Do you always feel the urge to be perfect in everything? like for instance, you get very upset when you are trying out a new dish, but it doesn’t come out as beautiful as the one you saw in the recipe book, yet you are not a chef. Do you usually crave the approval of others? Are you a terrible procrastinator because you fear failing or not doing a task perfectly, and so you’d rather not do it? Do you usually feel guilty when you make simple mistakes because they make you feel like a failure? Does negative feedback or criticism make you defensive?
Friend, if you exhibit any of the above signs, then you are suffering from perfectionism. I am a recovering perfectionist myself. I am not fully “healed” but with God’s help, I’ve been winning more battles than losing.
Perfectionism is one of the many things God wants to free us from. But many people don’t really recognize that it’s a problem because sometimes it disguises itself in form of the pursuit of success, and the lines can blur between the two. There is a difference between the pursuit of success and perfectionism.
And now time has come to expose this monster called perfectionism. That’s what this article is all about. But first, my story on how perfectionism almost ruined my life.
I didn’t realize I was a perfectionist until I started writing. All I knew was that nothing I had ever written was “good enough.” I always felt like a failure. Like, I wasn’t creative enough, my writing was just plain, etc. It always took me a whole week to prepare a single blog post.
The first day was usually spent on researching on my topic of interest. In the second day, I could attempt to write something, but get very little done because I could arrive at the conclusion that, there was no way I could possibly write a “perfect” article like the one’s written by other people in my topic of interest.
That means day 3&4 would be spent wallowing in self pity and no writing would be done because I would be having a writer’s block secondary to discouragement.
I would eventually try writing something on day 5&6, because something had to be posted on day 6. And immediately I’m done typing I could publish it, otherwise I could end up deleting it. And the cycle repeats.
The perfectionism trait didn’t confine itself to my writing life only, but it also crossed over to my spiritual life as well. And it was ugly.
Jerry Bridges explains to us a very crucial concept. “The more we grow in Christlikeness, the more sin we will see in our lives. It isn’t that we are sinning more; rather we are growing more aware of and more sensitive to sin that has been there all along. The Holy Spirit doesn’t reveal all our sins of the heart to us at once. Instead, He brings us along gradually as He works to transform us into the image of Christ.”
That is what has been happening to me. And so, forgetting that my day to day standing with God is not based on my performance but on the sinless life of Jesus, I got so discouraged when I saw the filth in thine life.
I felt I was so messed up and beyond the reach of God’s grace. I stopped praying and reading the word all together. And the results were visible. I went back to old habits, even at some point lost my conscience. But God in His mercies convicted me one day at 3:00am, and as I was examining my life to try to identify the root cause of my behavior, it traced back to that day. And that’s when it hit me. The perfectionism trait had plunged me into legalism.
What is Perfectionism?
It is a personality trait whereby someone seeks to be flawless in everything and sets for themselves extremely high performance standards.
This is different from the pursuit of excellence. When we are pursuing excellence, we are focusing on reaching our set goals. But our focus is not only on the goals, but on the journey too. Meaning that in the end, we can draw some lessons we got in the process.
Perfectionism on the other hand however, focuses on the goal alone. Not being able to do something perfectly signifies failure. And given that perfectionists set unrealistic goals, they are usually bound not to meet their goals. This leads to feelings of failure, anxiety, dejection, and depression. This is worth repeating. And depression. Many psychologists have linked perfectionism to be one of the causes of depression.
The Lie behind Perfectionism.
Perfectionism makes us think that we can attain perfection on our own. This is a lie because as human beings, we are limited, and fallen as sinners (Romans 3:23).
However, owing to the performance oriented culture we live in, we find ourselves wanting to relate with God daily on the basis of our performance. Such that if we are good, our relationship with God feels secure. We then become “insecure” when we feel our day has been “bad” spiritually.
But the real sense is, nothing we do can save us, or recommend us to God. In fact, God calls our righteous deeds “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). What we need as sinners, is a Savior. And that’s why Jesus came. He came to liberate us from our sins by becoming sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (1st Corinthians 5:21).
That’s what John Piper refers to as the “great exchange”. Whereby God in his love, sends Jesus, His own Son, who is perfect and righteous, to come be condemned on our behalf, and carry all the sins we have ever committed, and we will ever commit. And in exchange, we, rebellious and sinful people, who rightfully deserve God’s wrath, are given Christ’s perfect record and righteousness, such that in Christ Jesus, God sees us as perfect and righteous.
“You need to be perfect”
Mathew 5:48, be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
From a glance, it looks like God is calling us to be perfect. But there is a big problem. In our fallen nature, it’s impossible for us to achieve that. We will always fall short in our pursuit of perfection. And God knows that. But still, you ask, doesn’t God demand that we must be perfect?
In order to understand that text well, let’s look at the context around it. Just before Jesus launched to that part of perfection in the Sermon on on the Mount, this is what He said, “do not think I have come to abolish the Law or Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them (Mathew 5:17).
This means that Jesus came to fulfil on our behalf God’s demand on us for perfection. And as we can see in Hebrews 10:14, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.
Through the perfect life that Jesus lived, died, and resurrected, he purchased for us our perfection. And despite our sinful nature, God sees us as perfectly righteous in Christ.
It’s okay to be imperfect
The Bible doesn’t motivate us in any way to pursue perfectionism. We are promised imputed perfection now (2 Corinthians 5:21), and also in the age to come, we are promised perfection (Revelation 21:3–4).
It encourages us to trust in God to make us perfect (Psalms 18:32), instead of endeavouring in our own efforts to achieve something only God can do.
And as Jon Bloom observes:
” God goes to great lengths to expose the imperfect, clay feet of the Bible’s faith heroes. Abraham, the great model of faith, has his Hagar episode. Moses, the great Christlike prophet, has his disqualifying rock incident. Aaron, the great Christlike high priest, has his golden calf disaster. David, the great Christlike king, has his Bathsheba affair. Peter, the great apostle and Christ-confessor, trips over his clay feet throughout the Gospels and beyond (Galatians 2:11–14). And Acts and the Epistles give us a warts-and-all view into the imperfect lives of the earliest Christians.”