I’ll admit it. I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’m not proud of it, and I’ve worked hard to overcome it.
I think most perfectionism develops out of a desire for approval. When a child can’t find acceptance among peers or approval from parents, she will often develop perfectionistic tendencies in an effort to feel complete or validated as a person. The problem with perfectionism is that we aren’t perfect. So when we fall short of our self-imposed standards, we no longer feel peace and security because we are seeking it from the wrong source.
“To all perfection, I see a limit; but your commands are boundless.”Psalm 119:96, NIV 84
Perfectionism or Excellence?
What is perfectionism?
“perfectionism: a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable”Merriam-Webster
A person who struggles with perfectionism will feel a profound sense of discontent and even anger when she can’t control outcomes. This struggle will often cause her to impose her standards on those around her, becoming upset when they can’t meet her ideals either.
Perfectionists spend much time either feeling bad about themselves because of their sense of failure or blaming others and being critical of their failures.
The cure for perfectionism is finding our identity in Jesus.
Who I Am in Christ
As I grew and matured in my walk with the Lord, I began to understand who I am in Christ. I came to realize that God so loved me, He gave His Son for me, so that I could have life and have it to the full (John 3:16, John 10:10). I came to be aware of His grace when I am weak (2 Corinthians 12:9) and the fact that He understands my weaknesses and loves me anyway (Hebrews 4:15-16).
You see, when it comes down to it, perfectionists really just want to be loved. They feel they have to earn love from others by their performance. When we grasp who we really are as the beloved of God, we are set free from performance and can rest in His unconditional love (Ephesians 2:8-9).
That freedom allows us to channel our work ethic into doing kingdom work with excellence–not to earn anything but out of our love for God.
When we are set free from perfectionism, we can strive for excellence. There’s a difference.
The Difference Between Perfectionism and Excellence
Perfectionism is upset and distressed when things don’t go perfectly as planned.
Excellence strives for the best but can stay in peace with less than perfect.
The other end of the spectrum is laziness or mediocrity. There are those who do enough to get by but never really strive to do anything well.
God doesn’t call us to either of these extremes. He calls us to excellence with grace.
As believers, we should work hard to do things as well as we possibly can, not settling for less than our best.
“So whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”1 Corinthians 10:31
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for men.”Colossians 3:23
“Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men.”Ephesians 6:7
We are encouraged to be diligent and not slack.
“He who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys.”Proverbs 18:31
“Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.”1 Timothy 4:15
I think the woman of Proverbs 31 is a perfect example of an excellent life. We often think of her as perfect, but she wasn’t.
“She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.”Proverbs 31:25
This verse tells us she was free from stress and anxiety–not a perfectionist! Trust me, if she had been a perfectionist, her husband and children would have been the first to suffer, but instead, they praised her.
“Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.”Proverbs 31:28
This woman had the admiration of her family because she understood the difference between perfection and excellence–all because her identity was in God.
“Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”Proverbs 31:30
She didn’t depend on beauty or charm to bring her approval or acceptance. She served God with reverent fear and found her identity in Him.
The Call to Be Perfect
“‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.'”Matthew 5:48
God is perfect in all of His ways (Psalm 18:30). In its context in Matthew, this verse spoken by Jesus is a call to love others, even our enemies. Jesus is saying that we should strive for perfect love–that is our standard.
But when the Bible calls us to be perfect, the Greek word has a different meaning from what we associate with the word perfect.
“teleios: perfect, mature, finished; adults, completeness”The NIV Exhaustive Bible Concordance
Jesus is calling us to love others with a mature, complete love as He loves.
Paul also spoke of our aiming for perfection.
“Finally, brothers, goodbye. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.”2 Corinthians 13:11
Again, the word used for perfection means “full restoration, maturity, completeness.” The verb perfect means “to complete, arrive at a goal, fully mature” (The NIV Exhaustive Bible Concordance). And we are called to do that in peace.
Even Paul said he had not yet been made perfect, but that was his aim.
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things.”Philippians 3:12-15
Paul’s desire was to strive to be more like Jesus. That is excellence. But to become stressed and upset when we don’t reach that goal is perfectionism. Instead, God is calling us to press on in our growing toward maturity and completing those things He is calling us to do with peace and love–not with stress and anger.
So, if you struggle with perfectionism, I encourage you to spend some time in the Word. Strive to be excellent in your lifestyle, your work ethic, and your service, but don’t be controlled by perfectionism. Do your absolute best with all diligence, and then trust His grace to meet your weakness.
You can strive for perfection, fall short of perfection as you grow and mature, and stay in peace. So press on.