The Problem with Perfectionism

When I was in college, my dorm participated in intramural sports. Before each game, my highly competitive and athletic freshman roommate begged me to join our hall team. I never once agreed. Not having played sports in high school and not possessing an athletic bone in my body, I knew I would be terrible. I didn’t see how playing poorly could be any fun at all, and I dreaded the thought of embarrassing myself. If I couldn’t do it perfectly, I didn’t even want to try. Perfectionism—”a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable,” according to Webster—robbed me of many opportunities to make new friends, build camaraderie with the girls from my hall, and get much-needed exercise.

It’s been more than a few years since my freshman year of college, but perfectionism remains a struggle. I have realized that perfectionism is often the enemy of faithfulness in the Christian life, because it has a paralyzing effect. For instance, perfectionism may lead me to refuse to practice hospitality because I know that my home isn’t perfectly clean or I don’t have the ingredients to make the perfect meal. I may fail to study the Bible today because my track record in the past hasn’t been perfect, or because I only have a short time available and might not do it perfectly. I may avoid sharing the hope that I have in Christ with someone who needs to hear it because I lack the perfect words to say. My commitment to perfection can often hinder my obligation to faithfulness.

The problem with perfectionism is that it is self-focused. It demands that I achieve a certain level of glory, satisfaction, or outcome for myself to make a task worthwhile. Faithfulness, on the other hand, is focused on God: His glory, His satisfaction, His desired outcomes. Perfectionism only acts when the goal I desire to achieve is guaranteed, but faithfulness acts because God has guaranteed that He will use my feeble efforts for His good purposes. As a faithful Christian, it’s not for me to decide that I’ll only do something if I can do it perfectly. No, rather, I am to do the good deed because He commands it. He decides what to do with that good deed.

Does this mean that excellence doesn’t matter? Absolutely not. Christians are called to pursue excellence: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24, ESV). We are God’s people, living on God’s earth, doing God’s work. Laziness or sloppiness should have no place among us, and God’s Word has some strong words for the slothful (just read Proverbs if you don’t believe me!). We are to work hard and do our very best. But in humility we are also to acknowledge our weakness and limitations. We are finite, and we are fallen. We get tired, and we make mistakes. Sometimes our efforts don’t accomplish perfect outcomes, and we must accept that. We are not God. But we are His servants, and our job is to be faithful. Therefore, we press on, even though we know we won’t achieve perfection in this life. And what freedom we find in doing so! No longer do we have to carry the burden of perfection, because we find that He who is perfection only asks that we be faithful.

Whatever it is—reaching out to a neighbor, cleaning the bathroom, learning a new skill, training our children, loving our husbands, or going to work or school—let’s choose to act in faithfulness rather than be paralyzed by perfectionism.

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