For The Christian Who Struggles With Perfectionism
Today I want to bring you some Biblical truth to help you grow in grace if you struggle with demanding perfection from other people and things.
When I talk about perfectionism, I’m talking of both the wish for perfection and the demand of that perfection in others (whether human beings, experiences or objects).
The latter is not necessarily an overt demand for perfection, i.e. you must do this X way, or else!
Demand for perfection manifests in subtle actions, such as criticism, controlling behaviour, and contempt. On the other hand, a desire for perfection manifests in our dissatisfaction with circumstances, possessions, events, people, and our relationships.
Areas of Perfection
Based on survey I conducted for my book Impact: Gospel Hope For Every Woman, I found that: 1) Women admitted to perfectionism more than any other struggle as Christians (envy, control, etc.) and 2) The main areas of perfectionism with regard to others reveal what matters most to us: home, children, work, and experiences.
Perfectionism with our home
In the book research survey, I found that the top area women most desire perfection in is the home. This manifests in two ways: homemaking, and the incessant desire to see and dream about a beautiful home. It’s no coincidence that Dream Home Makeover and Selling Sunset are some of the most popular lifestyle shows on Netflix at the time of writing.
We show perfectionism in the constant struggle we have with our current place of abode. When we live somewhere and all we can see is faults. So then, in an attempt to find perfection, we embark on DIY, decorating, and homemaking projects to bring our house up to our standards. But still it fails to deliver, so we look for a new house. When we find what we think we’re looking for, we settle in. It doesn’t take long, however, to find that the new house is also far from perfect.
Perfectionism with our children
God reveals His Fatherly love towards us as His children—desiring our ultimate good and godliness—in the way as parents we have an innate desire for our children to develop a good character. So desiring to raise children who will bless society with their conduct, work, and values is good.
The problem is when as parents we make perfection a standard our children need to achieve to get our approval. This can happen in very obvious ways, like expecting our children to get straight As, or putting them in an array of extra-curricular activities to raise child prodigies. Or it can be a more subtle struggle with our children’s imperfections: their temper tantrums, their “slow development” in reading, their mediocrity in school, their lack of skill with sports, their lack of manners at the dinner table.
Perfectionism at work
This perfectionism is directed at the work of others. Demanding perfection at work happens when we’re critical towards other people’s work and believe they’re failures when they show nothing less than perfection. There is no grace.
Is it legitimate to get frustrated with careless work? Of course. If I paid someone to fix my leaking roof, and they didn’t do the job properly, of course it would only be natural to get frustrated and ask for the problem to be corrected. But when the issue is not good work, but perfect work in all circumstances, and contempt when those results are not achieved (as if we would be able to do the work perfectly ourselves!) then the issue is one of perfectionism.
Sometimes, the result is controlling behaviour, in which we stop allowing others to work with or for us, or allowing others to do the work but then polishing it up to “perfection”. Other times, the result is simply an attitude of criticism towards others. Nothing they ever do meets our exacting standards.
Perfectionism of experiences and possessions
Let’s face it. In the West, we’re spending money like never before: holidays, weekends away, party celebrations, technology, clothes, you name it. The main reason for this is a desire for a perfection that is considered attainable.
With the explosion of social media in recent years, many of us share our holidays, great purchases, and life highlights on social platforms. This leads to, what I like to call, the “perfection delusion”.
When we see other people’s photos of these highlights on social platforms, we believe those sharing them are attaining perfection, and thus ultimate joy, so we become envious and desire the same. We buy expensive decorations aiming to organise the perfect party. We book luxurious holidays in the Caribbean, desiring to have a perfect holiday in the sun. We buy beautiful homeware to create the perfect home, and chic clothes, hoping to achieve a perfect look.
Then, when those things don’t deliver on the perfection aimed for, we share photos of them on social media, hoping against hope that others see us as achieving something in life.
Root cause of perfectionism
Perfectionism is at heart an unmet desire for God and the glory of His everlasting Kingdom. Our desire for unadulterated joy.
We look for the perfect home that will never bring us a moment of worry, stress, or lack. We aim for perfect experiences where there are no struggles, no hardship, no pain. We look for joy in the perfection of material possessions, hoping they will satisfy.
This desire for joy is at heart a desire for paradise: perfect home, perfect surroundings, no crying, or sorrow, or pain. This makes sense when we consider we were created for a world without sin, in full communion with our Perfect Creator. But when sin broke that communion, we started our craving for perfection in this broken world we call home.
So how on earth do we grow in Grace towards this fallen world?
How To Grow In Grace
It’s vital we understand God designed us for communion with perfection so we can relinquish our demands of perfection from others. When we recognise God’s original design and the disastrous fall of man that destroyed that original plan, we stop looking for perfection where it doesn’t exist and we grow in grace.
The dictionary has many definitions for the word grace: favour, charm, pleasing appearance. Yet, here I want to focus on one particular meaning of the word grace and it’s this: “Disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency”. The key word here is clemency. The word clemency is a synonym for mercy or forbearance. It’s the very opposite of the demand for others to be perfect according to our standards. When we are gracious towards other people and things, we do not demand that they attain our standards of perfection or fulfil all our desires, rather, we are merciful towards them.
In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul instructs believers to: “Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.” (Ephesians 4:2 NLT).
And Jesus himself said to his followers on the sermon of the mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7 – ESV)
How to Grow in Grace – Understanding perfectionism isn’t the issue
Desiring perfection is not the problem; after all, it’s part of our creation design to be in communion with it. The problem is when we look for perfection in the wrong places, or when we create expectations of perfection from people, relationships, experiences, or possessions. Expectations that are not met and thus lead us to an incessant search for perfection in the wrong places.
When we search for the perfect appearance that an ad promised we would attain if we used a specific product; when we try to plan the perfect holiday just like the one the other family had when they went to the Bahamas; when we attempt to organise the perfect wedding anniversary, just like the one we saw on Instagram. When we set our hopes and expectations on fallible things of this world, disappointment is sure.
Yet, there is hope. When we desire perfection and search for it where indeed it can be found—in God—we’ll drink from it to the full. It is then that we will finally be able to release others from our demands and expectations. As God’s perfection fills our hearts with joy, we will stop demanding perfection in this fallen world.
We can only grow in grace and mercy towards the imperfections of this broken world and the people around us if we have our desire for perfection met in God. That means regularly spending time in God’s word, contemplating His beauty, meditating on the perfection of who He is, and praising Him in prayer, conversation, and song.
It’s not enough to know in theory that God is perfect and that in Him there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17). We actually need to live a lifestyle of contemplating who He is and expressing that in our words and actions.
When we go out into nature, we can praise Him for His sovereign care over creation. When we spend time with people, we can praise Him for His intelligent design in creating human beings in His image. When we contemplate the cross, we can praise Him for his tender grace in giving us salvation through Jesus.
And then, as we praise God and are captivated by His beauty, we grow in grace towards creation, tainted by the corruption of sin.
Did this post bless you? Read the whole chapter in the book Impact: Gospel Hope For Every Woman (available as a paperback, hardcover, ebook and on Kindle Unlimited)