Colleen Carroll Campbell: The Gospel Calls Us to Perfection, Not Perfectionism

I’ve been called an overachiever. In elementary school, I considered a B-plus an abject failure, and I was updating my résumé before most kids could spell the word. I used to return my high-school boyfriend’s love letters to him spellchecked—in red ink. A journalism colleague once predicted that given where I was at age 25, my next career move would be a midlife crisis.

You don’t have to be a congenital perfectionist like me to have a problem with perfectionism. Nor must you demand flawlessness in every part of your life. Perfectionism is simply an addiction to control and a refusal to accept imperfection in some human endeavor. Looking at our culture today, I’d say a whole lot of folks suffer from that.

What other common thread links today’s Tiger Moms and Helicopter Coaches, work martyrs who won’t take their vacation days, and exercise addicts who anguish over missed workouts? What connects our soaring rates of pharmaceutical addictions and eating disorders, our escalating levels of anxiety and depression, our epidemic of credit card debt, and the explosive popularity of cosmetic surgery? Many factors contribute to these trends, yes, but a key driver is our demand for perfection.

For believers, spiritual perfectionism is an equally pervasive and insidious problem. It’s dangerous precisely because so many of us mistake it for a virtue. Spiritual perfectionism is that same obsession with control and flawlessness transposed into our relationship with God. It’s rooted in the lie that we can earn God’s love and work our way to heaven. Most of us know better than to think that out loud, and yet we often live like we believe it.

Over the years, I’ve learned that slow, incremental progress—the kind we impatient perfectionists hate—can be a blessing. It schools us in humility, keeps us tethered to prayer, and produces visible fruit as we travel toward more complete surrender. Opening our hearts to the Lord’s mercy, even if we can do so only inch-by-inch, allows him to heal those wounds we’ve covered over with perfectionism and draw us closer to himself and all those we love. That itself is a liberation.

Liberation in this life is not the ultimate goal, though. The ultimate goal is still—believe it or not—perfection. Christian perfection. And Christian perfection is not just different from perfectionism. It’s diametrically opposed. The very perfectionist impulse that makes us winners in the world’s eyes is the one we need to overcome on our journey to eternal life with Christ.

The pursuit of Christian perfection, even though we can’t fully achieve it in this life, brings joy. It’s the joy that comes from giving God the reins, turning our lives over to Jesus, and allowing the Holy Spirit to upend our plans and explode our expectations.

Such radical openness to God isn’t easy. As a bishop I know likes to say, “Obedience to God always gets us into trouble.” It’s a good kind of trouble, though—the kind that forces us to lean into God’s grace instead of crowding it out with our own petty plans and limits and rules. Letting go of perfectionism frees us to pursue real holiness instead of its self-righteous counterfeit.

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Source: Christianity Today