"For the law brought nothing to perfection;
on the other hand, a better hope is introduced,
through which we draw near to God.”
(Heb 7: 19)
What do you think of when you hear the word “perfection”?
Do you think: abs of steel, a kid at Harvard, a kitchen pristine enough to double as a surgery suite? Do you picture a résumé with no unsightly gaps? Skinny jeans with no unsightly bulges?
Maybe you’re not as shallow as all that. So what comes to mind? A blissful prayer routine with regular blasts of life-altering inspiration? A calendar packed with service projects and Steel Magnolia smiles for every trial?
Yes, I’d take that. Maybe also complete victory over my most annoying character flaws—including my habit of ruminating on the flaws of others—and pronto, please. We perfectionists hate to wait.
Wanting flawlessness fast, and glow-in-the-dark holiness yesterday, may be an unrealistic desire. But it puts me in good company. The Bible overflows with holy figures who achieved intimacy with God in part because they first harbored the desire, because God’s grace inspired them to dream of something bigger and better than a status-quo spiritual slog.
We see this yearning for holiness in the Psalms, where David begs God to “cleanse me from my inadvertent sins … [that] shall I be blameless” (Ps 19: 13 – 14). We hear it in Saint Paul’s insistence that Christians should not meander toward the finish line but “run so as to win” (1 Cor 9:24). Jesus Himself praises the longing for holiness in His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. … Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5: 6, 8).
In other words, the cure for perfectionism is not to squelch our hard-wired desires for excellence, as so many in our culture say we must do to be healthy and happy. Our longing for the perfect isn’t the problem. It’s how God made us. It’s rooted in our longing for God Himself.
The problem is that we substitute our own ideas of perfection for God’s. We try to turn transformation in Christ into a self-improvement project and treat Gospel perfection as the result of our striving instead of God’s grace.
The first step toward overcoming spiritual perfectionism—that toxic cycle of pride, sin, shame, blame and despair that fuels and exacerbates every other form of perfectionism—is to put aside our spiritual to-do list and ask the Holy Spirit to show us what He most wants to change in us. Then listen, really listen, to His answer.
We might hear something unexpected or unnerving. That’s OK. Surprises are par for the course when dealing with the living God, as opposed to our perfectionist idols.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,” the Lord tells us in Isaiah, “and my ways are not your ways” (Is 55:8). For perfectionists tired of competing, comparing and always coming up short in our efforts to draw near to God, that’s good news—and a better hope indeed.
Read Matthew 5: 3 – 12. Pause when a particular word or phrase jumps out at you. Ask the Lord to show you why He drew your attention to it and how it applies to your life.
What would change in your life today if you pursued God’s dream of perfect instead of your own? Is change worth the risk? What’s the risk of not changing? Which risk will you wish you had taken on your deathbed?