Perfectionism is an issue common to many of us. It’s characterized by setting high standards for yourself and striving for flawlessness in all areas of your life. When it comes to the area of eating, perfectionism can be particularly destructive because it can lead to unhealthy behaviors and attitudes with food.
More importantly, perfectionism can lead to a distortion of the Gospel and can steal the peace that Christ bought for you.
Here are a few ways perfectionism destroys a healthy relationship with food.
Perfectionists often view things in black-and-white terms. This can lead to a rigid approach to eating where any deviation from the “perfect” diet is seen as failure or even takes on a moral value. Perfectionists who try to be “clean eaters” are vulnerable to something called orthorexia, which I’ll explain quickly.
Orthorexia is a disordered way of thinking that causes a person to obsess over foods and ingredients. This hyper-vigilant way of looking at food leads to increasing angst and restriction with foods. Take a moment to compare this to God’s purpose for food (Psalm 104:14-15, 27-28; 1 Timothy 4:3-4).
Whether trying to stick to a “clean eating” regimen or any other man-made diet plan, any all-or-nothing way of relating to food can result in restrictive eating patterns and feelings of guilt when you eat “imperfect” foods or don’t keep the diet rules perfectly.
Perfectionists can set impossibly high body size, diet, and exercise standards for themselves. This can lead to feelings of frustration, failure, and disappointment when they can’t meet these expectations.
Even if the perfectionist hits some of their goals, unrealistic expectations usually lead to great disappointment and discontent in the end. In the area of body size or eating plans, this often leads to a dangerous cycle of disordered eating.
Obsessive Thoughts and Behaviors
Perfectionists may become fixated on food, their weight, and exercise to the point that it dominates their thoughts and behaviors, rather than their minds being set on the Lord (Isaiah 26:3). Aside from the spiritual dilemma (which we will discuss in a minute), the perfectionist can become consumed with food or restrictions and develop a distorted view of its role and value in their lives (1 Corinthians 6:13). They can begin to view food as the enemy rather than as a gift of nourishment and enjoyment from our loving Father (Ecclesiastes 3:13).
Perfectionists may also find it difficult to stop “checking” their own body appearance in mirrors and pictures and by comparing themselves to others. What might have begun as a pursuit of health or weight loss can become an all-out obsession full of “self” that forgets about loving others (Philippians 2:3-4).
Help for Christians Struggling with Perfectionism
While the Bible does not specifically address “perfectionism” as we use it today, it does provide guidance on related topics such as humility, contentment, and desires.
Matthew 5:48 states, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (ESV). This passage is often interpreted to mean that we should strive for moral perfection. This verse is in the context of loving your enemies, and Jesus was addressing the hypocrisy and external moralism of the Pharisees, and no person can attain the perfection that God demands (Romans 3:23).
Each of us have fallen short of God’s glory, and yet, by faith we rejoice that Jesus lived perfectly on our behalf and credited us with His perfect righteousness (Romans 5:17-19). Now our aim is to live like He did and be obedient to Scripture, but those tempted toward perfectionism must remember that on earth, none of us achieve that level of perfection (1 John 1:8-9). If anyone thinks he can, then he is deceiving himself, and there would be no need for the person and work of Jesus Christ.
What Kind of Perfection?
Even the Apostle Paul stated, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own” (Philippians 3:12). Believers should find it comforting that we, like Paul, are striving toward this completeness because Christ has already made us His own…not to earn the favor of God. We can never become perfect by our own efforts.
Striving toward perfection in Christ is, of course, a far different story than striving to be perfect in…well, anything else. The perfection Paul talks about is focused on continually seeking to become like Christ in grace, holiness, love, and glorifying God.
It is not a command to take control of every detail of life or never make mistakes before others. Paul never discussed maintaining the perfect weight or keeping nutrition rules as a matter of importance.
Why You Cannot Be Perfect…Yet
It is a wonderful truth that you and I, in our own strength, can’t appear perfect to onlookers. That might sound strange, but let it be a refreshing truth for you. You can finally take a breath and put down that burden which was never yours to carry.
In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul writes that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. This passage emphasizes the importance of relying on God’s strength rather than our own efforts or achievements, recognizing that we are imperfect and in need of grace. And when you and I are imperfect, God’s grace, glory, and power are displayed for all the world to see.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Find Your Freedom in Repentance
With food, perfectionism can lead to obsessive, unhealthy behaviors that harm our bodies and corrupt our thinking. This can be hard to overcome, but never fear. If you are seeking God’s ways and His Word, you can find freedom from the taskmaster of perfectionism.
Whenever we identify sin in our hearts, we have the gracious opportunity to confess and repent before the Lord. We come to Him humbly, and He lifts us up (James 4:10). We confess our sins, and He cleanses and forgives (1 John 1:9).
So the question is…what sin needs repentance? Well, it’s not skipping your workout. It’s not gaining weight. It’s not having the slice of cake. These are not sins and, therefore, should not produce guilt before God.
The sin keeping you in bondage is the self-reliance, self-righteousness, and pride inherent in perfectionism. These sins may reveal themselves in your life through food and body perfectionism, but they are sins very common to all of us (1 Corinthians 10:13). The best news is that God is faithful to help us when we come to Him humbly, repent, and rely on Him for help.
Fellow Christian, rest in the fact that you are not perfect, but Christ is. Be at peace that He was perfect on your behalf. And then begin to enjoy your Father’s good gift of food as He intended.
If you find yourself struggling with perfectionism in your relationship with food or your body and would like to seek help, make sure the person you get support from is a spiritually mature believer who can show you how the Gospel applies to all areas of your life…even this one.