Striving for perfection is a futile way to live. It perpetuates internal turmoil and frustrates your closest friends. Though God does not want you to live a sloppy, haphazard life, He does want you to know that perfection comes through your weaknesses–your inability to be perfect.
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Biff is a perfectionist. At least that is the straw man he set up as a life standard. It is maddening to Mable, his wife. Biff says absolute excellence in all things is how you glorify God.
He is particular about how to do things and explicit in explaining why his way is better and more glorifying to God. Mable tried to help him see how striving for perfection in all things is detrimental to his relationship with God and with her. Biff is relentless in his pursuit of excellence.
The first two things Mable must address are his presuppositions and worldview. A presupposition is what he thinks before he thinks; it’s his pre-thoughts that give meaning to his actual thoughts. His presupposition forms the window through which all his thoughts find an interpretation.
His worldview is what he sees when he views life, God, and others. His presupposition creates his worldview. For whatever reason, his presupposition says he must do things to perfection for it to be correct. Thus, his worldview drives him to do things with perfection.
The shaping influences in Biff’s life have molded him to be a perfectionist. The first and primary shaping influence was Adam. He tried perfection and failed. Adam became imperfect and tried to compensate by becoming perfect; he became the first perfectionist. Biff inherited Adam’s problems–for all have sinned (Romans 3:23, 5:12).
The news is worse for Biff than the fall of Adam. There are two other specific places where you will find perfectionistic tendencies in the Christian community:
- Legalistic, performance-driven cultures, which are filled with rigid, rule-oriented people.
- Christian adults whose fathers negatively shaped them, plus other authoritarian relationships from their youth.
Religious cultures can be hotbeds for legalists because being a legalist is who we all are. Being born in Adam officially stamps us as legalists. Adam wanted his works to matter, and so do we.
Christianity is the only religion in the world where your works cannot save you. Unfortunately, that little truth does not keep individuals from trying to smuggle their performances onto their resumes as a way of impressing others.
You can take the boy out of Adam and put him in Christ, but you cannot take Adam out of the boy–not until the boy gets a glorified body. And when you do put the boy in a larger group of like-minded legalists, guess what? You are going to have a legalistic culture.
Legalism that drives perfectionism is an illusionary lifestyle. It only works if you can hide your real problems (your true self) by keeping yourself masked from public scrutiny. Think fig leaves (Genesis 3:7). If you can keep your issues hidden, you can present yourself well in a performance-based culture that loves excellence.
On your best days, you will be self-deceived, and on your worst days, you will create the deception. Parading as a perfectionist is high-end, religious game playing that needs to be exposed. Biff needs a real friend who can help him see what he may not be able to see at this point.
Negatively Shaped Influencers
In addition to Adam’s sin that shaped him, it is possible childhood influences have shaped Biff, particularly his father. I am not able to recall all the men and women I’ve counseled who are still stuck with a desire to please their dads.
Desires to please others is classic fear of man (Proverbs 29:25). Perfectionists are always trying to please someone, which is what fear of man does to you. There are three possibilities when it comes to people pleasing:
- Trying to please God.
- Trying to please others.
- Trying to please yourself.
This last point (pleasing yourself) speaks to the guy who has a man-centered view of what excellence should be, and he is striving to hit this self-imposed standard so he can self-approve or self-congratulate himself.
While the first two scenarios require other people to be his audience–God or others, this last deception is different in the sense that he lives in a self-contained universe where the performer and the audience are the same people.
Regardless of who he is seeking approval from, there is something rooted in his heart that motivates him to strive for something that only the LORD can provide. Perfectionism is a twisted and dangerous theology.
Let’s Think Biblically
Perfectionism is not the best word to describe what is going on with Biff. However, that word can serve as a portal to get to a more biblical typology. Perfectionism is cultural language that can get the conversation started, but it is always better to push for theological precision.
The closer you get to the Bible, the better you will be able to identify what is going on in the heart of the perfectionist, as well as being able to bring biblically precise care to him. A better definition will permit you to do these four things:
- Know what to look for in the person you want to help.
- Sort out what applies and does not apply to him.
- Discern what you have through your assessment and elimination process.
- Bring biblical solutions based on a biblically filtered person.
Here are eight things I would look for if I were counseling Biff. I’m not saying they all are true for him, but I would want to run him through a biblical filter to have a clearer picture of the person I’m trying to help.
You can only be perfect in the things in which you are good at doing. Selective perfection is where the LORD’s theology and Biff’s theology collide. The LORD says Biff is not perfect, and will never be perfect outside of Christ, so to over-strive for perfection is at odds with who God says he is, as well as how he achieves biblical perfection.
On his best day, he will fail in some ways. While it’s nice to give all of his life, as well as his projects, his best shot, he must be a biblical realist. He cannot hit perfection in every area of his life.
