the real problem with perfectionism

Perfectionism has become a bit like humble bragging…it’s one of those qualities that would be an acceptable answer when we are asked to list one of our weaknesses during a job interview. It is not as beneficial as it pretends to be, though; it is an epidemic that is killing our emotional and spiritual growth. 

Perfectionism involves trying to be or to present ourselves as perfect or at least better than we actually are, and often this manifests as people pleasing. The Bible addresses the problem of people pleasing in many instances, both explicitly and implicitly as we see the consequences of actions born out of the fear of men rather than the fear of God. Proverbs 29:25 says, 

The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.

People pleasing is a trap, a snare, that is harmful to us and incongruent with trusting in the Lord. We are so desperate for connection with other people that the fear of losing that connection (i.e., shame) drives us to think and behave in ways that prevent us from living as our true selves. However, as stated in Proverbs 29:25, “whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” People pleasing leads to dishonesty about who we really are, inauthentic connection with others, and perfectionism. When we are more concerned with pleasing others than with pleasing God, we give too much power to human beings who are just as fallen as we are instead of anchoring ourselves in the only perfect love who casts out fear and never changes. Our growth is stunted when we are not willing to face our imperfections and receive the healing that we need in our broken places. We are also less approachable to others who are just as imperfect as we are and crave the same authentic connection that we do. 

As I sit in my in-laws’ beautiful backyard in Phoenix, Arizona, I have been watching hummingbirds flit from flower to flower. They remind me of people pleasers, (myself among them)– darting here and there, full of anxiety and hyper-focused on performance, unable to land anywhere for very long. Our internal compass from the Holy Spirit and the Word of God has been traded for the fickle whims of other fallen human beings. God never intended for us to live this way.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not the only one who is weary of it all—weary of living for others or for my own flawed view of what God wants from me, or even what I want from myself. We want adventure and we want to grow and learn and thrive, but first we want to be safe. I find that I have hesitated to go to the Lord because I have feared His reaction. Just as my shame causes me to fear the loss of connection with people, it also results in a fear of loss of connection with the Lord. Ironically but perhaps unsurprisingly, the fear of loss of connection is what causes the actual (or perceived) loss of connection. When I am afraid of the Lord’s anger or disappointment in me, I try to hide and fix things on my own. 

If we will know things by their fruit (Matthew 7:16-20), the fruit of this attitude surely points to flawed thinking. My shame never results in growth, change, or risk-taking; people who are acting out of fear either do not take healthy risks needed for growth and connection with others, or they take foolish risks that needlessly harm themselves and others. We can see many instances in history when fear was used in whole communities and societies as the motivation for appallingly inhumane behavior as well as the avoidance of taking a stand against others who were committing such heinous acts. Fear in its most primal sense is a survival tool, moving us away from danger, but God means for us to thrive, not just survive. Perhaps because he knew the horrific things humans would do when motivated by fear, as well as all the good things they would miss out on, He tells us over and over again, in hundreds of scriptures, not to be afraid.

And yet, “…whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” (Proverbs 29:25). When we trust in His goodness and in the truth of His word, we are safe. Reverence for the Lord’s holiness is appropriate and wise, but fear that keeps us away from Him is misplaced.  While we are instructed to fear the Lord, to revere Him because He is holy, Jesus came so that even in our sinful state, we could have complete access to Him. The veil that separated us from God’s presence (Hebrews 9:1-9) was torn in two when Jesus died on the cross (Matthew 27:50-51), signifying that Jesus bridged the gap between us and God. In case His death on the cross is not enough to convince us that He wants us to be with Him, look at His prayer before the crucifixion. (In the following scripture, “they” refers to all believers. See John 17:20).

Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
John 17:24

I don’t think any verse in the Bible makes my heart flutter like this one. Something about Jesus praying that we may be with Him where He is nearly takes my breath away. He wants to be with us, and His desire for us to come to Him is not out of a blissful ignorance of our sins. He knows the intimate details of our sin and weakness, our darkest thoughts and most selfish attitudes. He knows because He knows us and because He experienced the physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering that should have been ours. He knows all of these things, and still He desires desperately for us to be with Him where He is. 

When we hide from Him, we act as though we do not truly believe this about Jesus. I can only conclude that for much of my life, my understanding of God’s attitude towards me was flat out wrong—a lie that kept me from delighting in His delight in me. I’ve tried testing this theory and thinking about the instances when Jesus seemed angry, annoyed, or exasperated with people in the Bible. He was repeatedly critical of the religious leaders, and sometimes critical of His own disciples for their lack of faith, but otherwise, I can’t think of a time when He was angry with someone because of their sin. In Falling Upward, Richard Rohr says, “Jesus is never upset at sinners (check it out!); he is only upset with people who do not think they are sinners!” The woman at the well, Zaccheus the tax collector, and the adulterous woman come to mind as people who were living in sin but elicited Jesus’ compassion and presence. In Luke 11:46, Jesus says:

“Yes,” said Jesus, “what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden.

Many of us are crushing ourselves with “unbearable religious demands” in expecting perfection from ourselves before we are worthy of being in the Lord’s presence. We must ask Him to release us from these heavy burdens, whether they have been placed by ourselves or by others, that He might give us rest:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Perfectionism involves trying to please people as well as trying to meet impossibly high standards that we impose on ourselves and incorrectly assume that God imposes on us. The revolutionary truth of the Gospel–that an almighty, perfect God wants to be with His sinful, fallen creation–blessedly releases us from the burden of perfectionism and frees us to find rest and healing in His presence. When we believe in our belovedness, we can enjoy the freedom of living honestly before God, others, and ourselves. 

2 responses to “the real problem with perfectionism”

  1. Whew! Thrillingly beautiful truth!


  2. I started struggling with perfectionism at some point–I'm not sure when, because I'm pretty sure I didn't when I was in high school. Thankfully, God has been working on me through my children and through all I'm required to do. When you have children making things not so perfect and not much time to do anything about it, you have to let it go. 🙂 Heather


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