What is perfectionism? Perfectionism is a belief system developed by an individual which leads them to believe that everyone should follow all rules (internal or external) perfectly; and anything below this level of performance is failure. That’s my own definition—not Webster’s. I’ve learned this definition just by watching and counseling Christians over the years, some of whom suffer from this malady more than what they would probably admit. Christ told us in his word, “Be ye perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Now, if you take that scripture out of its context, you can get really confused about how you should live your life. You will create a prison for yourself. One that will be very difficult to escape unless you come to certain realizations. The first realization is that no one, no matter how faithful they are to God, is perfect. The second realization is that on the average, those that claim to measure up to all Christian standards, usually have overlooked much bigger issues in their lives; therefore, it doesn’t pay to measure yourself against others.
I heard a man, who used to investigate criminals for a living say that when he looked at the facts of a case, and ran into coincidences, he didn’t ignore them. He said “to ignore coincidence, after coincidence, is just plain stupid”. One coincidence I’ve noticed that keeps popping up is that people that have made themselves perfectionists of religion strain at a gnat but will swallow a camel. They will worry themselves and you about the smallest missteps, but miss the major problems in their own lives. Jesus warned us about this type of thinking. Worst of all, it’s not good for spiritual or personal growth. Why? A person of this ilk will be afraid to make mistakes and advance with the Spirit of God. They will only do things that they consider safe and accepted by those looking on. This is not the example we see in the scriptures. The apostles and Jesus were very radical and moved with the Spirit of God, no matter how the “establishment” felt.
I was in this overly conscientious prison at one point in my life. My child hood was chaotic, and both of my parents were perfectionists. This disease was passed on to me. When I became a Christian, this was not a helpful state of mind for me. I was faithful to everything, and I mean everything. Very few could beat me in being faithful to the church; going to meetings, church services, visiting the sick, staying up at night with the sick, passing out tracts, the whole bit. My Pastor used to challenge us and say that we should ask ourselves, “If every member of the church were like me, what kind of church would the church be?” Nice sentiment, and yes challenging, but that was not the best ideology for me. I did genuinely care about serving God, and I did do these things out of concern and care, but there was a part of me that was so hard on myself that I tried to literally be the whole church and felt extreme guilt if I did not extend myself. In retrospect, this was because I wanted to belong and be accepted, and the message I got was that the more you do and perform, the more accepted you would be by God—performance religion.
As God gave me more responsibility in the church, he actually helped me to pull away from that mindset. I could see from the tower of the prison, others that were still in cells. They bragged about how they were never late to church, thanked God for how perfectly they were training their children and how like the publican, they fasted twice a week, blah, blah blah, blah. But I also noticed from my escape hatch the level of immaturity that existed with perfectionists that was often masked with scripture.
Perfectionism can be oppressive especially when you are going through your own trials and tribulations. Do you find that you don’t want to let people know how badly you are hurting? Do find yourself trying to pretend like you’re a super Christian with perfect children, perfect marriage, 2.5 manageable pets, and a white picket fence, never miss a Sunday school, attend every service, always volunteer when needed and complaining about those that don’t sacrifice their time to the same extent? Do you find yourself shying away from people’s help because “I don’t need people’s help, I only need God?”; and although this sounds spiritual, you may not realize that God’s people are a body in Christ and He sends others to nurture and nourish you (Ephesians 4:16). The hands and feet of His people are Him reaching out to help you directly.
I knew a woman that kept the manufacturer’s plastic on her living room carpet. I’m not kidding. She refused to take it off, for fear it might get dirty and lose its luster or value. I suppose she enjoyed it according to her definition, but she never appreciated the purpose of the carpet. She did not realize that the value in the carpet was not just the look, but the comfort and pleasure people get from using it and keep their feet from hard floor underneath. Most people I know that have carpet, like to sit on it, play on it, walk their feet across it and enjoy the feel, and if it gets dirty, that’s what they make steam cleaners for right?
Like this woman, people that are infected with perfectionism, become centered on preserving the unimportant. While they love the pristine appearance of their lives, they never really sink their toes into it, lay on it, play board games on it, or just enjoy it. Perfectionists tend to focus so much on the “carpet” that they unknowingly ignore the people walking on it and the lessons God wants them to learn. Most notably, they often miss one of the most important lessons of Christian life, which is being real and being flexible with the spirit of God.
God cares most that you love Him with a perfect heart. (2 Chronicles 16:9; 1 Chronicles 28:9; Mark 12:30). He is not focused on your mistakes as much as He is the lessons that you learn from those mistakes. Although not all perfectionists are hypocrites, Jesus warned the Pharisees about washing the outside of the cup and letting the weightier matters of mercy and justice fall by the wayside. (Luke11:39; Matthew 23:23). I have seen this trend in people over and over again. The perfect church attendance records, the flawlessly dressed children, the marriages that appear in order, Sunday school scriptures they can recite backwards, the neat, organized home; but many of them seem to fail in Life Lessons 101. They seem to become be completely unglued, and apologetic when embarrassing situations happen in their families or they try to cover up and hide anything that will mar the perfect picture.
All that energy spent looking good should be used to get to know their children, understand their spouses, and improve their walk with the Lord. Unfortunately, the serious issues are often left buried for years, but never fear, reality eventually rises to the top.
If you find you’re in this mental prison in your trials and don’t want to face that you’ve lost your job, or that there are problems in your marriage or that your relationship with your children is strained because other people and other things seem to be more important than your family, take a moment and take inventory and unlock the cell door. Christ will gladly hand you the key.