The Problem of Perfectionism


Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m such a perfectionist” in a way that’s seems like they’re happy about it or as if it were a virtue? Maybe you’ve said that you’re a perfectionist, and I can say that I have said it over and over throughout my life as I’ve striven to do everything with perfection only to be frustrated and at times debilitated by failure in achieving perfection. However, I’d also have to say that this idea of perfectionism or being a perfectionist is lauded as commendable and good in our culture, especially here in America to the point that it’s something that we should aspire to be. Unfortunately, as much as I’d love to relish in the fact that I’m what most people call a “type A” person or a “perfectionist,” I’m actually here to explain that perfectionism is a bad fruit grown from the remaining corruptions in the believer’s heart that consistently leads to more bad fruit.

Let’s observe how it is such, then let’s examine some of the potential roots of it, and then conclude with the remedies for it in the gospel. Now before we can do so, some things need to be recognized. First, we’re going to be noticing the more common expressions and motivations of perfectionism. We must admit that each heart is different, and though the outward expressions of the sin in our heart may be the same, the sin which motivates that behavior may be different depending on the person. Second, striving to do all things with excellence or perfection is a wonderful thing, yet as we will see, such wonderful effort can in fact become harmful and sinful when the remaining corruptions of sin in our flesh take it too far.

Perfectionism Observed

Before we can see some of the roots of perfectionism, let’s observe some of the common experiences of perfectionism. One thing you’ll likely notice is how each of these experiences are intertwined with one another.

First, those who struggle with perfectionism experience an incessant drive and inward pressure to achieve an extremely high quality of performance. This includes an unrealistic standard that they’ve set for themselves, though their mind sees the standard as possible. Additionally, the standard can be almost identical to the law of God, but the difference is that there’s a slight deviation from the law of God as it’s given because there’s a subtle belief that they can either live up to that standard or add to or subtract from the law so that they can seemingly achieve the perfect standard of the law.

Second, they experience a deep frustration or anger with failure and imperfection. Oftentimes when a perfectionist is living and thinking for their standard, perceiving it to be possible to be perfect, they experience an underlying anger and frustration because of the failure to achieve that standard. Interestingly enough though, this anger may at times come across as sadness or disappointment, but in reality it is a different expression of their frustration with their failure to accomplish their standard.

Third, those who struggle with perfectionism often struggle with a lack of assurance of their salvation, and thus leading them to more legalistic performance. Each time the person dealing with this issue fails to meet their standard, there’s often a response towards doubting their salvation, doubting that they could really be loved by God, doubting that there really could be enough mercy for them, and so they buckle down and try to work good enough to earn God’s mercy or at least pay back God for that sin. It often leads to a form of asceticism like we see in Colossians 2.

Lastly, those dealing with perfectionism is their felt need to appear as close to the image of perfection as possible. They tend to be dishonest about sin or live in a people-pleasing manner so that they’re as close to the image of perfection that they have in their head as possible. They feel this overwhelming need to be perfect, but the means through which they go about achieving it is simply aiming for an appearance of perfection rather than true perfection.

The Roots Examined

Let’s now turn to examine some of the common roots in the heart that fuel the problem of perfectionism.

The primary root we’ll look at for now is the sin of pride. If we examine closely the experiences and fruits of perfectionism above, we’ll notice the common thread of pride throughout each experience. It’s pride within the heart that leads to the belief that we can keep God’s standard or that our standard is a good one. It’s pride that cannot rest, that views rest as a hinderance, and continues to press on the gas pedal towards our extremely high standard of performance. It is pride that tells us that we can be good enough to earn back God’s mercy or earn back his love. It’s pride that set’s goals and standards for ourselves that show our desire for control. We also pridefully think that we can achieve perfection this side of glory in each area of our lives. And possibly worst of all is the subtle pride within our heart that looks at Jesus’ death on the cross, the blood that was shed for the sins of all who believe and yet say, “it’s not enough, I need to do this or that better to be able to receive God’s forgiveness and mercy.” While it’s not explicitly said in our minds or with our mouths, this pride which plays itself out in perfectionism always has a way of elevating the believer and minimizing the Lord Jesus Christ and his work.

However, this pride is never alone in the heart of the perfectionist, for while it is often the chief of the sins in the heart, it is usually paired with this other: fear of man. Within the heart of a person struggling with perfectionism, there is often an issue of fear of man that drives them to earn acceptance and love from others through never messing up or doing something wrong. This is why people-pleasing and dishonesty can show up in the life of the perfectionist. They’re afraid of being hurt themselves, hurting others, losing peace and comfort, or a mix of all three. But rather than fearing the Lord in these moments, they value the opinions, thoughts, and affections of other humans more. This is probably the main root for the fourth experience we observed above as well as the root for the incessant inner pressure. This too misses the point of the gospel. Fear of Man looks at Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and recognizes that it is very valuable, but then turns around and the words and thoughts of other people as more valuable, thereby looking for their acceptance, worth, and value from others rather than Christ himself.

Remedies from the Gospel

Let’s now look at the gospel for forgiveness, peace, security, hope, and transformation in regards to the pride of perfectionism.

