Christian perfectionism

posted in: Articles | 0

The Bible teaches us that we should be perfect since God is perfect (Matthew 5:48). But what does that mean? And what if a perpetual striving towards being perfect leads to stress and anxiety and becomes an unbearable yoke? Or what if perfectionism leads to fear of failure and hinders performance? Let’s look at all these questions and more.

Man standing in the sunrise with his arms stretched wide - Finding freedeom from the yoke of perfectionism

I know first-hand what it feels like to suffer from anxiety and stress as a result of perfectionism. Perfectionism used to cripple me with fear. The fear in its turn made me stumble, which caused me to fail, which led to beating myself up, which led to depression and even more anxiety. Sometimes this fear to fail caused me to withdraw and other times it caused me to overcompensate.

When I was about 13 years old, my teachers in school began to notice that I had problems focusing. My grades stayed behind and I started to feel frustrated to the point that I stopped studying for tests, as I felt that studying was useless. Now I understand what the underlying problem was, but then, no one understood what was going on with me. I underwent some sort of test to see if I suffered from fear of failure, and I scored somewhere near the maximum.

As an adult, I did the opposite: I always worked too hard, and my work had to be impeccable. One of my managers once told me that if I would do 50% of what I do, it would still be more than enough. Part of me understood what she said, but I couldn’t feel it. Instead of taking it as a warning, I took it as a compliment and kept on working myself to the point of exhaustion. The result: a major burn-out.

All of this destructive behavior came to a sudden halt almost a year ago. So what changed?

Three important things:

1. I finally found the courage to face the giant

While I was working way too hard for a church I was a leader of a year ago, I almost burned myself up again. Part of the reason was that the output exceeded the input, because I was so busy feeding others, that I took too little time to nourish myself. The yoke didn’t seem light at all, as I did more than anybody asked of me, more than God asked of me. My body started hurting and I had one migraine attack after another.

So, some friends, and my husband and I, started praying for me to find the cause of these problems. Then change was set in motion, as I soon came to the realization of something very painful: Each time I went into “workaholic mode”, I was avoiding dealing with something else. And that something else was childhood abuse.

I had wrestled with a lot of traumatic events in my life, but not that one. That one was hidden away in a dark corner of my brain and it only came out at night during my almost nightly nightmares in which I fled from an unknown source of fear. I could never see what that source of fear was. Until one night I could. And although that was probably one of the most frightening nights of my life, from that point on, these nightmares stopped immediately.

Until a couple of months later I had a similar nightmare, but this time with a very different ending. In this dream, I fled from my enemies and tried to hide as I normally would. But the attic where I hid was full of scary spiders, and there was no way out. I started to panic as I was surrounded by my enemies and the spiders when all of a sudden I felt this tremendous power rising up from inside of me. Like a lioness, I roared in the face of my enemies! And as they fled, I awoke, still roaring.

I felt tremendously encouraged and empowered after that dream.

If you suffer from something similar, please know that all who are born from the Spirit of God have this power living inside of them. It is available to all of you when you believe in Christ.

2. God brought me out of slavery

Once I was able to see clearly what the core of the problem was, it opened the door to finally fighting with the right weapons.

During this fight, I learned a lot about myself. One thing I learned was that although I thought that I did what I did for God, part of me wasn’t doing it for God. That part of me acted out of fear. Fear of not being good enough, fear of letting people down, fear of being cast aside, and all kinds of other fears coming from my traumatic childhood. These fears led to three big mistakes:

  1. I made people my judge and let their responses decide whether or not I was doing the right things. That meant I was constantly anticipating responses, and checking verbal and non-verbal communications to see whether or not I used the right words the right way. I immediately took the blame if someone felt offended or got upset by what I said. This made sharing God’s Word a difficult and tiresome task because God’s Word is also a Sword, which causes many people to take offense, or to feel conscience-stricken and upset. On top of that, I gave more authoritative people the power to define my relationship with God, instead of giving the Holy Spirit full control. All of this often made me feel caged, suppressed, and not myself.
  2. I made myself my judge. By thinking that I knew that I wasn’t good enough, I made myself the one to judge that, and therefore I put myself in the place of God. And we know from the Bible that taking the place of God is wrong on all levels.
  3. I judged God. For a long time, these fears made me see God differently. It made me see God through a lens of familiar fear instead of through a lens of pure love. That meant that I feared that God would lash out if I would make even a tiny mistake. So, when something bad happened to me, I thought it was God punishing me. And that often hindered me from doing what I should for God’s Kingdom. In other words, it caused me to act like the guy who hid the master’s talent in the ground (Matthew 25:14-30). At the same time, I felt drawn to legalism and people who were legalistic. Because if I would just simply stick to all the rules, nothing could go wrong, right? Wrong, for the Law made nothing perfect (Hebrews 7:19).

