I can’t tell you how many times in the last few months the topic of perfectionism has come up in conversations with both my clients and friends. At least a dozen times I’ve thought, I need to write about this. So here it goes, my feeble attempt to touch on this difficult topic and to present the gospel as the needed remedy. As with everything else I write, this one is just as much for me as anyone who happens to read these words.
I want to first begin by clarifying what I mean by perfectionism. By this I’m talking about the expectation that you can- and should- be perfect at x. This belief goes beyond the idea of putting forth your best effort to do x well. This kind of perfectionistic thinking results in anxiety or panic, produces fear, and potentially keeps us from doing what we’re called to do.
To be sure, the degrees of perfectionism may vary but if we’re all really honest, there is at least one area of our life in which we struggle with perfectionism. For some it may be in the realm of academics, athletics, or in regard to physical appearance and beauty. Likely there are many who strive for perfection in their career or in their role as a spouse or parent. Still, many seek perfection in their everyday lives through the pristine maintenance of cleanliness, order, and organization. (My husband can emphatically attest that my struggle is not with the latter.) My battle with perfectionism can be found in the kitchen and at the computer as I type the written word.
Whatever realm(s) you find yourself seeking perfection, the first question I believe to be answered is this: What do I want this perfection to do for me? This is a necessary question because perfection is not an end in itself- it’s a means to an end. Namely, control, value, approval, and acceptance.
First, let’s talk about that c-word because I believe it’s the hinge on which the other three “ends” swing. Control brings a sense of comfort and security and is therefore a highly sought after commodity. For example, if we operate under the belief of, “If I’m doing x perfectly then everything will be alright,” we are using perfection to attain control of an outcome. And if we obtain that control then we have some sense of the aforementioned peace, safety, security, or even power.
The only trouble is that perfection is an impossible standard to achieve and our ability to have control in life to the degree we desire is limited. Here we have the set-up for perpetual anxiety: when our efforts to be perfect at x cannot be attained we then feel we are losing control- which results in us trying even harder to attain what we are incapable of. And on and on it goes for the pursuit of control is an elusive game. We must come to realize that our attempt to reduce anxiety by gaining control through perfection only creates what we’re trying to eliminate.
If control is the end we seek, we must lay that aside and instead pursue a life of surrender and obedience to our King. Isaiah 55:9 states, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” This verse is a wonderful reminder that God is infinite in His knowledge and wisdom and that He sees above and beyond what we possibly can. It’s because of this truth we can trust that He will not lead us astray.
While trusting God’s ways does not always come easy, Hebrews 11 reminds us that the righteous will live by faith, and that without faith it is impossible to please God. These are some convicting words! We exercise our faith when we trust God with the outcomes of our life and when we surrender our ways to His. If control has been your end game, repent and ask God to help you submit your life to His will. He himself will give you grace and faith to walk in obedience with Him.
Perhaps somewhere along the way you have come to adopt the belief that you must be perfect at x to be valuable. Or, maybe you have gained a sense of value and worth from being near-perfect at x. Either way, holding the belief that our value is tied to our ability to be perfect in some realm is both enslaving and honestly, prideful. That may sound harsh, but think about it: there is no freedom in feeling pressure to live up to an impossible standard; and if we are in fact deriving value from our achievements, pride is most likely a factor.
Ask yourself this question: Who told you you had to be perfect at x to hold value? For some, this message has come from a critical parent or spouse. If this has been the case for you, consider taking time to work through these wounds and examine the untruthfulness of such messages. If, however, these messages have come from your own determination, recognize that your reliance on yourself to create your value is ultimately pride.
True freedom is found not in what we can achieve by our own talents, abilities, or merits, but through the person and work of Jesus Christ. While our wavering talents produce a shifting foundation on which to base our worth, who we are in Christ never changes. In him we are chosen (Ephesians 1:4-5; 1 Peter 2:9), adopted (John 1:12, 1 John 3:1), forgiven and redeemed (Ephesians 1:7; Romans 3:23-24), and an heir together with Christ (Romans 8:17). This is the foundation from which we derive our value- and it has nothing to do with us! It is a gift of grace so that we may not boast in our own works, but only in Christ. To combat the temptation to use self-reliant perfection to determine our value, we must ask God to impress upon our hearts the truth of who we are in Christ, and we must study His Word which teaches us these amazing truths! It is this truth which will also help us with the next point…
Not gonna lie- these next “ends” hits home: the use of perfection to gain approval and acceptance. Let me first say that the desires for approval and acceptance are not sinful in and of itself. The problem comes when we seek these from men rather than from God. (I also think the points of this article piggy back off each other- for example, one’s perceived value is often closely related to being accepted and liked by others. Not to mention we often like to control how others perceive us.)
