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No one is perfect except Christ—yet we seek to be like Him. So, should we be perfectionists?
It’s one of the ironies of our age. Society places great value on being tolerant and on refraining from judging others’ actions—even though we must make value judgments to live a balanced and virtuous life. At the same time, the world pushes on us an unhealthy obsession with perfectionism, a misplaced emphasis on being mistake-less and overly image-conscious—which can hurt or even ruin our ability to live a godly life. Perfectionism can damage our relationship with God, hamper our efforts to develop healthy relationships with others, and undermine a loving and peaceful home environment.
Are you a perfectionist? Many of us suffer from perfectionism to one degree or another. If you do, don’t be discouraged! Maybe you just need to see your spiritual progress differently. Maybe you need to adopt a different model. Doing so may make all the difference in the world—for you and for those around you.
So, how can you escape the trap of perfectionism?
Many of us assume so! We can sometimes be overwhelmed with a wish that we were flawless, thinking that’s what God expects of us. After all, God expects obedience to His law, repentance from sin, and an attitude of turning our hearts toward Him. But is that the same as perfectionism?
Some read passages like Matthew 5:48 and assume that, yes, God expects perfectionism. After all, the verse states, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” But what does “perfect” mean? The word translated “perfect” here is the Greek teleios. English speakers will recognize the familiar prefix tele- that shows up in words like telescope, television, and teleconference. “Tele-” means far or at a distance, and the Greek word teleios has the sense of reaching toward the end, coming to completion. As the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says, “In the New Testament ‘perfect’ is usually the translation of teleios, primarily, ‘having reached the end,’ ‘term,’ ‘limit,’ hence ‘complete,’ ‘full.’”
Notice, the meaning of the word has a different sense than just avoiding mistakes, like getting 100 percent on a test! It is about reaching an endpoint or crossing a finish line. It’s about becoming full-grown and reaching maturity. So, going back to Matthew 5:48, being “perfect” means becoming like God—growing as a Christian and finally becoming fully spiritually mature. That’s very different than feeling pressure to project an image of already-achieved perfection to ourselves, to those around us, and to God.
There are powerful parallels between our spiritual life and the life of an embryo growing toward birth. At conception, an embryo doesn’t look like a newborn baby. But, as the weeks progress, the baby’s organs and structure grow, and it eventually starts to resemble its human parents.
So it is with newly begotten Christians. At baptism, they don’t immediately look like their spiritual Father. They don’t yet fully have the spiritual attributes of God’s character, which are listed in Galatians 5:22–23. Although they desire to become fully mature—they are repentant and intend to turn from their sins—they haven’t yet advanced spiritually to the point where they are fully grown. This process takes time spent walking with God and exercising His Holy Spirit.
A newly baptized person is pure, sinless, and innocent at that moment. So, wouldn’t that be a perfect time for God to let such a person die—go to sleep and await the resurrection? No! God wants more than to capture a “screenshot” of us in a moment of sinlessness. His purpose is to develop His holy, righteous character in us as we voluntarily give our lives over to Him. It’s about a lifetime of learning to choose His way over the way of sin and self. And, over time, we grow to be like Him, little by little. With God’s Spirit and the shed blood of Jesus Christ paying for our sins, we overcome and grow in His righteousness, not our own. The right model of perfection is that we are to grow, coming to ever more resemble, spiritually, our Father in heaven.
When I was in my early 20s, I came across a book called When a Man Comes to Himself, published in 1915 by Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth President of the United States. I was inspired by Wilson’s focus on healthy growth and development. Perhaps it may strike a chord with you or with your children. He writes:
It is a very wholesome and regenerating change which a man undergoes when he “comes to himself.”… He comes to himself after experiences of which he alone may be aware: when he has left off being wholly preoccupied with his own powers and interests and with every petty plan that centers in himself;…. No doubt to most men it comes by slow processes of experience—at each stage of life a little… [When a man comes to himself, he] understands what capacity is, and what it is meant for; sees that his training was not for ornament or personal gratification, but to teach him how to use himself and develop faculties worth using….
A man who lives only for himself has not begun to live—has yet to learn his use, and his real pleasure, too, in the world. It is not necessary he should marry to find himself out, but it is necessary he should love. Men have come to themselves serving their mothers with an unselfish devotion, or their sisters, or a cause for whose sake they forsook ease and left off thinking of themselves. It is unselfish action, growing slowly into the high habit of devotion… that teaches a man the wide meaning of his life, and makes of him a steady professional in living, if the motive be not necessity, but love.
What a bold and refreshing message for our generation! Our culture often seems to push young people toward an entitled life without any responsibility—“You deserve it!” That is a disaster waiting to happen. Wilson, however, pointed toward the ideal of pursuing growth, purpose, outward focus, and maturity:
Christianity gave us, in the fullness of time, the perfect image of right living, the secret of social and of individual well-being; for the two are not separable, and the man who receives and verifies that secret in his own living has discovered not only the best and only way to serve the world, but also the one happy way to satisfy himself. Then, indeed, has he come to himself…. Experience mellows and strengthens and makes more fit, and old age brings… not regret, but higher hope and serene maturity.
What does God want from us? He wants us to gain strength to grow into someone He can use to serve our families and our fellow man. Such growth fills us—young or old—with meaning and purpose.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the brethren in Philippi, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:3–6). The word that is here translated “complete” is related to the word we’ve described, teleios—to complete, to accomplish, to fulfill further. That’s how and when we become perfect: when Christ returns and we enter God’s Kingdom as newly born sons and daughters of God.
Perfectionism is a trap that hinders us from truly making progress on the path to our ultimate destiny in God’s Kingdom. Focus on growth. Don’t fall for perfectionism.