How Perfectionism Helps and Hurts
I’m an over-achiever. This is a blessing in some ways, but a deep challenge in other ways. It’s all too easy for me to take my God-fueled energy for loving and serving him and change it into selfish energy to make myself as amazing as possible in the eyes of this world. To help overcome this, I’ve had to think a lot about the difference between our good desires for godly perfection and our selfish desires for worldly perfectionism. In the light of this, I’ll provide some ideas of how those of us who struggle with worldly perfectionism can refocus our energies, instead, on becoming more like our beloved Lord.
What Perfect Means as Christians
As Christians, we have been given the good desire to pursue godliness as truly and deeply as possible. We know our greatest joy comes from living a life full of the Spirit and empowered by the love of the Lord. BUT, (and it’s a big but) we fail in some way every day and are in constant need of his grace. We aren’t perfect yet. And for all of us, that’s a painful thing, because it means we still are suffering through the consequences of sin and evil.
Hebrews 10:14 expresses this “already/not yet” aspect of our road to perfection: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Because of Christ’s sacrifice, we’ve been declared righteous, and therefore in an ultimate sense, our destiny as a perfected child of God is sealed. However, in the immediate sense, we are still on the road of sanctification, which ends in perfection. This is a cause for great celebration, and is also a reminder of why we struggle so deeply with the tension and frustration of wrestling against the sin in our lives.
Godly perfection is when we live out what Christ has already done for us; it’s our striving to live like the perfect Christ who has already acquired our perfect status before God. In contrast, worldly perfectionism causes us to question whether we’re good enough, to miss opportunities because we’re afraid of failing, and to fixate on the immediate rather than eternal. It distracts us from fulfilling our mission by setting our hearts on achieving worldly gain rather than faithful gospel-centered living. In our sinful and competitive hearts, we all want to be that woman (or man): beloved and envied by all. We want to shine bright enough to attract everyone’s attention, and ensure they’re too dazzled by our splendor to notice our flaws.
This form of perfectionism isn’t limited to our interactions with the world; it can also show itself in our Christian walk. For the wrong reasons, we want to be a faithful Christian so badly that instead of brushing ourselves off after a small mistake, we can fret, become anxious/depressed, doubt our own value, and get far too upset that we aren’t perfected yet. I’m constantly overreacting to my own shortcomings. But to be a gospel-centered Christian we need to remember Christ has paid for all our sins, his grace covers our mistakes, and his power can take even our blunders and work his purposes through them.
Overcoming Worldly Perfectionism
So now we have a distinction between godly perfection and worldly perfectionism. But how do we begin to pursue godly perfection and leave worldly perfectionism behind? To start, we need to remember a few things:
God is perfect; we’re not.
We don’t have perfect knowledge, beauty, or power, but sometimes we really want them. To want to know everything and be everything is to put ourselves in the place of God. He is the only Perfect One, and is (thankfully) making us into the people he wants us to be, rather than into the ones we’d choose to be. If I could, I’d choose to be perfectly beautiful, work out every day, have enough money to employ a house cleaner, and somehow never make any mistakes. But that’s not who God made me to be. I don’t have control over my life; he does. He gave me these specific flaws and struggles for a reason. The road of sanctification isn’t easy, but the truth is that God is with you and me every step of the way, and that it’s the best possible place for us to be. He made us purposefully and redeems all our mistakes and missteps; therefore, we can trust him to make us perfect according to his plan.
Worldly Perfectionism = Pride
When we strive for worldly perfection what we’re often actually striving for is to be better than those around us. Our pride and sinful flesh make us want to come out on top when we compare ourselves to others. Our insecurities cause us to feel shame and embarrassment when our comparisons reveal our inadequacies. In these moments, it helps to remind ourselves that our value and identity are not relative. They are objective: based on being made in the image of God and the perfect righteousness of Christ given as a gift when we put our faith in him.
Christ is our Perfection.
One thing that worldly perfectionism gets right is that we really aren’t ever good enough. We never will be, but we never have to be! Christ, perfection himself, died to satisfy our gross debt of sins. In him we are perfected for all time (Heb. 10:14). Though we have not yet experienced that godly perfection in its fullness, one day all our sinful hindrances will be removed and we will be glorified. When this world fades we will be in our perfected relationship with God, we will even see His face (Rev. 22:4).
Worldly perfectionism is a temptation, but godly perfection is a righteous longing. May God help us overcome our self-centeredness, and strengthen us as we pursue faithfulness in this life even as we rejoice in our secured future with the perfect person in the perfect place.