There is forgiveness in the blood of Jesus upon the cross for the one crippled by perfectionism. Stop for a moment and think about that blood. You’ve likely thought and said something along the lines of, “how amazing is the blood of Jesus for me. He’s forgiven me completely.” But then you’ve continued on in setting a different standard for yourself, or even begun believing that Jesus’ blood is enough for everyone but you. So read this slowly – God’s standard is perfect, perpetual, personal obedience. Anytime you don’t love God perfectly with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and anytime you don’t love your neighbor perfectly as yourself, you’ve missed the standard. But Jesus Christ has met the standard for you. His entire life of obedience was for you so that he could give that righteousness to you. You will never be perfect this side of heaven, but because of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, you are forgiven and declared perfect on this side of heaven. So lay down your standard or any adjustment you’ve made to God’s at the cross. Confess your pride, and look to Jesus. See him there in the Word, see him there at the Lord’s Table and in baptism, see him there at the throne of grace in prayer. Because you, o perfectionist, have great capabilities of seeing sin in your life, but pray like Paul in Romans 7:25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ my Lord” for he has paid the penalty on your behalf and given you forgiveness even though you don’t deserve it.

There is peace with God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Look at Romans 5:6 with me. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Brothers and sisters, your heart wants to believe the lie that you are not weak, that you can be perfect, and that if you work hard enough Jesus will accept you. But Jesus didn’t come for the righteous, the strong, the able. No, he came for the weak, destitute, and wandering. And his death gives all who believe in him peace with God the Father. You were separated from God, at war with him, and yet Jesus paid the price to reconcile you to himself. He died so that the ungodly could come and fellowship with the one who is Holy, Holy, Holy! That’s what is so wonderful about peace. This peace is akin to fellowship with God in Christ. And to make it more wonderful, o perfectionist, it’s a peace that didn’t require you to work hard enough, say all the right things enough, and lift your hands at the right time. Rather, this peace was given while you had no work to do for the work was done by another.

There is security for the perfectionist in Jesus because all those the Father has given to him he will never cast out. You’re secure. There’s no way you can sustain his love for you, his keeping of you, and your security in him. There’s also no way you can out-sin his mercy, throw yourself out of his keeping hands, or make him forsake you. You don’t have to earn acceptance or love from God because Jesus Christ has earned it for you. You have sinned, Jesus hasn’t. You haven’t been perfect, Jesus has. Jesus earned it all for you, and Jesus, knowing your inability to perfectly obey and perfectly love, still says that he will never cast you out (John 6:37). So cast yourself on him. If you’re worried about your security in him, then cast yourself on him. It’s the safest place to go.

There is hope in our union with Christ that one day we will live in total perfection. Something that I’ve begun to notice is how earthly-minded I am. Rarely do I think of the glorious eternity that awaits me in the New Heavens and New Earth. As I get convicted of perfectionism, I can easily notice how much my mind is filled with the worries and cares of this world. I realize that I’m forgetting the hope given to me by Jesus in his gospel. I forget that I have the Holy Spirit indwelling me as the seal of my future hope. And with all the time’s the Word calls us to hope in Christ, remembering what he’s done on our behalf, it has also called us to hope in Christ, remembering what he’s doing and going to do on our behalf as he brings our salvation to fulfillment. Romans 8:30, that golden chain of salvation, says that those he’s called, he has justified, and those he’s justified he has also glorified. This is a surety, an already-not-yet reality. So hear me, o perfectionist, you will not be perfect in this life, but look at the hope of the glory of God. Remember that your life is now hidden with Christ in God, and when Christ appears, there you will appear with him and like him in glory (Colossians 3:3-4). Your perfection is being worked out by the Holy Spirit now, and it will be completed in the Day of our Lord. Remember the glory that is to come, set your mind on Christ in his heavenly dwelling, and find hope to humble your pride of perfectionism.

Lastly, there is transformation in the gospel of Jesus Christ, for as well look on him with unveiled face he is transforming us from one degree of glory to the next. It is an absolutely stunning thing to look at how grace forgives and gives peace. Yet it is equally astonishing to realize that the same God who gives us grace in forgiveness also gives us grace that transforms us. Jesus’ death on the cross was to pay the penalty due us for our sins, and it was pay for and secure our transformation into his likeness. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:30, “[Jesus Christ] became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” He is our righteousness and our sanctification. He is our whole entire redemption. So when you go to Jesus for forgiveness, look also for the grace of his to transform you more and more into his image. In this way we put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit and put on Jesus Christ by the Spirit.

Final Thought

As I close, thank you for reading this lengthy article, and I pray that you might see with greater clarity how perfectionism is not a virtue to be extolled but rather a bad fruit that has its roots in sin, and that you might see with greater joy the glories of God’s love for you in the Lord Jesus Christ even in the midst of this struggle against sin and temptation. May you remember that in Jesus you have all things given to you for life and godliness. Would you remember that he generously forgives, gives abundant peace, holds securely, provides glorious hope, and faithfully transforms.