By Randy Limbird
Perfectionism gets a bad rap. To call someone a perfectionist is rarely an unqualified compliment. It implies that someone is trying too hard, perhaps with some degree of neurosis, to reach an unattainable standard — and often making himself or herself miserable in the process, along with those around them.
The problem, however, is not really perfectionism. It’s how people deal with imperfectionism.
What makes perfectionists neurotic is not so much their high standards, but how they torment themselves when they fall short. It’s the belief that they must be perfect to be a worthwhile human being that both drives them and destroys them.
That’s why it’s easy to find people teaching a brand of Christianity that’s opposed to perfectionism. They reject the legalism of trying to do everything right, of following every moral precept and achieving every goal, in order to justify themselves. Grace and forgiveness are what matter.
But it’s really grace and forgiveness that make perfectionism a good word, not a bad one. Because it’s the person who knows he or she is fully accepted and loved who can reach for the stars and not be ruined when they fall.
One of the hardest sayings of Jesus is Matt. 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Talk about an unattainable standard!
Is Jesus really saying, “Be perfect or God won’t love you? Be perfect or you won’t make it into heaven?” Of course not.
But Jesus is saying that we have more potential than we can imagine. We were made in God’s image and Jesus is calling us to embrace that identity.
It’s not a coincidence that Jesus tells his followers to “be perfect” just after his teaching about loving our enemies. Loving one’s enemies is another impossible standard — but Jesus also taught “with God all things are possible.”
How do grace and perfectionism co-exist? My favorite example is the movie “Groundhog Day.” The main character, Phil Connors, keeps reliving the same day over and over again. Eventually he figures out how to make the most of it, being at the right spot at the right time to make a difference. He rescues a child falling from a tree, fixes a flat tire for some elderly woman, saves a choking diner, and even takes piano lessons on the side.
He seeks to become perfect, and he knows he will always have another chance to improve. So he acts with complete freedom and never quits trying.
We may not live the same day over and over again, but the Bible promises us that God’s “compassions never fail. They are new every morning” (Lam. 3:23-24).
Randy Limbird is editor of
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