"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."1 And "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might."2
A Daily Encounter reader wanted to know about perfectionism and asked, "Is perfectionism healthy and mature, or is it a sickness and a form of immaturity?"
Perfectionism is a compulsive behavior where one is under bondage seeking to gain approval from others and to prove to him or herself that he/she is a good/perfect person. It comes mostly from early childhood training and, unfortunately, from some churches where people are taught that they can achieve sinless perfection. This is a heavy and impossible burden for anyone to carry. As John said, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."3
The fact is that we—including Christians—live in and are a part of this broken, sinful and imperfect world, and will not be freed from our sin nature and imperfections until we get to heaven. And while the Bible encourages us to always do our best, it never implies perfection this side of eternity. In fact, where the Bible says, "Be perfect," the word "perfect" can be equally translated "complete" or "mature." What God wants is that we grow towards completeness (wholeness) and maturity, and that we learn to be satisfied when we know that, with God's help, we have done our best.
Perfectionists are not born; they are made. For instance, say Johnnie gets five A's in his school exams and one B, what does his mother and/or father say? "How come you didn't get all A's?" And this is the way Johnnie grows up. No matter what he does and how well he does it, it is never quite good enough. He can never please his parent/s and forever drives himself in a vain attempt to win their approval.
As an adult he still feels that what he does is never quite good enough. When he projects this attitude on to others, he can ruin his relationships, as his wife and kids can never please him. He feels that same way towards God—that he can never please Him either. So he lives in a constant state of inner turmoil and as such can be very difficult to live with.
So what can he do to overcome this bondage?
First, he needs to acknowledge the fact that he learned this negative mind conditioning as a child—and admit that it is neurotic. It is only as he admits this can even God help him overcome. While this conditioning was not his fault, it is imperative that he accepts full responsibility for what he now becomes, and not stay trapped by playing the blame–game. To blame others and/or say, "This is the way I am," can simply be a handy excuse not to grow up.
Second, with God's help and the help of a trusted friend and/or counselor he will need to reprogram his feelings to learn that he doesn't have to be perfect or do anything to be loved and accepted just as he is—the way God loves and accepts us all. In time (and it does take considerable time), when loved and accepted unconditionally, he can learn that his worth as a person is never dependent on his performance, but on the fact that he is who he is and not what he does. In doing so, he can also learn to grasp the fact that God loves and accepts him for who he is and that he doesn't have to keep striving to be perfect and earn love and acceptance.
To reprogram his feelings will be extremely liberating from a life of compulsion and bondage. As Jesus said, "You will know [experience] the truth and the truth will set you free."4
Suggested prayer: "Dear God, please help me to acknowledge all of my weaknesses and bring them to You and to safe people for healing and deliverance. Help me to know at a very deep level that I am loved and accepted by You and others for who I am, and that my worth as a person is never dependent on my performance. Thank You for hearing and answering my prayer. Gratefully, in Jesus's name, amen."
1. Matthew 5:48 (NIV).
2. Ecclesiastes 9:10 (NIV).
3. 1 John 1:8 (NIV).
4. John 8:32 (NIV).