“I’m a perfectionist.”
“I just like things to be done well.”
“I have high standards for myself.”
“I’m really hard on myself.”
“I’m just particular about some things.”
You’ve either said these things or heard someone else say them. Either way, there’s something besides real perfection going on. I say “real perfection” because there’s really only one person that accomplished utter perfection: Jesus. According to his Word, your failing perfectionism isn’t impressive; it’s deadly.
We typically describe someone as a perfectionist if they’re particular, if they respond poorly to failure, or if they’re willing to do anything to meet a certain standard. In short, a perfectionist is someone who refuses to accept anything less than perfection from themselves. But what we don't normally recognize is that living this way is detrimental, both for the perfectionist and for those around them. Perfectionism is actually a form of pride that brings destruction (Prvbs 16:18). It will destroy you, but it can also destroy the people around you.
What does your failing attempt at “perfectionism” say to the people around you?
I’m better than you. My standard is higher than yours.
Perfectionists often imply that it’s okay for others not to meet their personal standards of living. But the problem with having standards for ourselves that we wouldn’t have for others is that it implies they’re not good enough to meet our standards. If I expect more of myself than I do of you, then I think I can accomplish more than you can, revealing the ugly truth: I think I’m better than you.
It would follow, then, that if I’m better than you, my standards are better than yours. And if that’s true, then I think more highly of myself than I do of you. This is opposite of being like Jesus. Jesus didn’t count himself as being equal with God (Phil 2:6). This is so shocking because we know Jesus to be perfect. But, Jesus valued us over himself so much that he chose to come to earth as a man. He made himself low; he valued everyone else over himself to the point of his own death. Jesus thought rightly of himself before God so that he could rightly serve according to what God called him to do (Jn 13:3).
I don’t need Jesus as much as you.
If I claim to be a perfectionist, then I create my own set of standards. This implies the standard God has set in his Word for all people (the standard that Jesus met for us) is lower than mine. The perfectionist has his or her own standard apart from Jesus—God’s standard is not worthy of them. “In his pride the wicked man does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God” (Ps 10:4). If I have different expectations of myself than I do of other people, I don’t need Jesus as much as they do.
I don’t need God’s grace.
When I forfeit the fulfillment of God’s standard by Jesus on my personal behalf, then I forgo the grace of God offered to me in Christ. Life without grace is miserable. If I set up my own standard, intend to meet it on my own, and leave God out of the scenario, then I'm not living in the grace that is afforded to me when Jesus met God’s standard on my behalf. I’m setting myself up to literally be opposed by God (Js 4:6, Ps 138:6, Prov 16:5). When we function out of prideful perfectionism, we’ll be unable to take hold of true humility (Rom 12:3).
I want glory for the good things I do.
And because I want to set my own standard, then essentially, I want the fame that comes with meeting my own standard. Because Jesus perfectly met God’s standard, he gets the worship and honor. If I meet my own “higher than God’s” standard, then I get the worship. When I strive for perfectionism, I’m fostering selfish pride. Pride says, “I’m better than you; I know more than you and my ways are better than your ways.” This is the antithesis of a true Christian (Is 55:8). The foundation of gospel faith is that we would recognize our inability to reach a godly standard on our own (Jn 14:6).
Good News for the Failing Perfectionist
So, how do we overcome our sinful perfectionism? First, we must acknowledge that we want to be perfect for our own benefit. We must repent of our pride and embrace perfect Jesus.
Here are some signs that you may be a failing perfectionist:
1. You’re shocked at your sin.
2. You’re depressed when things don’t go your way.
3. It drives you crazy when people don’t do things according to your preferences.
4. You don’t care to think about God’s grace.
5. You’d rather embrace law over God’s kindness.
6. You’re defensive when others point out imperfections; you don’t take criticism well.
7. You’re hard to get along with.
8. You sit with your brokenness rather than move towards God in relationship.
9. You’re anxious over things you have to do.
10. You don’t live life with gratefulness towards God.
Being particular isn’t the equivalent of being godly. Godliness isn’t perfection for those of us who are saved sinners; godliness is pursuing faithfulness and obedience as we strive to please Christ—even with our failings. A Christian’s godliness doesn’t display perfection, it exudes humility. We know we’re going to fail, and willingly embrace Jesus’ grace when we do. When things are not perfect, we get to experience the power of a God who is perfect on our behalf. Imperfection leads us to relish in the perfection of the One who was nailed because of it. Our perfection isn’t impressive, but Jesus’ perfection has saved us.
Rebekah Hannah is a biblical counselor at The Grace Center for Biblical Counseling in Jacksonville, Florida. She is married to Andrew and has three daughters.