As I mentioned in the beginning, I can be very perfectionistic about writing. To be clear, I hope the words I write both enrich and challenge others while pointing them to Christ! But when I press myself regarding the perfectionistic aspect, it seems to come down to wanting the approval of others… which in turn boosts my ego…which absolutely is pride. To combat both pride and the desire for others’ approval there are two truths I desperately need to keep in mind. I pray they will encourage you as well.
The first truth in combating the desire for approval via perfection is to remember who it is we truly work for; who it is we serve. If we have any doubt about this, Colossians 3:23-24 reminds us: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men…you are serving the Lord Christ.” This is so beautiful and so freeing. God does not ask perfection of us, only that we work heartily for Him. When I am able to fix my mind on these words I am less inclined to feel the need to be perfect. After all, God uses both our strengths and weaknesses to accomplish His purposes. Our part is to work heartily and submit to His ways. Lately I’ve been praying this one sentence prayer to remind myself of everything I just wrote: Lord, please bless this imperfect work as I work heartily for you. This prayer brings both humility and peace.
The second truth we must realize is that we do not exist for our own glory, but for the glory of God alone (Psalm 115:1). Soli Deo Gloria has become the aim of my life and my heart’s desire. However, I must constantly check in with myself, asking the question: Who’s glory am I seeking? I firmly believe the battle to glorify self will be a battle we will fight until our last breath on earth! But this I do know: when I focus on giving God glory I am Him-focused rather than self-focused. And when this is the case I am not pursuing the approval of man.
Although approval and acceptance are closely related, I think it’s important to distinguish that while approval relates to confidence and affirmation, acceptance relates to belonging. How many times in life have we felt the need to be perfect in hopes of being accepted by others- or, even God? Probably more than we would care to admit. Yet, how many times has this “perfection pursuit” only led to fear and anxiety?
I pray those of you reading have people in your life who love you unconditionally and genuinely, and that you can rest in assurance of your acceptance despite your imperfections. But more than that it is my prayer you will know that God’s acceptance of you is not based on your attempt at perfection, but on the person and work of Christ. It is through his perfect life, death, and resurrection that we are counted righteous before God. The Apostle Paul made this clear in both of his letters to the Corinthians:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21); “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Praise God that Christ has done for us what we could not do for ourselves!
As I conclude this section on acceptance, allow me to say a word about sanctification. To grow in holiness is a work of the Spirit and the calling on our lives as Christians. Paul put it this way in Romans 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” To be sure, as long as we are on this earth we will be in the flesh and we will still sin. However, we are called to be doers of the Word and not just hearers (James 1:22). Jesus himself stated in John 14:15 that if we love him we will keep his commandments. While we are not saved by our works, our works are the fruit- the evidence- of our salvation. As we abide in Christ our desire for the Spirit’s work of sanctification will replace our desire for human perfection.
When I began writing this particular blog I honestly didn’t know the direction it would take. And while I am fully aware that this post has contained a lot to chew on, I hope the basic tenets have been clear: that the anecdote to human perfectionism is surrender, obedience, and a desire for sanctification; resting in the assurance of who we are in Christ and the work he has done on our behalf; knowing in humility that the answer is not self-glorification but living to the glory of God alone. Try as we might, we come up empty-handed when we seek from others, ourselves, or the world to give us what only God can. As Romans 8:6 says, to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
One last thought…
I entitled this blog “Chasing Perfection” because ultimately the perfection we pursue in this world is unattainable. However, the day is coming when in our glorified state we will be perfectly free from sin; for we have the promise that “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). Praise be to God that we can be confident that He who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). May we faithfully serve him here as we await that most glorious day.