I first tasted the lure of perfection in first grade at my tiny Christian school. At the end of the school year, students from kindergarten through twelfth grade received recognition for various achievements. While I don’t recall any of the other awards, I can tell you one. I remember shaking as I was called up to the stage to receive my ribbon for earning the most scores of 100% in the school that year. (Sidenote: How irritating must this have been to the older students, given that they were doing much more complex work than this first-grader? As an adult, I’m irritated.)
I share this not because of the award but because of the aftermath. When the assembly ended, I carried with me far more than that silky ribbon. This is where my dance with perfectionism began — my first-grader mind embraced it as a takeaway that being perfect earns approval. Being perfect leads to acceptance and celebration.
Perfection earns a place.
For decades, I lived in the grip of that hoax, a slave to achieving, performing, and earning. But as an adult, an uninvited chapter of brokenness tore the shiny off all the striving. Clawing for perfection stood fruitless in the face of such failure.
Until then, my love for perfectionism meant I loved Jesus on the side, like a salad dressing I wasn’t fully committed to. But I thought I had to earn Jesus — hadn’t I learned in first grade that perfectionism earned my place? It’s not hard to make that leap from earning love here on Earth to earning our place in His Kingdom.
But in that face-down failure season, I finally discovered that earning His love isn’t possible because He can’t love us any more than He already does. His love for us never changes. It doesn’t dip low in our spiritual droughts and then grow when we water our faith just right.
God’s love for us doesn’t depend on us. Ever.
Isn’t it just like Jesus to take my season of “less” and turn it into more? It was my failure that opened me to receive His perfection. It was my imperfection that opened my heart to His freedom. I could finally see that perfectionism is a liar and that my perfectionism had blocked me from my God. Knowing these lies, let’s examine three ways perfectionism keeps us from God and how choosing God frees us:
- Perfectionism asks us to be someone we aren’t, while God welcomes us as we are.
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you because he trusts in you” (Isaiah 26:3).
When we’re busy striving, even if our busyness is for Jesus, we can completely miss Him. It’s not always on purpose — it may be that our achievements satisfy us enough that we forget we need Him. But part of why we love Jesus so much is that He sees and meets and still loves us in our mess. The woman at the well, the woman about to be stoned, and the bleeding woman all found Him in the middle of hard places where life wasn’t perfect. Their need and desperation opened their hearts to Him in raw ways that perfectionism doesn’t allow. When we’re hiding behind the mask of perfection, we can’t reach for His hem. When we’re pursuing the counterfeit promises of perfection, we won’t lay down our jars. And then we miss lavishing in His true perfection and the perfect peace He gives us. We miss the relief that comes in knowing He loves us where we are, even when.
- Perfectionism requires us to do while God asks us to be.
“This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength'” (Isaiah 30:15, NLT).
Perfectionism tells us that we’ll get closer to God because we’re working so hard for Him. But the quest for perfection never stops. Even if we nailed it all yesterday, each new day brings fresh must’s required to be perfect again. Lists hound our hearts and tie us to tasks.
The demands of perfectionism lie opposed to the truth that our salvation comes in returning to and resting in Jesus and embracing perfectionism as our plum line places our hearts at odds with finding our strength in quietness. If we know He is God, that He is sovereign, and that He is in control, then what are we hoping to gain from being perfect? Because our pull towards doing all that we can keeps us from being still with Him. Perfection asks us to follow lists instead of Jesus, and our doing keeps us from simply being. We don’t have to check a single box before we can meet with the God who created us — we only need to draw near and rest in Him to be saved from our doing.
- Perfection wants us to earn, while God wants us to receive.
“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” (Matthew 11:28-29).
When we’re caught in the cycle of earning love, earning status, earning adoration, earning friends, earning our place, we miss out on the most significant gift Jesus offers: we don’t receive Him.
It might be the constant, unspoken knowledge of our sin that propels us toward perfectionism — the accuser loves to remind us of our shortcomings. But God has already acknowledged and planned for our lack because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); no one is righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:10). His blood already covers our sin and imperfection. It is for freedom that we have been set free so that we can stand firm and not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1). That means we can lay down the yoke of perfectionism. When we empty our hands of all we’ve been trying to control, we make room to receive what He offers. In receiving, we stop earning and striving and instead find grace, acceptance, and love.
When we name perfectionism’s lies, we can step out from behind its mask and see Jesus more clearly. When we meet Him face to face, we’ll find that He isn’t waiting with shiny ribbons that hinge on our performance. He is waiting with scars that have already earned our place.