I once made an unannounced visit on a family who had just started attending our church. I interrupted a shouting, dish-throwing argument between them. The woman had charged a thousand-dollar gift to a televangelist who said that God would bless her and give her an “abundant life.” When her husband found out, he hit the ceiling.
She sobbed, “All I wanted was an abundant life!”
I asked “Would you settle for a pretty good life? If you do, God will give you abundant life.”
“No!” she snapped back, “I want abundant life—nothing else!”
Her problem was spiritual perfectionism. If her life wasn’t great, it was no good.
Perfectionism is the belief that life is either perfect or worthless. It is an inflexible, unachievable attitude of life that ruins our enjoyment of the blessings God gives us.
Dr. Albert Ellis, father of rational/cognitive therapy, isolated three basic irrational, perfectionist notions which account for most of the unhappiness and dissatisfaction of our lives:
1. "I absolutely MUST under all conditions and at all times, perform well and win the complete approval of others. If I fail, that is awful and I am a bad person who probably always fails and deserves to suffer."
2. "Other people absolutely MUST, under all conditions and at all times treat me nicely, considerately, and fairly. Otherwise, it is terrible and they are bad people who will always treat me badly, and do not deserve a good life and should be severely punished."
3. "The conditions under which I live absolutely MUST, at all times, be favorable, safe, hassle-free, and quickly and easily enjoyable, and if they are not, then that’s awful and I can't bear it. I can't ever enjoy myself at all. My life is impossible and hardly worth living."
Not only are these notions impossible, they are also unbiblical. We should never pursue perfection or even excellence for its own sake. Seeking to be better is good, but the illusion that we should only settle for excellence or perfection is a recipe for misery.
The word “excel” meant to pass the level of our peers. If we excel at math in school, then it means we are doing better in math than most other people. But if everyone in math class excelled at math, then we would just be average. We would just have to work harder at math and so would they. Then they would have to also work harder to keep up with me, and this would continue until we had worn ourselves out. If our measure of what is good for us is based on the performance of others, and their performance is based on ours, then we will eventually make an idol out of whatever we pursue.
Be careful when you pursue excellence. No victory ever comes without a price. Wanting to achieve is good, but if you don’t learn to settle for less than perfection, or if you think God cannot love you unless you are perfect, then you can never experience the real joy and happiness God has planned for your life.
Let me suggest to you five Biblical antidotes to perfectionism.
Antidote # 1: You don’t have to be perfect in everything--that’s why God gave us each other. In 1 Corinthians 12, God tells us about how the Holy Spirit manifests Jesus in our lives.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.
Jesus is perfect. His wisdom, knowledge, power, teaching ability, love, compassion, and caring are far beyond those of any of us. The Holy Spirit shows Jesus to the world through us by remaking us into His image, so that the world can see Him in us.
We are imperfect reflections, however. Though it is our purpose to individually reflect the image of Christ, this is never going to happen perfectly in the flesh. So the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to the world through all of us together, and not just through us alone, but through all the different parts of the Body of Christ, the church.
You may not be a great preacher like Jesus, but you don’t have to be. Someone else may do the preaching. You may not be a great thinker, but you don’t have to be. That is the job of theologians and professors. You may not fix cars or wire houses, but God gave mechanics and electricians to do that. No job is without honor in God’s kingdom, and no one has to be able to do every job. Jesus is manifested in His fullness when we all work together.
Antidote #2: You don’t have to be perfect all at once--that’s why God gives us time. When she was young my granddaughter saw me playing the guitar. She asked if she could play it. She strummed it a few times, but knew no chords or rhythm. Then she put it down in disgust saying, “I’ll never be any good at this!” When we are children, we all think this way. If we can’t be perfect at something the first time, then we give up in frustration. But all good things take time.
The next time you get discourage because you can’t be perfect at something, or because life isn’t perfect for you, remember that the apostles or saints weren’t perfect, either. Paul admits this in Philippians 3: 12-16
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
If Paul wasn’t perfect, then what chance do you have? Over time we continually get better, growing into the stature of Christ. Excellence is achieved in Christlikeness by holding on to what we have already achieved, celebrating it, and seeing if we can go just a little bit farther. Time is a necessary part in achieving all things.
Antidote #3: You don’t have to be right or successful all the time--that’s why God gives us grace. I really feel sorry for people who must win all the time. They aren’t trying hard enough. If you aren’t losing on a regular basis, then you are choosing to only compete in things where you have a guaranteed win, and you will not get any better. We gain confidence from winning, but we gain much more—wisdom, knowledge, growth, motivation, courage, and perseverance—from losing. This is true in our moral, spiritual lives as well as in our physical and social lives.
If there’s an upside to sin, then it’s that we fall into it, and we know that we are forgiven. John tells us in 1 John 2: 1-2
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
God does not want us to sin, but when we sin Jesus has already forgiven. Our mistakes are hidden in Christ, so that they may be forgotten and so that we may press on. God’s grace enables our lives to progress only upward. When our sins and our mistakes take us backwards, then God’s forgiveness in Christ covers it.
The process of becoming more Christ-like works like a ratchet wrench. Grace allows us to go forward only. The only movement that matters is our progress towards the image of Christ. We may press on, because God is continuing to grant us grace for all our failures. We do not have to be perfect, because God’s grace is perfect in our lives.
Antidote #4: You don’t have to be happy all the time, that’s why God gives us heaven. Being imperfect makes us unhappy—there’s no question of that. If we all obeyed God’s commands all the time, then we would not be unhappy. Our emotions would be under control, and our actions would be effective. When we failed we would not beat ourselves up about it, but would be able to set it aside in the same way Jesus did, and go on doing God’s work. But we live in an imperfect world, where things happen that are often vary unfair.
1 Corinthians 13: 8-13 reminds us
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
The reason you aren’t living a perfect life is because you live in an imperfect world. Death happens, disease happens, stupidity happens, and evil happens to us all the time. When you are living in a sewer, you have to learn to tolerate the smell, and our world is a sewer of sin and suffering. But God has promised to deliver us from this world in the end.
There’s good news for perfectionists. You will be perfect one day in heaven, where there is no suffering, death, or sin. But until then, we hold on to the promises of God, and do the best we can to be happy in the midst of imperfections.
Happiness is always temporary. We are like prisoners who stop o admire the sunrise on the way to the gallows. But one day we will be in a place of eternal sunshine, where there will be no suffering, and death itself will be conquered once and for all.
You can be blessed at all times, because God gives us His Word and Spirit.
You don’t have to have a perfect life. Jesus was perfect on your behalf. Because of His perfection, though, you can have a good life. You can experience His love and presence in the midst of the troubles you endure. “I am with you always,” Jesus says, “Even till the end of this age.” When we experience failure, we should also experience God’s grace in Jesus. He forgives, forgets, and comforts us in the midst of pain.