Perfectionism: A Christian Understanding

christian meditation

With grace, we do not need to earn our favor from God.

Excerpted From

Christian Meditation in Clinical Practice

From a Christian perspective, God created humankind in his image (Gen. 1:27), to be in relationship with him and others. Yet, because of the fall, brokenness and hardship entered the world (Gen. 3:16–19), resulting in our enduring suffering ever since. Fast-forward to the present day, and we repeatedly fall short in keeping God’s commandments in daily life. In this fallen state, we are estranged from God and “miss the mark” on a moment-by-moment basis, struggling to carry out God’s will each step of the way. In fact, the Bible reveals that we are only reconciled to God through our union with Christ (2 Cor. 5:18–21; Col. 1:19–23), not by any human effort of our own (Eph. 2:8–10; Gal. 2:16; Rom. 3:28).

However, as Christians, many of us still struggle with legalism, or the notion that we need to somehow earn our salvation by perfectly following God’s law. Without a doubt, in attempting to meet extremely high external (emanating from society or the Bible) or internal (arbitrarily constructed on our own) standards, especially unattainable ones, we can miss out on the ever-present grace that God offers us on a daily basis. With legalism, we are “seeking to attain, gain, or maintain acceptance with God, or achieve spiritual growth, through keeping a written or unwritten code or standard of performance.” Here, we can see that solely relying on our own performance, which often flows from preconceived standards, is antithetical to the Christian notion of grace, or undeserved merit.

With grace, we do not need to earn our favor from God, given we are now friends with God because of our union with Christ. More formally, grace is defined as “undeserved blessing freely bestowed on humans by God—a concept that is at the heart not only of Christian theology but also of all genuinely Christian experience.” In the Christian tradition, more specifically, “common grace” refers to the blessings that God offers to all of creation, without favor to any one person, as well as God’s providential care in providing for us on a daily basis, whereas “special grace” captures the redemption and sanctification available to those who put their faith in Jesus Christ, transforming our brokenness, meaninglessness, hardship, and suffering as God patiently walks with us along the paths of life. 

As we commune with God, walking with him on the arduous trails of life, we can cathartically acknowledge our imperfections, experience much-needed rest (both psychologically and spiritually), and exert a “humble confidence” in knowing that our identity is found in him, not our own unilateral efforts or “good works.” By relying on God’s grace, not our own perfectionistic tendencies, we are learning to quickly get back on the roads of life when we have drifted in a wayward direction, without ruminating about our mistakes or worrying if our relationship with God has been damaged or ruptured. Rather, each and every time we come up short of God’s standards, we can have the confidence that he is welcoming us home with outstretched arms (Luke 15:11–32).

Without God’s grace, of course, perfectionism may creep in, especially when we constantly monitor the gap between our pre-established, unrealistic standards and current, imperfect performance. Along the way, we may develop a pattern of self-criticism and self-judgment, attacking ourselves with an internal dialogue that perseverates on mistakes, disorder, and disorganization in this fallen, broken world. Or, we may end up criticizing others, viewing their actions through our personally constructed system of right and wrong, divorced from God’s omniscience. In fact, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, we may end up viewing all of life through our own moral lens. Yet, since we are called to love God and others (Matt. 22:36–40), human-derived knowledge can get in the way of fulfilling these two foundational commandments, which “all the Law and Prophets hang on” (Matt. 22:40), in that our own arbitrary judgments can be antithetical to love.

In the New Testament, the Pharisees were religious leaders who created and attempted to enforce a wide variety of rules to govern moral behavior, doing so in a perfectionistic, judgmental manner. Reminiscent of Adam and Eve in the garden, they attempted to be “like God,” not “dependent on God,” in their knowledge of good and evil. Yet, Jesus responded to the Pharisees by following God’s will, not getting caught up in their judgmental moral system. In striving to follow the will of God, Jesus displayed a “freedom and simplicity of all action,” emphasizing union and love, not disunion and judgment.

