The adage “the perfect is the enemy of the good” has been around a long time. Recently, productivity experts have put a twist on it to emphasize the consequence: “the perfect is the enemy of the done.”
We all know the truth in these sayings. All of us at times neglect to do what we can do for fear of not doing it perfectly. Our cultural term for this is “perfectionism.”
What Fuels Perfectionism?
What we call perfectionism is not the same as the pursuit of excellence, though sometimes the lines can blur. When we pursue excellence, we’re determined to do something as well as possible within a given set of talent, resource, and time limits. But perfectionism is a pride- or fear-based compulsion that either fuels our obsessive fixation on doing something perfectly or paralyzes us from acting at all — both of which often result in the harmful neglect of other necessary or good things.
What’s behind our perfectionistic tendencies? We’re complex beings, so it’s rarely just one thing. In unusual cases, its primary cause is a clinical disorder or spiritual bondage. But as a rule, perfectionism nearly always has its roots in our desire for acceptance and fear of rejection. It can be the garden-variety, pride-fueled, general fear of what people will think of us, or it can be a crippling, conditioned fear of failing instilled into us by an abusive past or present authority figure. And if we’re honest, sometimes it’s a convenient excuse not to do something hard. In other words, it’s not really perfectionism, but indulgence wearing a disguise.
Perfectionism is a common-to-man temptation we all face in our fight against sin. And the wonderful news is that God wants us to live in freedom from its tyrannical rule over us.
“You Must Be Perfect”
But to understand and believe this, we must first understand something Jesus said that sounds contradictory: “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This sure sounds like a demand for perfection on the face of it. And it is, and therefore it isn’t.
Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, made this statement as the impossible culmination of the (fallen) humanly impossible standards of what it means to not sin in anger, lust, divorce, swearing oaths, and retaliation, as well as what it means to love our enemies.
But just before he launches into this “perfection” section of his sermon, Jesus gives us a clue to what he means: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus came to perfectly fulfill on our behalf God’s demand on us for perfection.
That’s why the New Testament authors write things like, “by a single offering [Jesus] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). There is the key to what Jesus meant, and the key to our liberation from the tyranny of perfectionism. Because Jesus perfectly lived, died, and rose again for us, he has already purchased our perfection. And God the Father, though not unaware of the remaining sin that contaminates everything we do, sees us as perfectly righteous in Christ.
In God’s eyes, we have been perfected by virtue of being joined to Jesus by faith, which frees us from needing to earn his or anyone else’s approval through perfectionism. We are free to engage imperfectly in our sanctifying fight against sin!
Imperfect Saints Fill the Bible
The Bible nowhere encourages us toward perfectionism. It promises us perfection — imputed perfection now (2 Corinthians 5:21) and future perfection in the age to come (Revelation 21:3–4) — as a free gift of God’s grace, so that we will be free from perfectionism.
That’s why God goes to great lengths to expose the imperfect, clay feet of the Bible’s faith heroes. Abraham, the great model of faith, has his Hagar episode. Moses, the great Christlike prophet, has his disqualifying rock incident. Aaron, the great Christlike high priest, has his golden calf disaster. David, the great Christlike king, has his Bathsheba affair. Peter, the great apostle and Christ-confessor, trips over his clay feet throughout the Gospels and beyond (Galatians 2:11–14). And Acts and the Epistles give us a warts-and-all view into the imperfect lives of the earliest Christians.
God knows our perfectionistic temptations and tendencies, and so he fills the Bible with stories of his amazing and phenomenally patient grace toward sinners who continued to imperfectly fight with, and stumble in, their sin throughout their earthly sojourns. He wants us to know that perfection in behavior and motivation is completely out of our experiential reach in this age.
Live Free from Perfectionism
God has something far better for us to strive toward than our idealized imaginations of perfection, which only end up enslaving us.
Perfectionism’s subtle, but great danger is its self-orientation. Since it is a fear- or pride-fueled effort to win approval for the self, its primary focus is de facto on self, not God or others. In other words, perfectionism, even in the battle against sin, is not motivated by love or faith. And “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
But God wants us to be free — free from the tyranny of pride and fear. He wants us to live in the freedom of knowing that he has our past, present, and future perfection issues completely covered.
In our ongoing battles with sin, God is not looking for perfect, externally performed behavior or perfect, internally performed motivation from us. God is looking for love and faith, knowing full well both will be imperfect, no matter how much we grow in them.
You Are Free to Fight Imperfectly
God is calling us to the wonderfully refreshing experience of getting our eyes off ourselves and how we’re measuring up, and onto Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). He wants us to stop pursuing or being paralyzed by perfectionism so we are free to pursue love (1 Corinthians 14:1; 1 Timothy 1:5) and pursue trusting him with all our hearts (Proverbs 3:5). And if perfectionism has an inordinate influence on us, God will mercifully design circumstances to defeat our best efforts to fight sin “successfully” until we learn where our freedom really comes from.
In Christ, you are free! You are free to follow Jesus imperfectly. You are free to fight the fight of faith defectively, because that’s the only way you will ever fight for faith in this age.
Perfectionism is a ponderous weight we must lay aside in the race of faith (Hebrews 12:1). God doesn’t want us to focus on performing perfectly; he wants us to focus on living out a childlike, dependent faith through authentic acts of love (Galatians 5:6).