A person motivated toward unbiblical and unrealistic excellence will be dysfunctional in other important areas of his life. He will spend most of his time performing in ways in which guarantee success. He will be partially excellent. He will work mostly within his strengths.
You will find inconsistencies in Biff’s life. It will not be hard to find them because any time you try to be something you are not, there will be a few threads hanging out of your garments.
There will be areas where he is failing, which you hope that he will be honest about those imperfections. To try to sell perfectionism as a way of thinking and behaving is not honest.
To the degree that he holds to his “excellent” worldview will reveal the degree of dishonesty and deception that is working in his mind.
While you can give him a “hall pass” for being ignorant, you are going to find more than blindness going on in his life. There will be deception, a deceit that may have twisted his thinking.
Claiming to be wise, they became fools. – Romans 1:22
Do not be surprised to find unadmitted sinfulness in play. Everybody knows they are finite, a reality that implies limitations, or God-imposed boundaries (Genesis 11:1-9) that keep individuals from ascending too high in their estimation of themselves.
The perfectionist has lost touch with biblical reality, and if he persists in this kind of thinking, he will have to alter his perceptions about himself, God, and life. He will have to twist the truth to grind out his pursuit of excellence. This process is futile thinking (Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:17-19).
A typical way this works out is to make excuses for the things he cannot do well. If he is going to strive for perfection–an unattainable goal at best, he will have to explain away why he fails in areas where he cannot hit the mark of his perfectionistic standard.
The perfectionist will be self-justifying, rationalizing, and excuse making, which will create relational tension in his life. Ask Mable. One of the tricks in the bag of the perfectionist is to put others down through critique, condemnation, and regular reminders of where they have missed the mark.
Putting others down has a self-elevating effect: “If I put you down, I am maintaining a higher standard than you are. If I cannot be perfect, I must game-play by being a self-righteous critique-er of others.”
The fallout from this will be horrible. The perfectionist is living in a world where he is great in his mind, while his wife, children, and friends look on with saddened faces as they watch the emperor with no clothes.
The people who will be hurt the most are his wife and children. The person he is will be profoundly felt by those who live closest to him. All high-demand, excellent-driven spouses or parents will decimate their families.
Trying to execute perfection in children has horrifying effects. Children are imperfect on their best days. They are sobering pictures of who we all are before God the Father.
Rather than pushing people to perfection, Christ came alongside individuals to let them know they could never be perfect. Rather than making them be what they could never be, He gave them what they needed. He shepherded them to the cross, where they were invited to take on His perfection.
There are redemptive purposes found in the Gospel, and what better place to bring care to others than through their imperfections. The perfectionist does not perceive these redemptive opportunities.
By demanding, critiquing, being harsh, or unkind is a total misunderstanding of the doctrine of sin and how the Gospel is supposed to connect to our imperfections.
Ultimately, this is a spiritual battle for Biff. He is in a battle of wills with the LORD. I am talking about pride here, the one thing the LORD will resist in any human (James 4:6).
The LORD did not come for perfect people. He came for the sick, the wounded, the needy, the incomplete, the weak, and the imperfect. The perfectionist attempts to put on perfection outside of God’s grace.
These were the Pharisees during the time of our LORD. They saw perfection as the chief end of man and had no problem sporting their perfection on their shirt sleeves (Matthew 23:5).
There is an argument to be made by the perfectionist that excellence is a great way to glorify God. There is some truth to be found there, but it is only a partial truth.
People should always strive to be better and do better. The answers are not to seek perfection because you are a perfectionist or to give up as though sloppiness is the only way to accrue God’s favor. There is another way to glorify God.
The Gospel is our chief witness for how a man could make a mess of things, but yet what Christ did was the most life-altering, world-shaking thing a man has ever done. The person who refuses to understand how God makes His strength perfect in human imperfection will always be weak, even though he has twisted his mind to think he’s strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Jesus died on a tree.
Christ’s friends were looking for something, shall I say, a bit more perfect than a man dying on a tree. They could not, at least not then, wrap their minds around how the foolishness and weakness of God could be wiser and stronger than humans (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
By thinking humanly derived perfect processes lead to perfect outcomes flies in the face of the Gospel. From a man-centered worldview, this makes sense because there is logic there. But God defies logic, which is one way He shows us how the foolishness of God and the weakness of God can thwart the wisdom of our world.
Teaching on the problem with perfection is not a call to be sloppy so you can magnify God, but it is a call to be comfortable with imperfection while trusting that the LORD’s strength will work through you.
Biff needs to see these things. He needs to be honest. He needs to find rest in Christ. He needs contentment. There is something about him that is motivating him to strive for excellence, which creates a tension everywhere he goes. Biff has yet to learn the secret of life:
For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:10
Paul also said,
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:11-13
Call to Action
- Are you a perfectionist?
- What were the shaping influences that molded you into a perfectionist?
- What are you afraid of by being weak? What are you protecting?
- If you are a perfectionist, will you find a friend who can help you?
Also published on Medium.