“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48 (NASB)
Perfectionism is a common problem among our counselee’s, and even more so among those who are depressed. The word “perfectionism” is not found in the Bible, but we are told to be perfect aren’t we?
At first blush it looks as though we are told to be without defect or sin. That is not quite what the Lord had in mind when He spoke to His disciples. There is a difference in the command to grow and change into holiness and Christ-likeness (which is the point of being perfect as in Matt. 5:48) and perfectionism.
Christians who aim to be perfect often have as their goal pleasing God and working toward that end. They try to do what is right, live a good life, be good people, serve in the church, honor God, read their Bible, and perform other religious duties yet they always fall short of their goal of perfection.
The problem is not in the goal to be perfect, it is found in the root of perfectionism which is self-righteousness and legalism. Legalism in this context is attempting to attain by human effort what has been procured for us by Christ. We can never be righteous by our deeds or desires; we have been made righteous by Christ (Eph. 1:3, 2 Cor. 5:21, Gal. 2:16, 21), and our righteousness is found in Him alone!
We can live righteously because Christ has made us righteous. We can walk righteously because of the Spirit Christ has placed within us! We have been declared to be dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:6) therefore, we have the ability to live differently because we are different.
The perfectionist mis-steps when she thinks and lives as though she must lay hold of that which Christ Jesus has already laid hold of for her (Phil. 3:12). She misses the understanding of progressive sanctification and this leads to despair and unending attempts at self-perfection through legalistic means.
When a person is attempting to work for their own righteousness it is sin. This is why perfectionism is sinful. Repentance, confession, and returning to a proper understanding of the Gospel is critical. A thorough reading of the book of Galatians is in order!
A person struggling with perfectionism needs to be reminded that holy living and righteous living is to flow out from her relationship with Christ and is not a means to gain a relationship with Him. She needs to understand Gospel rest.
Our rest does not equal laziness, but work. The work must be for the right reasons and flow from the heart that understands and accepts the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. This makes our work joyful service and an offering of love to God and others. This brings joy, peace and contentment into the life of the Christian and replaces the sorrow and misery in the life of the perfectionistic person.