I came to find out how far that was from the truth when I started preaching a series on the Book of John. I grew tremendously through preparing that series. On that journey, the congregation and I followed Jesus closely, and I got to know Him a lot better. And by knowing Him more, my love for Him grew. And as my love grew, my fear melted. Because “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18, ESV).

With each sermon, I started to see more clearly that what I had done for God, came from a heart that was enslaved to fear. And in order to get rid of the fear, my love had to be perfected.

Then as soon as the series ended, He set me free from the bondage. He reaffirmed my calling and what you see before you are the first steps into this new territory, into a new light.

Now it’s important to maintain my freedom (Galatians 5:1).

Remaining in the light of Christ

God is Light, but fear casts a shadow. When you are afraid it is easy to hide in the shadows, where people won’t see you clearly. Hiding in darkness makes it easier to hide your imperfections from other people. Not from God, because He sees everything. So, really, the main issue here is what other people think.

God’s Word teaches us to step out of darkness into the light (John 12:46, 1 Peter 2:9). For someone who is afraid of what other people think, this can be very scary. Maybe you don’t want people to see you, the real you. Because what if they don’t like what they see? Or maybe it’s a matter of familiarity: At least you know what you have in the shadows, and what will come to light in the Light is still a mystery. And what if you don’t like what you see?

I was such a person too, and I had many such reasons. And even now I still struggle with the flesh when it entices me to make people my judge. Remaining in the Light is not a one-time action, it is a constant moving in step with the Spirit.

But when you really think about it, stepping into the light leads to light, not to more darkness, so things can only get better. Listen to these words from a prophecy about Jesus: “that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear,” and “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 20:74, 79, ESV)

Jesus comes to deliver us from our enemy so that we can serve Him without fear. And also: The shadows bring death, but light leads to peace. So, step into the light without fear!

Bull's eye - Are you trying to be perfect for Christ? Or for you? Christian perfectionism

3. I let God be in control

Easier said than done? Well, for me it was, until for the purpose of preaching week in and week out, I was constantly bathing myself in the Word of God, wanting to know Him more, while giving Him the lead in that process. And I had gone through a season like that before when I was writing a book.

So I’ve experienced that soaking in the Word of God makes you grow faster than anything, just like plants that grow with light and nutrients. And that it makes you fruitful, as you will eagerly want to share what you have learned.

My faith was built tremendously by researching and trusting the Word of God. The Holy Spirit gave me insights that made me tremble with awe, joy, and love.

And when you get to know God through His Word and by His Spirit, you will also understand what Jesus meant when He said that we should be perfect. The closer we grow to God, and the more room we give to the Holy Spirit, the more we become like Him. In our sanctification process, we are constantly perfected like a rough diamond cut into shape. We battle our flesh every day, to become like He is, perfect in every way.

That implies that only God can judge how far we are in this process. He knows our heart and its imperfections, and He can shape it to look like His own heart.

That is why perfection should be about the shape of our hearts, not about what comes out of our hands. What comes out of our hands, will be perfected as a result of our hearts getting into shape. And our heart gets into shape by faith in Christ and not by works (Galatians 2:21, 3:2-3).

Besides, we can always trust God to help our fallible hands to do good works. It doesn’t matter what the task is that we are supposed to do. And even if you make a mistake, you can trust God that He will use it for good. Consider this: He knew you would make that mistake even before you were born, and still, He gave you that task.

So, if I prepared well but still forgot something, and He did not remind me of it the moment I thought I needed it, then there must be a reason for it. I could start bashing myself and drown in worry, or I could rest in the fact that God’s got this.

When it comes to planning, God’s timing is always perfect, and so I trust Him more than a clock. Because although clocks and calendars are helpful, He is still the Master of time. If I worked hard, and I still didn’t get it done before my next appointment, then there must be a reason for it.

Like now, you might have noticed that I haven’t posted an article in two weeks, while I just started this blog. That is because my husband and I were on a last-minute holiday break, which we knew was granted and led by God. We had amazing experiences with God on this vacation and we grew spiritually. When at times I did feel a bit anxious that I did not post a new article on the blog, I reminded myself that we were there doing God’s will. And He knew beforehand that a consequence of that would be that I wouldn’t be able to post anything.

I could have chosen to let the fear of what people would think overtake me or I could have trusted my own judgment over God’s and work during our break, but instead, I decided to trust God. He knows best, so there must be a good reason for this intermezzo.

Not making people my judge, gave me the freedom to be myself. And since I’ve stopped trying to be in control, my stress and anxiety also seized. I’m not responsible for the effect of my work, God is. All I can do is let my heart be shaped by God, and do what I’m called for with the means God gave me. The rest is up to God.

That means that in God, in the Light, in His love, there is no need for anxiety or stress. There is only peace. And that yoke truly is light.