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Why Christianity and Perfectionism Do Not Mix
On the surface, perfectionism seems like a good goal for Christians. After all, we want to avoid sin and do our best, don’t we? Jesus told us to be perfect in our Christian life in the context of treating other people well and loving our enemies (Matthew 5:48,19:21). There is however, a big difference between striving for excellence and trying to be perfect.
About human nature
The apostle Paul admitted that he had a sinful nature and described himself as a slave to sin (Romans 7:14-25). He wants to do good but he cannot carry it out. He recognizes that is not possible for him to be perfect. He does acknowledge, however, that Jesus Christ was able to deliver him from his sin.
We live by the grace and mercy of God (Galatians 2:16). We should try to live the Christian life as best we can and strive for excellence in all we do because it pleases God and will give us a happy, fulfilled life. Our works will not save us, however. God is not impressed with what we do. He is looking for people who seek Him with their whole hearts, acknowledge and repent of their sin, and want to be in a relationship with Him. We are going to fail, but God is the strength of our heart (Psalm 73:26).
Christians have to accept that perfection not possible for us – the best we can hope for excellence with God’s help. Here are some of the main reasons that perfectionism and Christianity do not go together.
Perfectionism is hard work
Many years ago, when my daughter was small, she had two playmates that our mothers’ group had classified as brats. They were constantly seeking attention from mom whatever way they could – sometimes by screaming, fighting, and doing naughty things.
I discovered later that mom was a clean freak who spent most of her time trying to have an immaculate house. She did not take time to be with her children. I suspect that she did not allow her kids to help out because she was the only person who could do anything right. She was in her early 30s at the time.
When we strive for excellence, we can be satisfied that what we have done is good enough. When we strive for perfection, however, we can never be fully satisfied. We never look good enough, complete a work project well enough, or have a clean enough house. We work so hard at it that important things like our family and relationships fall by the wayside. In the meantime, we age and do not have the energy anymore to keep all the balls in the air.
Our spiritual life can suffer too. We may delude ourselves that we are serving God when we try to be the perfect singer on a worship team or the perfect Christian writer. Instead, we need to realize that we human beings are naturally weak and cannot strive for excellence without God’s help. King Solomon had just about everything a man could want and pursued big projects (Ecclesiastes). He proclaimed that all our striving for money, pleasure, and the hard work was meaningless – like chasing after wind.
The Christian life can be hard work too, but has many benefits that do not come out of perfectionism. We are content because we have tried our best, even if we failed at our task. We feel the satisfaction of a job well done. We can admit that we cannot accomplish a goal and focus on new dreams. We are happy, and the people around us are happy too.
Feelings of inadequacy
Perfectionism sets up unrealistic expectations that will inevitably be shattered. Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment and pride in a job well done, we are doomed to a permanent state of disappointment and discouragement. We may even become depressed.
We will always feel bad about ourselves because we do not measure up according to our own perfectionistic estimations. On the other hand, God says that we should feel good about ourselves because we are His beloved children. Jesus came and sacrificed Himself to cleanse us from sin while we were sinners and took away the taint of condemnation.
The drive to be perfect is relentless. We cannot tolerate imperfection, so we feel compelled to fix the situation on our own strength instead of leaning on God’s strength. Our energy is drained until we teeter towards burnout.
Perfectionism keeps us from trying
Perfectionists hate to do anything badly, so they do not attempt anything if they can avoid it. They think it is the end of the world if they fail and that they could not bear it. They miss out on the joy of trying something new and the lessons they could have learned from not quite making it. God wants us to learn from our mistakes and grow.
People who fail when they strive for excellence, however, can pick themselves up off the floor and try again and again. God upholds people who fall and lifts them up (Psalm 145:14 Provers 24:17).
Perfectionism creates anxiety
Perfectionism is like the carrot dangling before the horse (or Sven the reindeer if you are a Frozen fan). It looks solid and obtainable, but is always just out of reach. If we try to reach for it and do not get it, we become anxious. What is wrong with me? Do I need to change my approach? We put a lot of pressure on ourselves that cause incredible stress and anxiety. We seek relief for this anxiety by doing more, working harder, and being more focused, but nothing really works.
When we pursue excellence, however, we can achieve our goals without anxiety. We do not worry about failing and are content with the results of our efforts, even when the world thinks we failed.
We deny ourselves grace
The Christian life is about acknowledging that we are sinners saved under God’s grace. We know that no matter how hard we try, our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We cannot obtain perfection on our own efforts. When we try to be perfect, we judge ourselves harshly.
When we plug away at being perfect, we will always feel shame because we just cannot seem to meet our impossible expectations.
Focusing on failures instead of strengths
Perfectionism draws attention to our flaws instead of our strengths and accomplishments. We often measure ourselves by the world’s standards instead of God’s standards. When we do that, we disrespect the God who created and values us.
Getting stuck in comparisons
Comparing ourselves to others is not wise (2 Corinthians 10:12). Perfectionism is a measuring stick that either puffs us up or puts us down. Neither is a healthy place to be. We may feel the need to compete to be the most perfect with others, which puts a lot of pressure on us.
We beat ourselves up when we fail. If we set standards based on us being better than others, we need to jealously guard our status and put others down to keep ourselves up. We will do anything to stay on top.
Perfectionism destroys relationships
The pursuit of perfection can cause us to neglect or hurt other people. Sometimes we compare the people in our lives with our impossible standards to their detriment. When we do, we feel angry and irritated with them because they do not meet our expectations. Sometimes, we try to control or “watch” them and end up ruining our relationships.
If we strive for excellence, however, we are content with what we have accomplished and do not care what other people think. We can cheer others on and feel good about it. Our relationships are not tainted by unreasonable expectations.
© 2014 Carola Finch