When Perfectionism Is Sin

lawn-headWe give sin such cute labels. It’s not “adultery,” it’s a “tryst”. It’s not “arrogance,” but “confidence.” It’s not “greed,” it’s “fiscal responsibility.” We have all sorts of ways of talking about our sin, our cultural sins even, that excuse them as just character eccentricities, or even as laudable behaviors. So, “workaholism” is really just being a good company man, and rudeness is just “telling it like it is.” I have observed for some time this very reality present among those who call themselves “perfectionists.” Perfectionism, however, is really just the sin of pride. But when perfectionism is sin then Jesus is ready to give us grace.

Perfectionism refers to our tendency to strive for flawlessness and to set exceptionally high standards. It is often accompanied by overly critical self-evaluation and a concern for the evaluations of others.  We characterize it as an eccentric character trait among high-class professionals, those who insist on doing the best job possible. We applaud it in our society, and commend those who won’t settle for less than perfect. The problems with this “character trait” are, however, manifold.

For starters perfectionism does not take seriously the brokenness of our world. Perfection can never be attained, not in anything we do. We should try to do our best, but our best will always be far short of perfection. There was only one man ever who was flawless and that was Jesus. You and I are not Jesus. Try as hard as we might we will never achieve flawlessness. This means our “exceptionally high standards” are probably unrealistic. But the sin of perfectionism is not merely about being unrealistic, it’s about sinful pride.

The perfectionist doesn’t believe his or her standards are unrealistic. They honestly believe that they can attain the standard they have set. They believe they should be able to achieve flawlessness – or if they’re being slightly more honest at least really really close to it. Failure to attain this level is unacceptable, in their mind. Not attaining that level of perfection, then, becomes a source of sorrow, frustration, and discouragement in the life of a perfectionist. They become irritable, annoyed, and angry. They can tend to make excuses, blame others, or beat themselves up for failure. Some become consumed with working harder next time, achieving that unattainable goal. Others decide not to even try anymore, but simply to quit before they get started so that they don’t have to face the failure.

At its heart perfectionism becomes a battle for self-worth. The perfectionist who insists that they can attain near perfection in their work, their life, their behavior, etc. is attempting to establish worth and value apart from God. Their flawless activity makes them worthy, they think. Of course, failure to achieve that status makes them unworthy, they believe. Such living is, however, contrary to the gospel. Rick Thomas elaborates:

The bottom line is that the wannabe perfectionist is unwilling to totally trust God. The great sadness is the commentary they are making about the Gospel. That is, they are saying that God’s acceptance through the finished work of His Son is not good enough. They need a little more approval—Jesus plus others equals everything.

The wannabe perfectionist and God are in a tug-o-war. God is saying: I fully forgive you for all of your past, present, and future sins, plus I give you my Son’s perfect righteousness. I do not see you as a sinner, but as a righteous child.

The perfectionist says: I intellectually sign-off on what you are saying, Lord, but it is still important to me that others think a certain way about me. In order to satisfy this craving, I have to control certain situations. I cannot let them know the real me. Though You know the real me and I’m somewhat okay with that, I’d really prefer they not know the whole truth about me. Though I accept Your righteousness, I need to promote my own perfection just in case people are not okay with what they see. (“The Torment of Perfectionism”)

Only God can give us full value and worth, only God can offer us righteousness. Our own attempts at being perfect will never satisfy us and will always fall short. The perfectionist needs to repent and rest in the righteousness of Christ.

This is not an invitation to laziness or to apathy in our activity. There’s no room in the Christian life for an attitude that says, “I am not going to be perfect so I’ll just do the bare minimum necessary.” The issue, as with most things, is not necessarily our efforts and our striving; the issue is what is going on in our hearts that is propelling us towards the striving. So, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions.

What is it that you want to achieve?

Why do you want to achieve it?

What will it mean for you personally to not achieve this goal?

Is your expectation realistic?

Would you be angry with someone else if they did not achieve this goal?

Has your pursuit of this goal tempted you to become irritable, angry, worried, or ungrateful?

How does the gospel help you think about what you are striving for?

These questions are a starting place for considering the root of our ambition.

It’s not always easy to know if I am being a perfectionist. Asking for input from others is helpful. Amy Baker lists some helpful characteristics of perfectionists, maybe you see yourself in this list:

  • You want to be the best in everything you do.

  • You have very high expectations for yourself and others.

  • You are very upset with yourself if you make a mistake.

  • You feel guilty for relaxing. You feel like you are never doing enough.

  • You’re very particular about the details of tasks.

  • When you perform well, you analyze your performance for the weak spots and quickly gloss over the things done right.

  • You want something done right or not done at all.

  • You are perceived by others as a role model.

  • You feel like others are never satisfied by your performance.

  • You compare yourself to others. If you perceive someone is better than you, you analyze that person to see how to measure up.

  • You don’t attempt things you know you can’t complete with excellence.

  • You are frightened by the thought of failure.

  • You procrastinate.

  • Your relationships are often strained or difficult.

  • You feel like you won’t ever be perfect.

  • You rarely experience joy.

(See “Picture Perfect: The Problem”)

This list reveals the unbelievable burden that perfectionism heaps upon our shoulders. It is a joyless, unsatisfying, discouraging way to live. It sets a standard that we can never reach. But the gospel offers us relief. Jesus says:

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30)

We don’t have to live this way. Jesus offers rest, friends. Perfectionism is a heavy yoke, but Jesus offers us a burden that is light. It is light because He bears it for us.

Perfectionism is a sin. We can class it up however we’d like, but fundamentally it comes down to an unwillingness to submit to God. It is an unwillingness to submit to the limitations that He has put on me and the progressive sanctification that He is bringing about in me and in my world. It is an unwillingness to submit to God’s righteousness, instead of trying to promote my own perfection. It is an unwillingness to submit to God’s sovereignty and instead an attempt to control my context. We may call it perfectionism, but God calls it something else. But when we are ready to agree with God about the sin of perfectionism, then He is ready to give us rest. Come to Him, all who labor and are heavy laden.

Comments

  1. Sue Bishop says:

    Ugh. Thanks for this, really. It hits home. I’m praying for deliverance.

  2. Wow… thank you thank you thank you. Especially this part which hit home for me: “It is an unwillingness to submit to the limitations that He has put on me and the progressive sanctification that He is bringing about in me and in my world.”
    The Holy Spirit used you to reveal something that has the power to completely transform my life. He had only said REST but I didn’t know the depth of what He meant. Now I understand. Could it be He meant it as a gift and I was taking it as an action and did not know how to receive it as a gift? “But when we are ready to agree with God about the sin of perfectionism, then He is ready to give us rest.” I couldn’t figure out why that’s all He said to me in my great time of need. But now that I understand my need to confess perfection I am more ready to receive His gift of REST.

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