In Jesus’ example, then, we have a model for how we should live—instead of relying on our own moral standards for judging our own (and others’) behavior, we should, with “freedom and simplicity of all action,” focus on following God’s will, striving for union and love along the way. In contrast with attempting to be like God in our knowledge of good and evil, in other words, we should be dependent on God, attempting to discern God’s will from moment to moment. In this process, our eyes are on God, not ourselves. Indeed, the initial misstep of Adam and Eve involved attempting to place themselves, not God, at the center of existence, deciding to pursue their own knowledge of good and evil, consistent with the Pharisees. Yet, in doing so, suffering entered the world, with humankind now overwhelmed by our own rigid, unilaterally derived system of rules and regulations.

Ultimately, when we recognize we are attempting to enforce our own standards (whether applied to ourselves or others), a fitting next step involves simply letting go, surrendering our own imperfect knowledge of good and evil to God and prioritizing his will above our own. Stated differently, we are trading in our Pharisaic thinking for a deeper, more trusting reliance on God’s will, recognizing that God (not humankind) is at the center of the proverbial garden. In this two-step process of noticing and shifting, we are relying on an amalgam of God’s love and grace as the proverbial bridge, not our own fallen judgments of who we are, how we should perform, or how other people should measure up to our haphazardly created standards. In support of this perspective, recent research has revealed a link between perfectionistic strivings and psychological and spiritual struggles among religious adults, suggesting that perfectionism may carry with it a whole host of challenges in the Christian life.

In the Christian tradition, grace is a foundational component of mental health, since we live in a fallen, broken world. In other words, God’s grace is the proverbial glue that holds us together in our fragile condition, which is undeserved and freely flowing from him. Therefore, rather than pursuing perfection in a legalistic, Pharisaic manner, relying on our own arbitrarily constructed moral system and judgments along the way, we can learn to surrender to God’s will in each passing moment, becoming more like Jesus Christ day by day. To do so, Christianity offers a variety of practices, or spiritual disciplines, including meditation, prayer, and contemplation.

With meditation, we can meditate on God’s grace, using words and images from Scripture to cultivate an awareness of the undeserved favor he is bestowing on us from moment to moment. As a quick example, like the apostle Paul, we can savor God’s promise about the sufficiency of his grace: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). With this passage, we may ruminate (in a healthy manner) on the short phrase “My grace is sufficient for you” throughout the day, pivoting from perfectionistic tendencies and self-criticism to these words whenever we notice a corresponding feeling of guilt or shame in inevitably coming up short.

In prayer, we may recite the long version of the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—in order to recognize God’s mercy (i.e., loving kindness) throughout the day. Or, we may condense the prayer, slowly reciting, “Lord Jesus, have mercy,” so as to end the prayer with an emphasis on Jesus’ compassion. As one more example, we may simply call on the name of Jesus, attempting to cultivate a deeper trust in him, not our own unilateral efforts. In doing this, we are learning to shift our focus from ourselves to God, recognizing that we  are unable to become more like him without his help. Asking for mercy, therefore, is about asking for Jesus’ presence, recognizing that he is the antidote to our fallen, broken condition.

Finally, with contemplation, we can lovingly focus on God, learning to shift from our own unilaterally derived, overly complex, and often inaccurate system of moral standards to the simple awareness that “It is finished” (John 19:28–30). To be sure, there is nothing that can disentangle us from God’s perfect web of love (Rom. 8:31–39), which means we can reach for him in each unfolding moment, basking in a loving awareness that he is with us right now. Along the way, we are learning, rather paradoxically, that the remedy for perfectionism is to simply sit, gazing at Jesus (like Mary), not anxiously striving (reminiscent of Martha) (Luke 10:38–42).

Overall, the four-step process in this workbook, applied to perfectionism, involves (1) noticing our self-criticism (and other perfectionistic tendencies), (2) shifting toward an awareness of God’s perfect grace, (3) accepting God’s perfect grace, and (4) acting in life based on a deeper communion with, and contentment in, God by making decisions that are consistent with his perfect will, not our own Pharisaic, legalistic ways. 

Excerpted from Christian Meditation in Clinical Practice: A Four-Step Model and Workbook for Therapists and Clients by Joshua J. Knabb. Copyright © 2021 by Joshua J. Knabb. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

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