I talk a lot. I justify it by calling myself "a verbal processor." It's true, but I'm sure the people around wouldn't mind if I processed my thoughts silently from time to time. Compared to how many words I speak every day, Jesus's words in the New Testament seem sparse....
I brushed the last of the dirt, sawdust, and fur into the dust pan, gently flicking it along. My back was sore from sweeping, but my desire for spotless floors overcame it.
Back aching, I walked over to the window and pushed the curtains open. I turned around to examine my work.
I didn’t smile. I groaned.
Did I even sweep in here? The sunlight, now stretching over the entire living room floor, revealed specks of dirt and dust peppered over it.
My palms began to sweat and my heart rate climbed. My back felt too sore to continue, so I resolved to leave it. Good enough.
I hung the broom up in the kitchen and went upstairs, but my mind never left the living room. As I wrote articles, read books, folded laundry, fixed my hair, and prepared supper, the dusty floors remained at the front of my mind. Will I ever have clean floors? How could I get those floors even more spotless? What if I mopped them each day, maybe that would pick up all the dust. How come no one else’s floors look like that? Why can everyone else make their floors look so spotless?
Each time I walked through the living room, the floor mocked me, somehow growing more and more dirt with each trip. I felt agitated and irritated each time I had to face the dusty floors. Part of me wanted to simply close the curtains, but I knew that wouldn’t still my anxious heart.
Maybe this sounds ridiculous to you, but if you are perfectionist like me, I know you have your own version of dusty floors. Maybe it took you far too long to write an article this week because you kept backspacing the entire time. Maybe you procrastinated your next deadline because you’re too scared to start a project, knowing it won’t be perfect. Maybe you refused to go skating with your friends because you knew you’d look silly and wouldn’t do it to perfection. Maybe you worried more about your party decorations than enjoying the party itself.
If so, you may be a perfectionist like me. And if you are, I want you to consider with me: Is perfectionism perhaps your greatest weakness? Could it be the leading cause of your anxiety?
A Hopeless, Anxious Pursuit
Perfectionism promises to paint a calming picture for us of soft blues and greens, and some yellow too. It promises that your life will be more organized and successful. It promises to make you into a picture of perfection—no mistakes, no flaws, no drips, no red hues.
But is that the life perfectionism actually paints for you?
Despite its promises, perfectionism instead paints a fiery picture with bright red strokes at random over the canvas. It fills us with panic, fear, worry, and despair. We desperately try to meet the standards it sets, but we always finish anywhere from miles to inches away from the goal.
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Perfectionism brings misery because it tries to control what cannot be controlled, and therefore never allows us to enjoy life. Nothing is done in the name of freedom, but must be done in a slavish way in order to be perfected. The process cannot be enjoyed because it may lead to a flaw or failure. Even after the project or task is finished, we still can’t enjoy it because something may not be perfect. We are filled with worry over blemishes, even ones people can’t see.
Perfectionism sets impossible standards for us—that we would always be perfect, 100% of the time.
Friend, this is not possible. We are human beings, imperfect people. We are mortal, limited on energy and strength. We can run, but not forever. We are forced to stop due to hunger, thirst, rest, sickness, and injuries.
But the worst part of our condition: We are sinful. We were created by a perfect God, but we have chosen to rebel against him and his loving will for us. We have spit in his face and scoffed at him. We are sinners, bound in rebellion and imperfection.
So perfectionism is like trying to paint with blues and greens when the only color you have is red: It leads us to strive for something we can never attain on our own.
Perfectionism is a hopeless pursuit.
Gospel-Hope for Perfectionists
But our God paints a hope-filled picture with bright yellow grace and light, glowing orange like the clear sunrise. God knows we are imperfect, sinful human beings. Though he commanded perfect obedience, we could not attain it—in fact, we didn’t even want to.
For that reason, he sent his Son.
Christ, the perfect God-man. Christ, who lived the perfect life we could not live. Christ, who came to earth as a baby and obeyed God’s law without the slightest wavering or fault. Christ, who died on the cross to pay the penalty for every believer’s sins. We deserve God’s wrath for our sins, which is ultimately death and hell, but Christ? He took our place. He bore the wrath meant for us. Then, he rose to life, showing us that sin was conquered, setting the pattern and securing the promise for every believer to rise to eternal life.
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Colossians 2:13-14 says,
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Friend, you can stop striving in perfectionism. The work is done. There is nothing to earn or prove—for Christ has earned your righteous standing before God. Because of his sacrifice, whoever believes in him and receives his righteousness is freed from trying to earn their own.
Perfectionism compels you to earn people’s love and praise by being perfect. But Jesus leads you to rest in his perfection by turning from your sin and trusting in his finished work on the cross.
A Grace-Filled Pursuit
God still calls us to obedience—to be holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:16). But rather than striving to be perfect on our own, we know we can’t, and this is why we need Jesus. In him, God gives us a new heart that desires to obey him out of love—not to earn his love. He also gives us the Holy Spirit to enable obedience because sin still taints us while we live in these human bodies.
We often desire to live perfectly to bring glory to ourselves, not God; perfectionism breeds fear of man and people-pleasing in us. Instead, as believers, we strive to point people to Christ, not our successes. The beauty of this new desire is that when we fail (which we will) we can point people to Jesus. When we sin and others see our failure, we direct their gaze to Christ, reminding them of his abundant forgiveness and perfect righteousness for those who believe.
Friend, when your heart is tempted toward the anxiety of perfectionism—whether it be in your obedience to God or in small tasks—remember the freeing hope God offers you in his Son. Confess to him the red, anxious hues your perfectionism paints, and begin instead to paint your days with the hope-filled colors of his gospel.