By Dawn Wilson, Crosswalk.com
Perfectionism suffocates the soul, robbing Christians of peace and joy. Like a sinful virus, it hinders God’s work and damages relationships.
As we look at social media during this coronavirus pandemic, it’s clear many people want others to think that they’re handling things perfectly. But read a little closer. Stress and anxiety are evident too.
In chaotic times, some people exhibit long-held perfectionist tendencies. These “I’m perfect” responses may annoy others. Perching on a pedestal just doesn’t work for fallen sinners.
Christ-followers will receive their ultimate perfection in Heaven, but for now, every believer remains imperfect. Perfectionism denies a number of scriptural concepts, and it’s beneficial to understand its destructive, controlling power in our lives...so we can confront it. And ultimately, so we can let it go.
It’s helpful to know some facts about the impact of perfectionism—how to recognize it, how it can damage our lives and disrupt our walk with God, what God says about perfectionism, and how we can be freed from its pull.
With that in mind, here are seven ways to use these chaotic days to start releasing perfectionism in our lives.
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1. Recognize the Trap of Perfectionism
We cannot release something we do not recognize. Our enemy seeks to steal our effectiveness for the Kingdom and destroy us, and perfectionism is a powerful temptation. We need to recognize that with the temptation of perfectionism, Satan offers us a fake purpose. Many believers point to Matthew 5:48—“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”—as the believer’s purpose and goal.
But sinning is part of the Christian’s life this side of heaven. Perfectionism is a hoax. We all “fall short” of God’s standard. We need salvation, not perfectionism. The truth is, Jesus came to perfectly fulfill God’s demand on us for perfection. His perfection is imputed to us.
Our adversary wants us to believe perfection is our reason for living when, biblically, our purpose is to love and enjoy God, build loving relationships with others, share the gospel, and disciple people (Psalm 37:4a; Matthew 22:34-40; Matthew 28:19-20). This leads to spiritual fullness—abundant life and abundant ministry.
Believers may say, “That’s just the way I am. I can’t help it; I’m a perfectionist.” Rationalizing sinful habit patterns will never release us from them. The problem is, moral perfection becomes the perfectionist’s goal—maybe even an idol.
Focusing on our “perfection” is only one false teaching Satan wants us to embrace as we await the Lord’s return, and it’s a subtle one. We need to learn to recognize the trap of perfectionism and understand its toxic effect.
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2. Understand the Toxicity of Perfectionism
We may have a greater desire to release perfectionism if we understand how toxic it is. Michael Trillo wrote, “In general, the term ‘perfectionist’ is used as today’s code word for a present-day Pharisee.” Pharisees were proud followers of “the rules” (Matthew 23:27), but Paul said even though they tried to be “justified by law,” they were “alienated from Christ” (Galatians 3:10; Galatians 5:1, Galatians 5:4).
Perfectionism poisons us so we can’t see the reality of our relationship with the Lord and our unwillingness to trust Him. We may look perfect as we follow all the rules—many of them self-imposed—but we are hypocrites. We’re still bound to the “yoke” of the law, failing to live in freedom in Jesus.
The difference is doing our best as we yield to the Lord’s enabling versus needing to be perfect. As perfectionists, we might think or say things like:
“I have to be the best” or “I need to excel in everything.”
“I expect that everything I do must be without error or it’s not good enough.”
“I must never be satisfied. I have to always think—how could I have done that better?”
“I don’t dare ask other people for any help. They might think I’m not so perfect.”
“It’s my duty to show people their mistakes.”
“I need to bear down harder on my children. If they struggle in school, people will think I’m not a good parent.”
Joan C. Webb writes in The Relief of Imperfection (p. 29): “The quandary with perfection surfaces when we as God’s created human beings attempt to make our own situations, family members, jobs, homes, and emotions flawless, sinless or perfect...It isn’t possible.”
Perfectionism is a frustrating and faithless lifestyle.
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3. Feel the Turmoil of Perfectionism
Like being strapped to a lie detector, the Christian who sets out to practice perfection will likely tremble inside, afraid of being discovered as a fraud or hypocrite. Christian counselor Rick Thomas says, “Striving for perfection is a futile way to live. It perpetuates inner turmoil….”
Perfectionism plays with our emotions. If we claim we are without sin, we’re simply deceiving ourselves and we make God out to be a liar (Jeremiah 17:9; 1 John 1:8-10), because He says we all have sinned—we are not righteous outside of Jesus.
Perfectionism is just one of the many ways we all sin. Jon Bloom wrote, “perfectionism, even in our struggles against sin, is not motivated by love or faith. ‘Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin’ (Romans 14:23).”
It is God’s perfect love that casts out our fears of being found out in our imperfections. And hiding our imperfections is silly, because the Lord already knows we are desperate and needy without His grace.
In perfectionism, there’s the constant, nagging feeling we’re not enough. We’re not measuring up. That’s why we feel guilty and try to cover up. The Bible says those who attempt to conceal or camouflage their sins rather than confess them will not prosper.
