is light.
David Hull notes, “It is a misshapen and grotesque love-child that is born out of the marriage of a non-contextual reading of Scripture with dominant cultural ideals.” In other words, we are in big trouble when we separate phrases like “be ye perfect” from their Biblical meaning; this is even more dangerous when our misinterpretation is shaped by ridiculous cultural expectations to have the perfect body, perfect family, perfect home, and perfect job.
Alfred de Musset rightly said that “human perfection does not exist. To understand this is the triumph of human intelligence; the desire to possess it is the most dangerous kind of madness.” Scriptural perfection has nothing to do with how many chapters you read in your Bible each day, how many times you breathe when you pray, or ceasing to feel human emotions like frustration, worry, or heartbreak.
Scriptural perfection — the spiritual perfection mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 5:48 — has nothing to do with living flawlessly. God’s definition of perfection is simple: “Love me and love people.” This reasonable expectation is for our good and God’s glory. J. D. Walt said, “To be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect means to be a person filled with Holy Love. The perfection Jesus looks for and crafts in a person is not flawlessness but fullness; not blemish free but beauty-full.” John Wesley said that “Christian perfection is neither more nor less than pure love; love expelling sin, and governing both the heart and life of a child of God.” The best part is that God empowers us to live this way. All we have to do is live in relationship with Him.
Relationship, Not Performance
A saving relationship with Christ is just that: it is a relationship. It is not a performance. God saves us by grace through faith, not based on a perfect performance. To be perfect in God’s eyes is to trust and obey Him from a pure heart. We must never set God’s standard lower or higher than the Bible; however, we must always keep in mind that God’s standard for us is always attainable. God remembers our frame, that we are dust. While He has some expectations for all of His children, he knows where we are in our spiritual journey.
It has been said that a “perfect” score on an essay is attained by meeting the teacher’s expectations, not by having an actually “perfect” essay, free from errors in grammar, syntax, or spelling. And notably, a teacher’s expectations for a “perfect” essay are much different for a second grader than they are for a college student. This illustration is helpful for some, but still falls flat on its face at other points.
For example: God doesn’t give us a grade based on how well we perform; through faith in the perfect One, Christ, we all score an A+ if we keep our faith to the end. Moreover, God never asks us what our neighbor scored. He doesn’t compare our score to anyone else’s exam; He compares us to His Word. Finally, we are not trying to “attain” anything; Christ has already attained everything for us. We lay hold of His achievements through faith: He imparts His righteousness to us and as we abide in Him, He gives us the victory. Through Him, we conquer sin and live victoriously. Through Him, we are blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places.
Perfectionism robs the joy that is yours in Christ. When you feel overwhelmed by expectations, flee to Christ and ground yourself in His Word. Nothing more, nothing less.
Confront The Sins Associated With Perfectionism Before They Undo You
While perfectionistic tendencies may not be sinful and may pose a lifelong struggle for someone who is deeply broken, brokenness often drives us to satisfy legitimate voids in illegitimate ways. One of my childhood friends had a perfectionist father who spent endless hours waxing and re-waxing his car; in time, this idolatry destroyed his marriage. Sins like idolatry are the byproduct of unbridled perfectionism and, like all sin, threaten to undo us.
When perfectionism tempts you to embrace sin patterns that dishonor God or harm your family, Christ is sufficient to strengthen you. No perfectionistic temptation has overtaken you except that which is common to perfectionists, and “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
God never promised that the way of escape would be easy. Sometimes, the way of escape is painful. It may mean regular consultation with a professional counselor, a support group at your church, or a new level of vulnerability with a friend in the Lord who has wisdom to provide encouragement and consistent accountability. The way of escape may be proactive. The way of escape may be introspective. Whatever the way, you must find it rather than bow to the sins associated with perfectionism.
We Await a Truly Perfect Day
As you live, struggle, and conquer through Christ, keep this truth ever before you: “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Ro. 8:22). Because the world was exceedingly and desperately broken, polluted, and ruined by the entrance of sin, your groanings are not unlike those faced by others in the world. Meanwhile, “the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Ro. 8:26).
The major difference between our struggles and those of the unregenerate is that we have hope! For “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Ro. 8:18). “We are saved by hope” (Ro. 8:24). We await a day when “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Ro. 8:21, Berean Study Bible). The kind of perfection that perfectionists seek is unattainable in this world, but not in the next. For “we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13).
“Perfectionism.” Psychology Today.
Hull, David. “Perfectionism: The Glittering Demon.” Seedbed.
Walt, J. D. “Why You Really Can Be Perfect (in a different kind of way).” Seedbed.
Hewitt, Paul L. Perfectionism: A Relational Approach to Conceptualization, Assessment, and Treatment. The Guilford Press.
Allberry, Sam. Twitter status update. Twitter.
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