The Misguided Pursuit of the Perfectionist

“Good enough is never good enough unless it’s the best it can be.”

My English teacher told us this in 7th grade.  I didn’t know it at the time, but my teacher had given me the words that defined how I had lived to that point and would live my life going forward.

From the time I was little, I have been a rule follower, a do-gooder, and (some might say) a goody-two-shoes.  I can count on one hand the number of times my parents grounded me because 1) they were very few and far between and 2) I punished myself way harder than they ever could, so I definitely remember.  I excelled at and achieved most things I did because, well, that’s what good girls do, right? Rules are there for a reason. And if something has to be done, it’s worth doing well.

“Good enough is never good enough…” has been the mantra by which I have lived my life, and it very clearly translates into my spiritual life and how I relate to the Lord.  Perfectionism can seem wise and “right.” After all, we are called to grow to be more and more like Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1). We are called to be ambassadors on His behalf (2 Corinthians 5:20-21, 1 Peter 2:9).  In fact, Jesus even says: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48, ESV)

But can I be honest?  It’s crippling. I live in constant fear of being a hypocrite or thought of as a hypocrite because perfection is an impossible standard.  I find myself lamenting the words of Paul in Romans:

“…I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway…I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am!…”

(selections from 7:19-24, NLT, emphasis added)

The problem with perfectionism is that it leaves Christ out of the equation.  It leaves out the real object of the pursuit. Brene Brown says, “Many people think of perfectionism as striving to be your best, but it is not about self-improvement; it’s about earning approval and acceptance.”  When we pursue perfection, we are actually seeking approval from God that has already been given (Ephesians 2:8)! We have not accepted that “absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us” (Romans 8:39, MSG).  

Julia Cameron stated in The Artist’s Way:  “Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough – that we should try again.”  But God doesn’t look at us and see our faults. He doesn’t look at us and see the worst in us. He looks at us and sees Jesus.

“Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times that it would leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.”  Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me.”

2 Corinthians 12:8-9, CSB

When we embrace our imperfections, it pushes us toward Jesus.  It compels us to pursue Jesus.  We are already seen as perfect through Him (Galatians 3:27).  He is the real pursuit! You and I can rest in true peace knowing the work has already been done and we are already good enough.

“God—he clothes me with strength and makes my way perfect.”

Psalm 18:32, CSB

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  1. I think that perfectionists are also motivated by the rest of us who use the tools of technology to be in the judgment business and not the mercy business.

  2. Great insights, Kathryn. I had a seminary professor who once said, “When you get to heaven, God won’t ask why you were not more like Moses, but why you were not more like Tony.”

    God created each of us in unique majestic ways and the best and most perfect thing we can do is reflect God’s glorious image residing in us.