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!
At these times, we may need to remind ourselves of the difference between Jesus’ yoke and the yoke of legalistic righteousness. We can experience his grace and forgiveness anew in our failure. In repentance, we can rejoice in his gospel truth that we are welcome in his presence because of his work, not ours, and take up Jesus’ light and easy yoke. For many people, remembrance of the atoning work of Christ is the remedy they need.
But sometimes, for some there continues to be deep discouragement and guilt over how their sins, ones that may seem minor to other people, have been committed against God and harm others. Some people thus live with a constant self-berating voice, even though they are making marked progress in the faith and living righteous lives that other Christians around them would testify to. And they believe that God sees them in the same way they see themselves, daily and constantly only pointing out how they’ve fallen short.
Here, we also need to notice how Jesus describes the call to follow him.
We are to learn from him. Learning is a process, not a one-time attainment of instant perfection. God knows this and knew this when he took us on as his students. And not only does Jesus want us to find rest in him as his students, but what kind of teacher is he? He is gentle and humble in heart.
What do you imagine your teacher’s disposition is toward you? Follower of Christ and servant of God, Jesus is not harsh with you as you learn from him today. He does not constantly berate you, give you the silent treatment, or look at you disapprovingly when you fail. He is patiently teaching you as you walk with him. Know who he is as your gentle teacher and let your weary soul rest in his presence.
2. Your Father delights in your small, sometimes faltering, steps of Spirit-empowered obedience.
The Christian perfectionist loves the gospel and believes that she is loved by God. She truly does. The struggle that I’ve seen though, is that knowing that we are loved does not necessarily equate to believing that God is pleased with us.
I have seen often with Asian-Americans a distinction in our minds between what it means to be loved by God versus what it means to be received as pleasing to him. I think this distinction is in part because in Asian culture, our immigrant parents’ love has most strongly been expressed in acts of tremendous self-sacrifice and, to a lesser scale, setting high standards for how they desire us to flourish. The more “American” ways of showing love in verbal affirmation and praise are less frequently expressed in many Asian immigrant homes.
Therefore, most second-generation Asian-Americans have deep gratitude for the sacrifices our parents made to come to America. If asked whether our parents love us, most Asian-Americans would of course say yes. Many, if not all, of our parents have faced incredible hardships for the sake of making a better future for us. Would they do that if they didn’t love us? After becoming adults, many of us have even come to see their high standards (or “tiger-parenting”) as expressions of their care for us. But as adult children, many second-generation Asian-Americans still struggle with feeling they can never measure up to their parents’ standards and expectations. They know their parents love them, but they don’t think they’ll ever be good enough for their mom and dad.
In the same way, some Christians struggle with thinking, yes, God loves me and I really believe that– but his standards are perfect. So yes, God loves me, but is he happy with me? Is he pleased by what I’m doing, even though I fall short of his perfect standards?
The desire to please God by what we do is biblical, right, and good. As sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, we strive to please him as children who are secure in his love. God works in us to will and to work according to his good pleasure (Phil 2:13). Paul instructs children to obey their parents because this pleases the Lord (Col 3:20). We run hard after him in this life, by his grace and with his power, toward the goal of hearing, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
But for the Christian perfectionist who strives to please God, there is rarely a thought that God would actually be pleased with her actions. This person doesn’t just need to hear that she is counted righteous in Christ, but also needs to know that because of Christ, God is our heavenly Father who takes delight in our obedience.
Apart from God’s work in us, we would and could do nothing to please him. Therefore, every step of obedience, no matter how small, is a miraculous, supernatural work of God. Every act of obedience is a sign of God’s grace and his Spirit alive in us, and is thus glorifying to him. Not only so, but Christ’s blood covers over our mixed motives and the good we ought to but fail to do. Thus, the heavenly Father is able to receive our small gifts with the pleasure of a joyful and loving Father.
Speaking to this, Kevin Deyoung, in The Hole in our Holiness, says this:
Our God is not a capricious slave driver. He is not hyper-sensitive and prone to fits of rage on account of slight offenses. He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ex. 34:6). “He is not hard to please,” Tozer reminds us, “though he may be hard to satisfy.”
