Taking Perfectionism to the Next Level

As Trent was growing up, it soon became apparent that he was both academically and athletically gifted. Teachers and coaches loved him because he worked hard and excelled in both his studies and sports. He was a model student and a leader in his chosen sports of basketball and soccer. Trent was an obedient son and made his parents proud. Yet Trent was rarely satisfied. Any grade below an A was unacceptable in his mind, and if he missed a shot in basketball or a goal in soccer, he would beat himself up for days even if his team won. Now, as a forty-year-old man, Trent has risen to the top of his profession but he has left behind a string of broken relationships, all destroyed by his critical demands of others and unwillingness to show grace. People don’t enjoy being around him. The closer the relationship the more true this seems to be. Trent’s kids avoid him when they can or keep their heads low when they can’t; his wife secretly can’t stand to be around him. Trent is every bit as critical and hard on himself as he is with others—no flaw goes unnoticed and mistakes result in mental scourging. Trent is driven to achieve a picture-perfect life, but life never seems to line up that way. While Trent can see that something needs to be changed, he has no idea what to do. While he can see every flaw in his performance, his heart remains a mystery to him. He is unwilling to lower his standards, but the tension created in his relationships and the pressure he puts on himself to meet his standards is almost unbearable. Many people have told Trent to quit being perfectionistic, to chill out and relax, but to Trent this is meaningless advice. What does it mean to quit being perfectionistic? Quit striving for perfection? Then strive for what instead? Excellence? Who defines that? How do you tell when you’re there? Trent sought out Mike for advice because Mike seems different than other men Trent has known.

Change Your Standard

Even though Trent asked Mike for advice, he was pretty sure he knew what Mike would tell him. As they sat in Starbucks having coffee, Trent braced himself for what he thought Mike would say, telling himself, “Here it comes, it seems like all the advice given to me is that I have to just change my unrealistic, unreachable expectations. You’re about to tell me to lower my expectations. I’ve heard that over and over and it doesn’t help or make sense to me.” But that was not the advice Mike gave Trent. Mike did not tell Trent to lower his standards. Surprisingly Mike said that God sets the bar higher than even Trent does. Mike told Trent, “In Matthew 5:48 Christ gives the evaluation standard you’re to use: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’” When Mike said this, Trent threw his hands in the air. “How’s that supposed to work? I’m already stressed out and now I have to be as perfect as God!”

God’s Standard

“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This instruction to those listening to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5—7) and to us when we read it seems to make the bar impossibly high. Jesus had been leading up to this already in his sermon. Jesus told his listeners, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’” (Matthew 5:21). Undoubtedly his Jewish listeners had heard that before. It was one of the Ten Commandments, so of course they were aware of the law against murder. Few perfectionists hearing this statement would have been uneasy, this was a command that they believed they could keep. But Jesus raised the bar by telling his listeners that getting sinfully angry with someone or calling someone a fool was off limits. So, it’s not acceptable to get off the phone with an incompetent customer service rep and mutter, “Idiot”? It’s not acceptable to respond to the driver who cuts you off by grinding out, “You fool, what are you doing!” as you slam on the brakes? Perfectionists often feel as if they are surrounded by folks who just don’t get it, people who have to be given instructions more than once, people who don’t meet deadlines, people who just don’t seem to care. Fools. Idiots. As Jesus raised the bar on this issue, the perfectionists in the audience must have started to feel anxious. Next Jesus reminded his listeners of the commandment forbidding adultery. Again, his Jewish listeners were well aware of this commandment and again most perfectionists hearing this would probably have considered this a law they could succeed at keeping. No sleeping around. No hooking up. Got it. But Jesus didn’t stop there; he once more raised the standard by telling his listeners not to even look at someone lustfully. No second look at the woman with the low-cut top. No commentary on the personal trainer with the washboard abs. No wondering if she or he thinks you’re hot. For the perfectionists, the stress level went up again. Then Jesus went on to raise the bar on the subjects of divorce, promises, getting even, friends, and enemies. The stress must have become crushing as the perfectionists heard all these high standards. As the crowning summary of what he had been saying, Jesus concisely stated, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This was the knockout blow. Any perfectionist hearing this must have been shattered.

The Blessing of Having a Perfect Standard

Jesus didn’t give the command to be perfect as a curse. He gave it as a blessing. Like Trent, you may be wondering, Seriously? How is this a blessing?! God gives us the standard of perfection to drive us to him. This standard helps us see how desperately we need him. We just can’t meet this standard. The bar is too high; it’s an impossible dream. John MacArthur makes these observations:

The sum of all that Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount—in fact, the sum of all he teaches in Scripture—is in these words [“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”]. The great purpose of salvation, the goal of the gospel, and the great yearning of the heart of God is for all men to become like him. . . .

