Perfectionism can take on many different forms, often disguising itself as a high achieving and put-together person. At first glance, this person may live the kind of life that many would want to emulate and congratulate. Imagine a well-manicured and fit woman, whose house is beautiful and clean. She bakes from scratch, her children are polite, and she always shows up to Bible study with her lessons completed. From all outward appearances, things seem to be in order and well attended to in this woman’s life. Those around her lift her up and praise her accomplishments, fueling the approval from others and herself that she so desperately craves.
What is not always obvious when looking at the perfectionist’s life from the outside is what is actually going on in the soul of this person. I like to ask my counselees who struggle in this area, what kind of fruit is being produced in their lives as a result of these standards they have placed upon themselves. Many times they give me the same answer, expressing that they are exhausted and worn down from the constant and self-inflicted expectations of perfection. They tell me that their inward life is marked by fruitless anxiety, fear, shame, and discontentment. They long for the peace and joy that their perfectionistic quest cannot deliver.
What a joy and privilege it is to be able to bring truth to bear on the perfectionist’s life and to offer them hope through the truth of the gospel. Scripture has much to say about this particular sin and gives us a way to gain freedom from it as we learn more of who we are because of Jesus Christ.
Confidence in the Flesh (Philippians 3)
It is important to help a perfectionistic counselee understand how their behavior, thoughts, and beliefs have deep spiritual implications. The apostle Paul helps us to understand this idea of perfectionism for what it really is and to reframe our understanding of it as self-righteousness.
Philippians chapter 3 is a foundational place to take counselees that struggle with this sin. In verses 4-6 the apostle Paul lays out for us all the reasons that he could claim to be righteous from his achievements and be confident in his own flesh. He recounts having been circumcised on the correct day, having been born into the right family, zealous in his understanding and application of the Old Testament Scriptures, and blameless in his outward obedience to the Law. There are few of us that could match Paul’s pedigree or who have the same record of spiritual success as the apostle. He even tells us that if we think we have something to be confident and glory in, he has far more than us. This should get our attention. Before becoming a Christian, Paul was living in the flesh almost as perfectly as anyone could aspire to. However, in verse 7 we see him pivot away from this fleshly confidence and he gives us the remedy for self-righteousness.
The Remedy is the Righteousness of Christ
We must help the counselee understand that the cure for perfectionism is the gospel. Perfectionists believe the lie that they can be made righteous, worthy, and acceptable in their own flesh (Galatians 5:4). They create standards and laws for themselves, which they are unable to perfectly fulfill, and are often left with shame, guilt, and despair. The gospel requires us to understand and acknowledge that all of our own efforts to appease God’s perfect standard or to make ourselves worthy and acceptable before Him are rubbish (Philippians 3:8). The apostle Paul tells us that all the things he thought were to his credit, in his desire to be made right and perfect before God, he now counts as loss in comparison to knowing Christ Jesus. The magnificent truth to cling to is that when we are “in Christ” we are credited with His righteousness. We no longer have to seek a righteousness or perfection of our own, and we boast not in ourselves, but in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
What immense freedom in knowing that we do not have to work toward our own standards of perfection, because we have been covered with the perfection of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:14). Furthermore, we are told that the means by which we attain this perfection is through faith. There is no striving, no perfecting ourselves, no seeking approval based upon our own works. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we are given His righteousness and are made complete in Him (Colossians 1:22; Isaiah 61:10).
The Antidote is Humility (Philippians 2)
Perfectionism traps and enslaves the counselee. The laws they create for themselves can never be satisfied. Consequently, they turn inward and their focus becomes self-obsessed as they constantly seek to find their failures and be better next time. There is an insidious pride that lurks in the heart of the perfectionist. They rely on their own works, they craft their own standards to be measured by, and ultimately they believe the lie that their performance can justify them (Galatians 2:16). The Bible gives the perfectionist the antidote for this pride, which is to put on humility (Colossians 3:12; James 4:16; 1 Peter 5:5).
There is liberty and joy that comes from humbly knowing that apart from the work of Jesus Christ in our lives, we cannot do anything that is of value or worth before Him. The perfectionist must truly understand that their righteous deeds are but filthy rags in God’s eyes (Isaiah 64:6), and cling to His righteousness alone (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Furthermore, Philippians 2:3-4 practically instructs the perfectionist how to think less about themselves and more about others. We are told not to be selfish or full of conceit, but to be humble by thinking of others as more important than ourselves. As perfectionists are tempted to turn inward and focus on their own achievements and successes, verse 4 exhorts them to consider the needs of others instead of their own personal interests. The cure for self-obsession and a desire to be perfect is not only to humble oneself, but to radically shift the focus off oneself and on to serving and caring for others.
Later in the chapter, Paul elevates Jesus as the ultimate example to follow. Although He was divinely perfect, He came to earth as a humble servant to mankind. He humbled Himself to the point of death on a cross for us, that we might be set free from self-righteousness and works of the flesh. Because we have been crucified with Christ, we are now free to serve Him with our lives (Galatians 2:19-21).
Pressing On Toward the Goal
Imagine now a woman who truly understands that her righteousness comes from being united with Christ. She is clothed in His perfection and not her own. She is filled with the joy, peace, and contentment that come from knowing who she is in Him. She can humbly confess with the apostle Paul that she has not yet attained perfection, which gives her freedom from dwelling on the past or focusing on her mistakes and failures (Philippians 3:12-14). She has traded her striving after a self-made standard of perfection with a desire to press on toward being more like Jesus Christ. She is free to serve the Lord and others out of love and obedience, focusing less on herself and more on the needs of those around her. With the Lord’s help, she stops gazing intently on herself, and instead seeks to fix her eyes on Jesus who is the author and perfector of her faith (Hebrews 12:2).