In my experience, many who struggle with this form of perfectionism have love for Jesus and deeply enjoy him. Their consciences are tender before God and they are sensitive to their own sin, willing to bring it before God and others in repentance and confession. These Christians’ main desire is to glorify God who they believe loves them, but rarely feel his delight in their daily lives. Often, though they are anxious in decision-making because they deeply desire to do what is right and best in God’s eyes. If you recognize yourself in the descriptions above, here are a few truths that I hope will encourage you today.
Some of you may be Christian perfectionists.
I’m not writing here about people who are Christians and happen to be perfectionists in other areas in life. I’m referring to those of you who love the gospel, live in the church without hidden sin, but struggle, maybe even to the point of despair, with the feeling of never being good enough before God.
You know and love Jesus, and you glory that your sins are no longer yours to carry. You know that your position before God is by grace alone, and have experienced the joy of his forgiveness. You desire to do God’s will and to walk in obedience to him. And you live under the constant fear of making a mistake before God.
Christian perfectionist, this piece is for you.
A Bit About Christian Perfectionism
Perfectionism can stem from different motives and comes in many forms. The desire for perfection can, for example, come from a heart of prideful boasting and love of praise in one person and from deep shame and fear in another. There are plenty of posts written to the mom learning about being okay with her messy home (and I gladly read them!) and Gospel-centered preachers or authors will often address the person whose perfectionism comes from trying to gain a right standing before God.
But there is a different kind of perfectionism I’ve seen that has been hard to nail down and find help for.
I have seen it often in the lives of fellow Christians in Asian-American contexts, particularly with women I’ve served and served with. And I believe this form of perfectionism comes from a heart that truly loves Jesus and desires to love others well. These people I know are servants of Jesus who others would praise for their love for Christ and the risks they’ve taken for his kingdom, but struggle often with a feeling of discouragement of how they fall short, feeling that they could always serve more selflessly and love more earnestly.
The quick diagnosis of not fully accepting the gospel or of not wanting to appear weak before others isn’t exactly what’s going on with the person struggling here.
Don Carson writes about this type of believer in an editorial on Perfectionisms:
Occasionally one finds Christians, pastors, and theological students among them, who are afflicted with a similar species of discouragement. They are genuinely Christ-centered. They have a great grasp of the gospel and delight to share it. They are disciplined in prayer and service. On excellent theological grounds, they know that perfection awaits final glorification; but on equally excellent theological grounds, they know that every single sin to which a Christian falls prey is without excuse. Precisely because their consciences are sensitive, they are often ashamed by their own failures—the secret resentment that slips in, the unguarded word, the wandering eye, the pride of life, the self-focus that really does preclude loving one’s neighbor as oneself. To other believers who watch them, they are among the most intense, disciplined, and holy believers we know; to themselves, they are virulent failures, inconsistent followers, mere Peters who regularly betray their Master and weep bitterly.
In my experience, many who struggle with this form of perfectionism have love for Jesus and deeply enjoy him. Their consciences are tender before God and they are sensitive to their own sin, willing to bring it before God and others in repentance and confession. These Christians’ main desire is to glorify God who they believe loves them, but rarely feel his delight in their daily lives. Often, though they are anxious in decision-making because they deeply desire to do what is right and best in God’s eyes.
If you recognize yourself in the descriptions above, here are a few truths that I hope will encourage you today. And if you are ministering to someone who is a Christian perfectionist, here are some things that your friend may need to hear from you to comfort her weary, discouraged, or anxious heart.
Encouragement for the Christian Perfectionist
1. Jesus wants to give you rest for your soul and he will not be harsh with you as you learn from him.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt 11:29)
Matthew 11:25-30, where Jesus promises rest for those who come to him, is often quoted and applied to anyone who is spiritually, physically, or emotionally tired. God does care for our bodies and souls, and there is peace to be found in his presence. But in the immediate context of this passage, Jesus is promising rest from Pharisaic and religious legalism. He was giving an evangelistic call to hearers who were burdened by trying to gain standing with God through dead works and promising rest in the present and eternity through trust in his work of salvation.
When we hear and receive the gospel, we are freed from trying to work for our own salvation and status before God. We lay aside the yoke of works-righteousness and the heavy burden of striving to be good enough by our own efforts, and through that begin to experience the rest that Christ promises.
But casting off the yoke of works-righteousness also means taking on Christ’s yoke, and that’s where the struggle comes in. How is it possible not to live under a constant sense of anxious toil when working to obey a holy God? Here our perfectionist tendencies rear their heads along with deep discouragement and despair. Oh how we want to follow Christ, but how we fall daily!