That perfection is also utterly impossible in man’s own power. . . . Man’s own righteousness is possible, but is so imperfect that it is worthless; God’s righteousness is impossible for the very reason that it is perfect. But the impossible righteousness becomes possible for those who trust in Jesus Christ, because he gives them his righteousness.

That is precisely our Lord’s point in all these illustrations and in the whole sermon—to lead his audience to an overpowering sense of spiritual bankruptcy, to a “beatitude attitude” that shows them their need of a Savior, an enabler who alone can empower them to meet God’s standard of perfection.

~ John MacArthur, Matthew, 1–7, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 349–50.

Christ has done what we can’t. He met the standard. Christ came and lived the perfect life we’ve failed to live. When Jesus raised the bar, he knew what he was doing. He knew we would never be able to meet the standard. He wanted to show us our need for him. He wanted to be our perfection. We know that God cannot tolerate sin in his presence, but equally true is the fact that sin cannot tolerate being in God’s presence. We often fail to be moved by what Jesus has done for us because we don’t want to see how much more perfect and glorious his life is than ours. That would mean having to sacrifice the perfect system we’ve created that promises us safety, comfort, and superiority. But when we see the beauty of the life Christ lived, we are forced to admit that our “perfections” are not so very great after all. Trent has been trying to live according to a standard he has created, but it is a standard that focuses primarily on himself. As far as human standards go, Trent’s are very high—higher than the standards of many others. Trent has done many things with seeming perfection and has risen to the top of his profession, but as MacArthur says, Trent’s perfection is so imperfect that it is actually worthless. Why doesn’t Trent’s hard work add up to perfection in God’s view? The problem is that Trent’s desire for perfection comes from a heart that longs to be satisfied and sufficient in himself. Trent has missed that God’s perfection demands love—a love for God and a love for people. That’s a standard that all of Trent’s efforts haven’t even scratched the surface of. Sadly, the people in his life would say that Trent has failed badly at loving them. Trent is worshipping the god of perfection and he wants to be that god. In the process he is ignoring God’s call to love him with his heart, soul, and mind and his neighbor as himself. Not only has Trent missed the mark with his own efforts, but he has been using the wrong standard of perfection all along—his own. As Mike discussed these things with Trent and his words sunk in, Trent felt broken. But broken is not a bad place to be. Christ said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:3–4). Broken can be a good thing. Broken is a very good thing if it drives us to God, if it causes us to cry out to Jesus in repentance and trust and receive the gift of his perfection. Once we get to this place of despair, we’re in a place to welcome the perfection of Christ. Now it’s good to hear, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” because this is our gift in Christ Jesus. Christ has not given us some second-rate perfection, slightly used and defective. Christ has gifted us with the very perfection of God. The perfection of the one to and about whom the seraphim cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord. The whole earth is full of his glory.” Christ has gifted us with the perfection of the One who is not just better than others, but absolutely perfect with no defects, blemishes, or imperfections. Flawless. This is the perfection we get in Christ. Amazing! Amazing and humbling. We don’t deserve a gift like this. We’re not worthy. We’re mortal. Yet this gift is given to all who trust in Jesus. As a result, we can never be satisfied with lesser standards of perfection. Our standard of perfection now changes to become the standard of our holy and loving God. Our one desire becomes to be like Christ in our day to day living because we have this great gift. Our ideas about perfection also begin to change. We begin to see perfection both as a gift that Christ has purchased for us and as a process of growing in Christlikeness. Once a source of stress or despair, perfection becomes a wonderful goal. Because of the gift we’ve received, we want to live a life of love (Ephesians 5:2) because that’s what our Savior did. Being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect will mean we want to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and love others more than ourselves—exactly like Jesus did.
Excerpted from Picture Perfect: When Life Doesn’t Line Up © 2014 by Amy Baker. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.
Picture Perfect Front Cover

Picture Perfect: When Life Doesn’t Line Up

As a culture, we have a love-hate relationship with perfectionism. We reward perfectionists for their insistence on setting high standards and their tireless efforts to achieve them. But perfectionism is a crushing burden that can leave us angry, anxious, and paralyzed. Is the solution just to “lighten up”? In Picture Perfect, counselor Amy Baker challenges the popular notion that perfectionists need to lower their standards. LEARN MORE About Perfect Picture

About the author

Amy Baker

Amy Baker, PhD, is the Ministry Resource Director at Faith Church (Lafayette, IN); Director of Counseling for Vision of Hope, a faith-based residential treatment program; Instructor and counselor at Faith Biblical Counseling Ministries; a council member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition: and the author of Getting to the Heart of Friendships as well as several counseling minibooks. She and her husband Jeff have two children. TEST-23-11-02

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