Perfectionism, in my humble opinion, is one of the greatest maladies affecting the church today. One of the reasons for this is that it perpetually goes un-diagnosed. After all, the church servant who will go over and above putting in hours to make the ministry team successful is hailed by others. The pastor who will drop everything at any time for a parishioner receives accolades as one who cares. The teacher who crafts a lesson in such incredible detail awes her students. It goes beyond the walls of the church, as well. The woman who keeps a perfect physique garners the respect and attention of both men and women. The man who works tirelessly for the company and his clients may receive awards and promotions, and the praise of his boss.
But it all has a steep price: the inability to distinguish between excellence and perfection, and the cost of becoming hopelessly depressed. Perfectionists constantly “should” and “ought” themselves to death. Their work, no matter how good, is never good enough. “I should have done better.” “I ought to be able to do better.” “I must be, do, and look better.” Instead of viewing life’s opportunities as challenges to be welcomed, the perfectionist sees life as one unending insurmountable mountain to climb, never quite reaching the top. The constant companions of perfectionist people are disappointment, condemnation, frustration, and perceived failure. It is an internal world of self-deprecation based on the lie that I can’t just be good enough – I have to be perfect.
People might like to always have a perfectionist doing the work (which is why they continually get asked to do everything!) but, to put it both biblically and bluntly, perfectionism is sin. Perfectionism is a nice shiny way of saying legalism. Legalists rigidly overemphasize external results, do’s and don’ts, rules and regulations, and have expectations for themselves and others that can never be attained. Sound familiar? The perfectionist fits right into this sinful way of thinking. In other words, the legalist/perfectionist has a fragile spirituality dependent on personal performance. They have such a finely tuned sense of guilt that it is literally impossible to ever meet their own standards. No wonder many perfectionists struggle mightily with anxiety attacks and depression.
There is only one antidote to perfectionism: unconditional approval from God. That is, grace is the elixir of life. Grace is the only thing the perfectionist can’t work to obtain. God’s grace is freely given, not dependent on abilities, and un-repayable. God’s loving acceptance of us has nothing to do with our worthiness. Recovery for the perfectionist can only occur by a radical acceptance of grace. Perfectionists have been so programmed by themselves to impossible performance and conditional love that this extreme gift of grace is hard to take. Change won’t happen overnight, and that’s okay. It’s okay because God deals with us according to grace, not by earning spiritual merit badges. The renewal that brings transformation of the perfectionist mind is typically a process. Here is a really radical idea and thought for the perfectionist: enjoy the process. When you have caught yourself going back to the pig sty of perfectionism, instead of beating yourself up, go ahead and laugh at yourself and your own fallibility. Perfectionists take themselves way too serious. Anytime they can lighten up, it lights up the face of God (in a non-performance sort of way!).
Jesus said that we should come to him because he will give us rest (Matthew 11:28-30). He said that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. It isn’t anything like the heavy yoke of legalistic perfectionism. So, take that good news from Jesus and enjoy a better way to live. Jesus will never leave you, nor forsake you, even when you screw up.
Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears:
Before the throne my surety stands, before the throne my Surety stands,
My name is written on His hands. –Charles Wesley