Why do we imagine God to be so unmoved by our heart-felt attempts at obedience? He is, after all, our Heavenly Father. What sort of father looks at his daughter’s homemade birthday card and complains that the color scheme is all wrong? What kind of mother says to her son, after he gladly cleaned the garage but put the paint cans on the wrong shelf, “This is worthless in my sight?”…There is no righteousness that makes us right with God except for the righteousness of Christ. But for those who have been made right with God by grace alone through faith alone and therefore have been adopted into God’s family, many of our righteous deeds are not only not filthy in God’s eyes, they are exceedingly sweet, precious, and pleasing to him. (pp. 69-70)
Dear child of God, know today that your Heavenly Father sees your small acts of Spirit-empowered obedience and that he is pleased with your desire to do his will. In compassion and grace, he kneels down to tenderly receive your imperfect handmade card, and does so with joy and pleasure.
3. God is your Good Shepherd and you can trust in his loving discipline.
God’s discipline is seen by the Christian perfectionist as rightly deserved but something to dread, another sign of how much we fail to measure up. The Christian perfectionist often lives in anxiety of his or her next mistake.
But have you ever considered the amazing freedom that comes when we know that our Heavenly Father is committed to our holiness and to accomplishing his purposes in our life, even more than we are? That he promises to discipline those he loves (Heb 12:6)?
Even though we may not always be able to see the ways we are sinning against him, and though there may be hidden sins yet to be confessed, he will not let us persist in them if we are walking with him—so we don’t have to be so afraid to walk. He will not let us continue in rebellion if we love him, but will bring specific conviction of sin through his Word and Spirit. That means we don’t have to rely on our own introspection or be paralyzed by fear of our own mixed motives.
God is the one who sovereignly directs your spiritual growth. He is also the one in control of your life so that even when you didn’t know him, he pursued and brought you to himself. How much more so, now that you are his child, will he lovingly direct you and lead you. He is not standing back, just waiting for you to make another wrong choice or take a wrong turn. And if he is able to use the worst actions of man and work them according to his purposes, how much more will be working good out of your genuine efforts to please him?
Dear Christian, rejoice today in his promise to accomplish his purpose for your life (Ps 138:8) and to bring discipline when needed. Bring your anxiety of making the wrong choice or turning the wrong way to him. He is your Good Shepherd who wants to lead you even more than you desire to follow him.
4. God’s grace is sufficient for you and his power is shown in your weakness.
Lastly, consider that God delights in giving grace to his children. We do not love him as much as we ought and we fail to love those around us as selflessly as we should, but he is able to make his grace abound in and through us.
In God’s infinite wisdom, he has chosen for us to live life on earth as those who are still making progress in the faith. Full perfection is promised to us on the day that we see Jesus face to face and are made like him, and how we long for that day to come, for the day we no longer are tempted to wander away from our Lord and are unable to entertain even the slightest unholy thought. Still somehow, it brings our Lord glory to keep us here, in the fight with our flesh, as we wait for his coming.
Part of the way that God brings glory to himself even as we engage in the battle against sin, is by putting us on display, though not in the way that we’d like. We are not called as Christians to be set up and exhibited as fine china—as ones who were once something sinful, but now perfect—but as jars of clay.
How many of us have found comfort in Romans 7, with Paul’s raw and powerful description of the war against sin waging within him? If you’ve ever had the experience of sitting with a godly person you respect and being encouraged to hear that they are still growing and sometimes struggling in Christ, you know the way that God gives courage and hope to others through our weaknesses. Often, the areas of our lives where we have struggled the most are the very ones that God chooses to use to powerfully display his gospel to others.
Fellow sojourner, even as you long for holiness and wait for the day you will be made perfect, trust in his wisdom. Find hope in his ability to take the broken, weak parts of your life to show forth the wonderful glory of his gospel and grace.
Picture two siblings. Both are deeply loved by their parents, but one lives in constant fear of getting in trouble while the other is joyfully free in his obedience. Both want to please their parents, both will require correction at times, and both are equally cherished. But the first child is missing out on truly understanding the love of his parents and knowing what they are really like, who they truly are.
Beloved, our God is not only perfect in his standards, but in his love, and he wants us to know who he really is. He is far more patient, pleased, and gracious than we may have made him out to be. And as our image of him is conformed to how he has revealed himself in his Word, his perfect love is able to drive away all fear, including the fear of not measuring up. We may be struggling, weak, ashamed, and afraid. But our Father’s love can free us from our perfectionism that we may obey him freely and joyfully in his perfect peace.