Confessions of a Perfectionist



            Hello, my name is Tim and I am a recovering perfectionist.  There was a time in my life when perfectionism ruled all areas of my life.  The need for consistent daily routines with no ability to deal with anything outside that terrain of the familiar caused me to have the illusion that I was in control, competent, and, well, perfect.  To fail at anything meant I was a worthless person, which made me unacceptable to myself and fed a constant stream of beating myself up emotionally for my imperfections.
            A wise professor once said to me:  “Tim, can you be a good enough pastor?”  He was asking me if I could be responsible and do what needed to be done without being an obsessive-compulsive mess about it.  He was pointing out to me that to do my best was good enough, period.  That was solid stuff for me.  The pastoral vocation is one in which, even doing something to the height of perfection, may lead a parishioner to complain about what you did wrong or fault you for some perceived deficiency.  If a church leader is not secure in the love and grace of Jesus Christ, it is a prescription for burn-out, strained relationships with family, and depression.  Perfectionism is not something to embrace as a virtue; it is the sin of working for approval and acceptance, instead of relying in the identity of being hidden in Christ.
            The pathology of my perfectionism was a bent toward all-or-nothing thinking – having complete control or no control at all.  If I could not do something perfect, I did not do it at all.  I have since been learning to live in the in-between world of little-by-little, day-by-day change, where most of life is actually lived.  Most of our daily existence is lived in the mundane, in the constant rhythm of a three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward kind of life.  It is simply unrealistic to think that the Christian life can be some sort of unending progressive path of perfection.  It would be like a baseball player thinking he should be able to bat 1.000 without ever striking out.
            Becoming holy along the road of spiritual sanctification means we will, little by little, day by day, one step at a time, have our sinful desires exposed, our wrong thinking and feeling patterns revealed, our self-protective styles of relating, our avoidance of conflict and pain, all seen for what they are.  Without seeing our sin for what it is, we will never see God’s grace for what it is.  To slowly and deliberately learn to live in the faith and grace of Jesus is our greatest task, and our highest joy.  Living in this space of grace is what helps us to recognize the whispers of Satan:  “You’ll never be good enough,” and “You should never make mistakes.”  The devil is into trying to make us feel ashamed for whom we are; God is trying to help us confess our idolatry and turn to Jesus.


            Can you think the thought that God delights over you?  Can you believe that you have been created in God’s image and likeness, and are, therefore, precious to him apart from what you do or don’t do?  Can you accept that you are loved by God?  Can you live with yourself?  Grace is the key that unlocks the door of salvation.  Use it.

Hope for the Perfectionist


            Perfectionism, in my humble opinion, is one of the greatest maladies affecting the church today.  One of the reasons for this is that it perpetually goes un-diagnosed.  After all, the church servant who will go over and above putting in hours to make the ministry team successful is hailed by others.  The pastor who will drop everything at any time for a parishioner receives accolades as one who cares.  The teacher who crafts a lesson in such incredible detail awes her students.  It goes beyond the walls of the church, as well.  The woman who keeps a perfect physique garners the respect and attention of both men and women.  The man who works tirelessly for the company and his clients may receive awards and promotions, and the praise of his boss.
            But it all has a steep price:  the inability to distinguish between excellence and perfection, and the cost of becoming hopelessly depressed.  Perfectionists constantly “should” and “ought” themselves to death.  Their work, no matter how good, is never good enough.  “I should have done better.”  “I ought to be able to do better.”  “I must be, do, and look better.”  Instead of viewing life’s opportunities as challenges to be welcomed, the perfectionist sees life as one unending insurmountable mountain to climb, never quite reaching the top.  The constant companions of perfectionist people are disappointment, condemnation, frustration, and perceived failure.  It is an internal world of self-deprecation based on the lie that I can’t just be good enough – I have to be perfect.
            People might like to always have a perfectionist doing the work (which is why they continually get asked to do everything!) but, to put it both biblically and bluntly, perfectionism is sin.  Perfectionism is a nice shiny way of saying legalism.  Legalists rigidly overemphasize external results, do’s and don’ts, rules and regulations, and have expectations for themselves and others that can never be attained.  Sound familiar?  The perfectionist fits right into this sinful way of thinking.  In other words, the legalist/perfectionist has a fragile spirituality dependent on personal performance.  They have such a finely tuned sense of guilt that it is literally impossible to ever meet their own standards.  No wonder many perfectionists struggle mightily with anxiety attacks and depression.
            There is only one antidote to perfectionism:  unconditional approval from God.  That is, grace is the elixir of life.  Grace is the only thing the perfectionist can’t work to obtain.  God’s grace is freely given, not dependent on abilities, and un-repayable.   God’s loving acceptance of us has nothing to do with our worthiness.  Recovery for the perfectionist can only occur by a radical acceptance of grace.  Perfectionists have been so programmed by themselves to impossible performance and conditional love that this extreme gift of grace is hard to take.  Change won’t happen overnight, and that’s okay.  It’s okay because God deals with us according to grace, not by earning spiritual merit badges.  The renewal that brings transformation of the perfectionist mind is typically a process.  Here is a really radical idea and thought for the perfectionist:  enjoy the process.  When you have caught yourself going back to the pig sty of perfectionism, instead of beating yourself up, go ahead and laugh at yourself and your own fallibility.  Perfectionists take themselves way too serious.  Anytime they can lighten up, it lights up the face of God (in a non-performance sort of way!).
            Jesus said that we should come to him because he will give us rest (Matthew 11:28-30).  He said that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light.  It isn’t anything like the heavy yoke of legalistic perfectionism.  So, take that good news from Jesus and enjoy a better way to live.  Jesus will never leave you, nor forsake you, even when you screw up.
Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears:
Before the throne my surety stands, before the throne my Surety stands,
My name is written on His hands.  –Charles Wesley