I am a perfectionist at heart. Perfectionism is something I always believed was a good thing in my life; I should be proud to be a perfectionist. Because I am a perfectionist, my desk is always tidy, my house is orderly, I effectively schedule time, my assignments are done to the best of my ability, and I work to my best potential. It sounds like a character trait everyone should strive for.
However, those of us who are perfectionist, we know the tragic downside to perfectionism. We know those sleepless, anxious nights of wondering, “Did I perfectly word my essay to the best it possibly could be?” Or those fearful moments backstage after the presentation, “I totally screwed up everything.” We know the pain of perfectionism. Perfectionism has placed heavy chains over our necks, telling us that we will not be free until everything is in perfect order.
Our perfectionism even shows up in our faith. When you recognize sin in your life, are you overwhelmed with despair at your lack of perfect obedience to God? Do you constantly leave your Bible study time thinking, “I could have studied that passage so much better”? We rightly desire to be perfect like our heavenly Father is perfect, but we are utterly discouraged by how hopeless that pursuit of perfection has become.
Perfectionism leaves us angry with not only ourselves when we mess up, but also others. Perfectionism hurts our relationships because we not only have a high standard for ourselves, but also for all those we interact with. Whenever you walk by your co-worker’s office, you always make a big deal about their messy desk. When your husband helps you clean the house, you usually find yourself frustrated with his lack of detail in the bathroom. If only everyone cared as much about perfection as me, you think to yourself.
Perfectionism paints a pretty, promising picture for us of the picture perfect life. It tells us if we hold to the standard of perfection, then our lives will be perfect. Our hearts will be at rest and our minds will be at peace. In reality, perfectionism leaves us exhausted, frustrated, anxious, and hopeless.
Friend, let me tell you the better standard Scripture sets. Let me show you how believing the theology I preached and studied totally changed my anxious, angry, perfectionistic heart.
Sanctification is Progressive
Within the realm of Christianity, there are a few different beliefs as to what the process of sanctification looks like. There are people who will tell you that at some point in the process of sanctification, you will hit “perfection” and no longer sin. Let me assure you now that that is not what the Bible teaches.
Throughout Scripture we are called to continue becoming holy, and Scripture does not indicate that any point during a believer’s life that she will stop growing in this way. In Hebrews 12:14, we are called to strive for holiness. John MacArthur writes, “Though the old self is has been put off once and for all at conversion, yet the new self is continuously ‘being renewed [Gk. anakainoumenon] in knowledge after the image of its creator’ (Col. 3:9-10).” 1
Our sanctification is by no means instantaneous. We slowly progress towards Christ-likeness. Though we are forever justified before God due to Christ’s work on the cross, this does not mean that we are perfectly obedient once we become Christians. This is where progressive sanctification begins; we are slowly being conformed to the status that we have been graciously given.
So what does this have to do with perfectionism? Friend, this is a beautiful, anxiety relieving truth for us perfectionists. You are not going to be perfect on this earth. And that is no surprise to anyone, especially not God.
God knows that you are not going to be perfect all the time. You have not disappointed God by your constant sin. Why? Because to be disappointed means there was an expectation or belief of what was going to happen that was not met. But God, who has instituted the process of progressive sanctification, knows that you are slowly being conformed to His image. You can be at rest knowing that your heavenly Father, though He is displeased with your sin, it did not take Him by surprise. This should give us hope (Women’s Hope Project has a great post on this exact topic that I recommend you check out as well).
Rest Your Anxious Heart In Christ’s Perfection
We can find peace from the striving of perfectionism in recognizing that Christ was already perfect for us. He lived the perfect life on earth because we were unable. While living the perfect life on earth, He was punished for our sins so that God’s wrath against our sins could be satisfied.
Perfectionism offers this skewered glimpse of hope that if we are utterly perfect in all that we do all on our own, we will achieve happiness and contentment. But that’s not the result, is it? You are left anxious, angry, and hopeless because you are unable to achieve such a high standard you set for yourself.
God offers something different. God offers us rest in Christ’s work. Jesus lived the perfect life for us. Where we failed, He succeeded. The next time that you are burdened with your failure and lack of perfection, you can turn to God in praise that He has fulfilled the perfect requirements for you. And then you can humbly cry out, “God, I am unable. I need you to do what I cannot.”
Your New Goal: Christ-Likeness (not Perfectionism)
Does this mean that we stop striving to be perfect still? We are still called to live holy lives and be obedient to God. However, our theology tells us that 1) we are unable to do that on our own, but 2) we have a gracious God who has offered us the strength to do so. So now we strive towards obedience in thanksgiving for what God has done and humbly recognize that we need His help in order to do it.
If perfectionism is something you struggle with and any of this has resonated with you, I cannot recommend enough, “Picture Perfect” by Amy Baker. This book covers all aspects of perfectionism and offers the biblical perspective of the hope we have in God.
I hope that through learning about sanctification that you have a renewed hope and can find rest for your anxious hearts. I hope that this will help you put off the nasty monster of perfectionism and put on strength in God.
MacArthur, John, and Richard Mayhue, eds. Biblical Doctrine. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2017. 635.