His shoulders were slumped in a way that I instantly recognized. Seeing him like this always gives me parallel feelings of frustration and compassion. Frustration, because this is a frequent struggle for him. I often selfishly wish he’d just “get it over with” and win this already.
But I can also feel compassion, because he’s engaged in a conflict that I understand on a personal level. Perfectionism is a lifelong, ingrained, human-nature battle that I fight, too.
Need a perspective shift
Perfectionism manifests itself in various concentrations from one person to the next. In my heart, it causes paralysis. Left to myself, I won’t naturally attempt something if I’m not certain I can do it perfectly. I’ve conquered this mentality in several areas of my life, but I’m still tempted, especially when I have to face projects or sin struggles that feel monumental.
When my son sees imperfections in himself or others, frequently, his immediate reaction is anger. He’s often angry with himself for not meeting the standard, assuming he will be rejected for his failure. At times, he’s angry with others because he senses injustice or hypocrisy in them. More often than not, his complaint about one of his siblings is that they’re not obeying the rules of a game, or doing what they know is right.
My response to these complaints has changed over the years. Instead of simply telling him to “just stop” when he’s angry with himself, I’m learning to respond to how he is perceiving himself and others.
In the past few years, some of the most fruitful conversations with my son about perfectionism have centered on some specific truths and realities that I’m working through and reminding myself about while I’m speaking them to him. Ultimately, in these moments, my son is having a wrong response to sin or imperfection and to God, and he needs his view corrected. He needs to see God’s posture toward him accurately so that he can have real gospel hope. My prayer is that the practice of viewing his world through a gospel-lens will continuously shape his life as he grows into adulthood.
God has called us to holiness, not to perfectionism.
When we resort to perfectionism, we typically have a heightened awareness of everything that is wrong, and we are despairing over our inability to make it right, or to be right. And when we choose perfectionism, we are maintaining an incorrect perspective about our relationship to God and our response to his commands.
We know from Scripture that we are called to consecration, to walk like Christ Jesus, and to grow up into the fullness of Christ. Jesus calls us to, “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” which can seem like hyperbole but here, he is instructing us that perfection is the end goal of all of God’s commandments.
In my conversations with my son, it’s become very important for me to point out that God’s law is a tutor to instruct us, but it cannot save us, nor can we meet every mark or keep every command because of sin.
As believers in Christ, we are called to aim for holiness, and as Jen Wilkin puts it in her book In His Image, “conversion entails consecration”. We are saved to a living hope, to walk in newness of life, and we do so without condemnation because we are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
We are not called, however, to be perfectionists. And by that, I mean, we are very clearly not called to despair over our failures or to have fretful, pensive, introspective attitudes when we sin and miss the mark.
We are called to be like our Father, and we grow into that by looking to Jesus and patterning our lives after Him. “We ought to walk in the manner in which He walked,” the apostle John tells us, even as he reminds us of “the old commandment you had from the beginning.” (1 John 2:7 ESV) And he prefaces it by saying, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2:1 ESV)
So the hope we have, even as we are commanded to be holy and perfect, is that when we sin, we have an advocate in Jesus Christ, who was righteous on our behalf. Romans 8 makes this clear, when Paul lays out for us that Jesus physically came, fulfilled the righteous requirements of God’s law for us in the flesh, and was raised so that our mortal bodies could receive life by the Spirit. The wonderful hope of the gospel is that God is in the business of resurrecting the dead, and He restores what is wrong in us.
For most of us who resort to despair in our perfectionism, we do so because we are trying to achieve acceptance either with God or with the people he’s placed in our lives. Our failure to be perfect drives us further into the fear that we will never be able to qualify to receive love and forgiveness. But our attempts at perfection can never qualify us or give us approval with God. We are qualified by our Father, (Colossians 1:12) and we are welcomed and brought near because of Jesus and His finished work on our behalf (Romans 15).
When I speak to my son about perfectionism, I often have to tell him that responding in anger about our sins and imperfections does not bring God glory, and it certainly does not meet God’s standard of holiness.
When we transgress God’s commands, or when we miss a man-made mark in our imperfect, human state, we only sin further if we become angry over our offenses and failures. So the right response to imperfection and sin, is not a posture of despair or hopelessness before the Lord.
The promise for us
God is faithful and just, and because of the finished work of Jesus on our behalf, we are given the hope and promise of his forgiveness, as well his cleansing away everything that makes us unrighteous.
He isn’t asking us to carry around the burden of perfectionism. He’s calling us to come and confess and receive forgiveness. His posture toward us is rich in mercy.
“Because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith.” (Ephesians 2:4-8 ESV)
And in case we ever thought we could do enough, be perfect enough, or qualify ourselves to be loved and accepted, we have these words to hold onto. They are security for our fears of failure, a relief for our despair when we sin, an answer for our temptation to believe we hold the key to our salvation:
“And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8b-9 ESV)