It is only by God’s good grace we are saved from our sins. It’s a gift from Him (Ephesians 2:8-9). Self-oriented, perfectionist-formed works can only bring turmoil to our souls.
God wants to release us from that turmoil.
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4. Grieve the Torment of Perfectionism
The torment of perfectionism is that it does not stand alone. Other sinful attitudes cling to perfectionism and add to the distress a believer might feel.
For example, a young Christian mom may see how her friend is brilliantly handling her children during the pandemic. This fosters envy and motivates her to try to be as “perfect” as her friend, even though her friend may have an entirely different set of circumstances. Perhaps the mom’s striving to be perfect causes her to even lie about how things are going in her own home.
Covetousness can also accompany perfectionism. Joan C. Webb wrote (The Relief of Imperfection, p. 164), “Living in a culture that wants it all and wants it all perfect, we can start to expect what isn’t possible and feel entitled to more.”
In pride, we cover up the truth. Then there is lying—to oneself through self-deception and a desensitized conscience, but also to others. This lying reveals a character issue and lack of integrity, whether overtly or not.
God wants us to speak the truth to one another. The drive to impress also fuels perfectionism. Insecure people compare themselves with others and can become people-pleasers, and their striving for acceptance can lead to disappointment and frustration.
Rick Thomas adds another companion to the collection of bad habits attaching them to the “core heart problem” of perfectionism: Secret sins. The perfectionist may need to find relief from the tormenting stress of perfectionism. It is not unusual for the perfectionist to find “pressure release,” he writes, “through secret lusts like sexual problems, overeating or anger patterns.”
The sins accompanying perfectionism need to be grieved over and forsaken, along with perfectionism itself.
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5. Despise the Tyranny of Perfectionism
“God has something far better for us to strive toward than our idealized imaginations of perfection,” wrote Jon Bloom. God wants us to be “free from the tyranny of pride and fear” associated with perfectionism. We may not think of perfectionism as a tyrant, but if we are controlled by thoughts of how others perceive us, we’re living under tyranny. We need to despise that tyranny and desire freedom from it.
As a tyrant, perfectionism rules through lies. It says we are not good enough. That lie mocks the heart of Father God who loves us (2 Corinthians 11:30; 2 Corinthians 12:9). Perfectionism says we won’t be good enough for people either!
We think people won’t like us or accept us if they know the truth about us. The truth is, there are no guarantees everyone will like us and not judge us, but knowing God loves us no matter what can make us glad!
Another lie, straight from the enemy of our soul, is that it’s too late to change. We’ll always have a “front” to keep up, Satan says.
But the truth is, it’s never too late to change this side of Heaven, and the Lord will strengthen and help us. No matter how long it takes, God will finish His work and make us more like Jesus, the Perfect Savior (Romans 8:29; Philippians 1:6). The tyranny of sin—even perfectionism—will end.
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6. Consider This 10-Question Self-Test for Perfectionism
After reading about the trap, toxicity, turmoil, torment, and tyranny of perfectionism, a person might still wonder: “Am I a perfectionist?” Try asking yourself these 10 questions as a gauge:
1. Do I try hard to present myself in ways that are not an accurate representation of who I am?
2. Do I find it difficult to be transparent and let others know I have failed or messed up—possibly in hiding, afraid people might learn the real truth about my weaknesses or inadequacies?
3. Do I have a nagging feeling I’m “not enough”—a feeling that drives me to either justify my weaknesses or, conversely, exaggerate my strengths?
4. Am I more concerned about presenting “a good face” to people rather than being transparent and opening up my heart in relationships?
5. Does my home have to be “perfect” before I feel I can open up in hospitality to others?
6. Do I pressure my spouse or children or other family members to do all things perfectly?
7. Am I pharisaical—critical of others as a way to make myself or my actions look better?
8. Can I think of some sins that might accompany perfectionism that manifest themselves in my life—sins like lying, pride, or being a people-pleaser?
9. Do I indulge in secret sins that I (perhaps subconsciously) use as relief from facing my weaknesses?
10. Have I accepted the truth that I am imperfect before Father God without the work of Jesus in my life?
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7. Accept God’s Treatment for Perfectionism
Author Bonnie Gray wrote, “Part of being human is experiencing our weaknesses. But it doesn’t have to control the choices we make.” Try out this five-part ‘treatment plan’ for overcoming perfectionism:
Repent of the Sin of Perfectionism
Receive the Truth of the Gospel
Release the Desire to Be a People-Pleaser
Reach Out to Others
Choose transparency and admit where you are not perfect. Ask people for help and to pray for you (James 5:16). Allow them to come alongside so you can grow together in Christ.
Relax and Find Faith—Imperfectly
This may sound like a contradiction. Remember: “In Christ, you are free! You are free to follow Jesus imperfectly. You are free to fight the fight of faith defectively,” wrote Bloom, “because that’s the only way you will ever fight for faith in this age.”
So relax. The Lord is making all things new—including you!
Don’t let the drive for “perfection” keep you from resting in the Perfect One. Especially now, in the unsettled chaos of the coronavirus, you can find more freedom and peace than you ever thought possible.
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Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.