I’ve talked about perfectionism before, but I wanted to talk about it a little more in depth because I think a lot of people who struggle with an eating disorder also struggle with perfectionism. Both boil down to a sin problem.
I struggle with perfectionism everyday. I pressure myself with unrealistic expectations, and when I don’t perform at or above the set bar, I punish myself. Then I’m left to wallow in a puddle of self-pity. It’s a vicious cycle, really.
Perfectionism is more than just working hard or trying your best. It’s the compulsive urge to do things perfectly. It’s the fear of failing followed by an overwhelming rush of guilt when expectations aren’t met. It’s an idol, and it needs to be addressed.
The problem with perfectionism is that it leaves no room for the grace of God to work. It’s an entirely self-centered focus. It’s believing that if I can just do better and be better, then I will be enough. I’ll be pleased with myself, and maybe – for once – I’ll be worthy. But where is God in that?
Perfectionism does not glorify God. Instead, it robs God of His glory.
Matthew 5:48 commands that we be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And yet, within this very command is the assurance that we don’t have to be perfect. I know it sounds contradictory, but it isn’t.
If you backup with me, we’ll examine Matthew chapter 5 as a whole. You might recognize this as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Here he speaks on issues of anger, lust, divorce, swearing oaths, retaliation, and loving your enemies. Crowds of people gather to listen, but Jesus speaks with a very particular audience in mind – the Pharisees. Very blunt and direct, He exposes their pride and self-righteousness.
But before He jumps into this spiel, Jesus explains His mission. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” He says. “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17).” In other words, Jesus came to satisfy God’s demand for perfection on our behalf!
Jesus lived perfectly, and that is enough. His one act of righteousness produced justification and life for all men (Romans 5:18).
When God looks at me, He doesn’t see my filthy, sin-stained frame. He sees the perfect stamp of His Son over my heart. I died with Christ, and now I am set free from sin (Romans 6:7)! I don’t have to live perfectly, because I am perfect in Him.
This is much different than the positive self-affirmations girls preach to themselves in the mirror to feel empowered. This is truth, and it’s sustaining.
After Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, many people struggled to accept the liberating gift of grace. It seemed to go against everything they had been taught. They were so bent on rule-following that unmerited grace was such an absurd concept. The apostle Paul had a lot to say on this subject. The Galatians couldn’t wrap their minds around the fact that Jesus had completely and perfectly fulfilled the Mosaic Law – it was finished! They were relying on human efforts to save them. And Paul was grieved to see fellow believers drifting away due to this lack of understanding. He wrote to the Galatians, “For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” He is telling them, “Stop! Don’t you see? We are free in Christ Jesus. So stop exhausting yourself with burdens you’re no longer intended to bear.”
As I study this passage, I can’t help but see a striking resemblance between the Galatians and perfectionists today. The stubborn Galatians remind me so much of myself, and it’s alarming. Over and over again, I turn down God’s gift of grace to chase after perfection (or my own interpretation of it). Not only does this prove pointless in the end, but it’s also insulting to the One who bought my freedom. There is absolutely nothing I can do to earn salvation. And to suggest otherwise is a type of blasphemy. It’s like shaking a curled fist at God and insisting “my way is best, Lord.”
When we bow the knee to perfectionism, we chain ourselves to rules and rituals. We wear the loud mark of someone who doesn’t trust God. We submit to the yoke of slavery Paul warns against. There is no freedom in being a prisoner.
This impulse – the feeling of needing to do things perfectly – is not from God (Galatians 5:8). He doesn’t expect perfection. Rather, His desire is that we lean into the perfect person of Jesus. How relieving! This takes an incredible pressure off of us. And when we learn to depend on Him, we have more time to spend doing things that really matter.
Because of Jesus, I am not under the Law, but under grace. I am not a slave to my obsessive thoughts. I don’t have to start over when I do something imperfectly. I don’t have to be afraid of messing up. I don’t have to set unrealistic standards for myself, and I don’t have to bathe in self-pity.
I hope you take comfort in knowing that the Bible is full of broken, far-from-perfect sinners. Abraham was deceptive (Genesis 20:2). David was unfaithful (2 Samuel 11:2-4). Jonah was disobedient (Jonah 1:1-3). Peter was afraid (Matthew 14:30). Martha was anxious (Luke 10:41). And Paul was murderous (Acts 8:1). Yet God loved these people and chose to adopt them into His perfect family. We can be encouraged that God works in and through lousy people to accomplish His goal.
The fight against perfectionism is an ongoing battle. But let us not fall into the trap of believing that we must earn our salvation. Jesus paid it all and perfectly met God’s high standards.
It’s likely that I will struggle in this area for the rest of my life. But I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Throughout this lifetime, I will never be perfect. But I am learning what it means to die to self. I am being sanctified everyday. God is constantly at work killing the perfectionist in me. The process is long and painful, but He is always good. In Him I have victory over the destructive sin of perfectionism.