So, you’ve done it, graduates! You’ve completed what could possibly be one of the most challenging and important seasons of your life. You are about to enter a new environment and a set of new opportunities. It will be exciting but it will also bring great challenges. During this season...
Have you ever re-folded the towels because someone put the laundry away badly? Are you silently judging other parents when their children throw tantrums? Do you feel like you’re always behind, frustrated when you don’t complete a project to your own impossible standards?
If so, you may be suffering from perfectionism. Perfectionism is pride masquerading as godliness. It is self-constructed bondage, though God promises freedom: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
Three Symptoms of Perfectionism
I am a recovering perfectionist, and I continue to struggle with the symptoms below. Which of these resonates with you?
Symptom #1: Self-Righteousness
It’s tempting to judge ourselves by human standards. In accounting terms, we want to believe that our accomplishments are a profit to the kingdom of God. Paul had many reasons to be proud of his accomplishments. He was born right, taught right, and he did right:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4-6)
But when Paul saw his “reason for confidence” in comparison to the righteousness of Christ, he counted all his worldly achievements as loss:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (vv. 8-9)
Symptom #2: A Critical Spirit
Martha was an excellent hostess. She worked hard to set a beautiful table and extend hospitality. She just couldn’t understand why her sister sat there when Jesus came to visit, ignoring the work to be done.
But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” (Luke 10:40)
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Martha’s perfectionism made her critical. Likewise, how often have impossible standards made us critical of our loved ones? Excellence and quality workmanship are indeed God-honoring, but perfectionism does not honor God and instead makes us harsh, critical, and impossible to satisfy.
Jesus was gracious with Martha, and offered her a better way:
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (vv. 41-42, NIV)
Symptom #3: Self-Condemnation
If you struggle with perfectionism, then you probably also suffer from self-condemnation. Condemnation is not the same as conviction. The Holy Spirit brings conviction when we sin, and that conviction draws us into a closer relationship with Jesus as we repent. Condemnation, on the other hand, does no such thing. Instead, condemnation drives us away from Christ and makes us hide from others, as the shame from a misstep plagues our thoughts. Mistaking embarrassment for repentance, we find no peace.
Hope for Struggling Perfectionists
R.C. Sproul describes the “heresy of perfectionism” like this:
Inevitably the error of perfectionism breeds one, or usually two, deadly delusions. To convince ourselves that we have achieved sinlessness, we must either suffer from a radical overestimation of our moral performance or we must seriously underestimate the requirements of God’s law.
Whether you overestimate yourself or underestimate God’s law, his Word shows us two important principles that offer hope to the recovering perfectionist.
1. We are sinners.
We may want to believe we’re mostly good people who slip up once in a while. Instead, we face the truth of God’s Word that we’re sinners, whose nature it is to sin, and that we need a Savior. Confessing this reality is incredibly freeing:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. (Romans 7:18)
2. We are no longer condemned because Christ bore the penalty for our sin.
The only work of eternal value is the work Christ accomplished on the cross. His death offers us a righteousness we don’t deserve and can’t self-produce:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)
Christ offers us freedom from perfectionism. Rather than live as a self-appointed judge of the “perfect” home, health, marriage, children, careers, or friendships, we are invited to rest in the Perfect Judge who is also the Savior of struggling perfectionists:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)