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What does the Bible say about perfectionism?

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Question: "What does the Bible say about perfectionism?"

To put it bluntly, perfectionism is a hoax. We cannot be perfect! Yet many well-meaning people continue to strive for this unattainable goal. They want to exceed expectations at work, at home, at church, in sports, in hobbies, in physical appearance—and the list goes on. They have somehow convinced themselves that to be acceptable requires them to measure up to a personal or societal standard of perfection. A perfectionistic mindset brings stress and can only lead to discontent and frustration. Perfectionism often involves raising the bar to absurd heights and striving in our own efforts for something that only God can do.

The point of the gospel is that we are unable to save ourselves. We all “fall short”; we all “miss the mark” (Romans 3:23). Sinners need a Savior, and that’s why Jesus came. When we trust in Him, He forgives our shortcomings, imperfections, and iniquities. We can stop striving for an arbitrary, worldly “perfection” and rest in the Perfect One (Matthew 11:28).

Martha, who was “worried and upset about many things,” probably struggled with perfectionism as she served the Lord (Luke 10:40-41). As she prepared the dinner and set the table, she wanted everything to be just right. The problem was that she was setting a higher standard for herself than Jesus was setting for her. “Only one thing is needed,” Jesus told her. Then He pointed her to Mary’s example of peace and rest (Luke 10:42).

It is true that the Bible calls us to be “perfect as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The Greek word for “perfect” here is telios. It means “brought to its end, completed, or perfect.” So, to be “perfect” in this sense is not how perfectionists so often imagine it. Rather, it is to be completed in Christ. Philippians 1:6 says that completion is the work of God. He created us, saved us, and is faithful to perfect us.

This is not to say that we have no responsibility to grow in our faith (2 Peter 3:18). We must cooperate with God’s work in us (His perfection of us)—see Philippians 2:12. We are called to live godly lives and to submit to God. But the focus of the Bible’s commands is not on others’ perception of us, as is so often the idol of the perfectionist. Instead, the focus is on our heart’s posture toward God.

Recommended Resource: Perfecting Ourselves to Death: The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism by Richard Winter

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