Perfectionism makes everyone miserable, even if it works for a while.

An infamous perfectionist is college football coach Nick Saban. Coach Saban has six national championships and a 135–20 record. He made headlines when, still in the glow of winning one of those championship games, he said, “That game cost me a week of recruiting.” Having accomplished the ultimate goal of recruiting, Saban was distracted with getting back to doing recruiting.

You don’t have to be a high-profile coach to leave a trail of burned-out staffers in your wake. Perfectionism can impair regular life, too. Perfectionism can produce a critical husband, a demanding mother, a fretful professional. It can result in a mind that’s exhausted, emotions that are tanked, a brain that is fried. Its fruits are discontentment, fear, an absence of joy.

Perfectionism isn’t a thing; it’s a heart response to our circumstances. So, the question we should address in this post from our series on heart responses to our unique situations is, How should we understand perfectionism as a disruption of how God wants us to respond?

Perfectionism is the tendency to expect flawless performance from self and others, resulting in frustration at any sign of failure. Perfectionism demands immediate completion rather than acknowledging the process of growth. A perfectionist is unwilling to accept two truths that God says about all people: everyone is both limited as a human being and fallen as a sinner. In the end, perfectionism is the ongoing attempt to need Jesus less.

Perfectionism: Completion, Not Growth

We do not like to acknowledge the limits of our abilities. No one is born good at anything. We can’t talk, walk, or even scratch an itch. Growth is required. The more we grow, the greater the complexity of our skills—from basic motor skills to relational skills to profession-specific skills. We put forth honest effort before we know what we’re doing and make plenty of mistakes along the way. Mistakes are how we learn competence.

The design of God for humans to train in order to arrive at competency is apparent all over Scripture (Prov. 22:6, 29:17; Col. 3:21). Even Jesus, the Son of Man, had to grow in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52). He learned obedience by what He suffered (Heb. 5:8), and He was even being “made perfect” in the sense of being proven through practice (v. 9).

Perfectionism is impatience with how God designed people to grow gradually over time through imperfect efforts.

A person is being perfectionistic when she acts like she should be completely competent immediately or when she acts like perfection is finally obtainable in a fallen world. Perfectionism is impatience with how God designed people to grow gradually over time through imperfect efforts. It fails to recognize that perfection is only possible in glory.

Perfectionism: Performance, Not Obedience.

Perfectionists are not concerned chiefly with displaying the character of God but rather with attempting to live up to their own dreams. Living up to dreams requires performance. This is why a perfectionist gets so distressed when any flaw in his performance becomes evident. It is why he goes to bed late and rises early, eating the bread of anxious toil. Deep down, a perfectionist believes that he can construct an ideal self through his own efforts.

Perfectionism is not concerned with reflecting the character of God but with performing at the necessary level to achieve personal goals. Perfectionists tend to be more disturbed by eating too many calories or getting an A- on an exam than they are by treating others harshly or caring little about prayer. God is more concerned by the latter and less by the former.

Perfectionism: An Attempt to Need Jesus Less.

Perfectionism is an attempt to be independent from God—to be my ideal self apart from Him. When we are being perfectionistic, we are resisting the rather blunt observation of Jesus about us: “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Like branches that cannot sprout fruit unless they’re attached to the rooted vine, we can produce nothing of lasting value apart from faith in Jesus Christ.

A perfectionist is crafting herself through her own efforts into her own ideal. She does not need Jesus for that. If the ideal is fitness, she needs to monitor everything that goes into her body. If the ideal is achievement, she needs to be the hardest-working member of her department in everything. If the ideal is social influence, she needs to maintain the perfect image. Because Jesus is not concerned about these things in the same way, she does not feel the need for Him.

This exhausting effort produces some shiny-looking fruit. But it’s rotten inside.

Jesus Loves Perfectionists

Perfectionists need the patient love of Jesus. This love will convince them that their ideal me is of no value in comparison to their Jesus in me. The ideal person is Jesus Christ, and He shares Himself with them by His free grace, not by their performance.

We will often find people ready to hear the gospel when their ideal has exhausted them. In that moment, what a perfectionist needs to hear is that their confidence was never supposed to be in their performance but in Jesus’ performance for them.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on Bible study and was first published on November 19, 2018. Previous post.

Communicating to the Glory of God

Prayer: A Discourse with God