Overcoming Perfectionism

"Refuge" by artist Carissa Carisse

“Refuge” by artist Carissa Carisse

Many of us have a hard time forgiving ourselves when things go wrong. To find out how big of a problem this is for you, take the following test:

  • Do I ever get angry at myself — and take more than a day to feel good about myself again?
  • Do I feel embarrassed when it turns out I am wrong about something?
  • Do I try to cover up my blunders with lies or by redirecting the focus off of myself?
  • Do I get defensive when someone indicates I’m not a perfectly good person?
  • Do I blame others even when I am responsible?
  • Do I believe that if people get to know me well enough, they won’t like me any more?
  • Do I examine my conscience only rarely?
  • When I realize I have sinned, do I doubt that God forgives me?
  • When a person gets angry at me, do I feel like dirt?
  • Do I have only a few friends, and is it because I’m protecting myself from getting hurt?
  • Do I deal with pain by drinking or using some other form of getting high?
  • Is this quiz making me feel uncomfortable?

If you answered yes to even one of these questions, you do not forgive yourself as readily as God forgives you. If you answered yes to most or all of them, you have a major problem with self esteem and are a great candidate for God’s healing love!

A large percentage of us have trouble forgiving ourselves because we live under the assumption that we must be perfect in order to have worth. Aware that we are not perfect, we believe we are not forgivable, because we know we’ll mess up again and again. Too often we think we can only forgive others (and ourselves) if they (we) “go and sin no more.”  Aware that we will sin again, we say no to forgiving ourselves.

Jesus made our situation worse! (Hey, we love to blame others, don’t we! It’s a desperate attempt to feel good about ourselves so we won’t have to face the “impossible” task of forgiving ourselves.) He said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Can we ever reach that perfection state Jesus calls us to? We have plenty of reason to beat up on ourselves, since God calls us to be perfect! Right? Thus, we are continually angry at ourselves because of our disobedience. We feel like tainted, defective junk. No wonder we can’t obtain lasting love. We lose respect for anybody who loves us, because it means they love junky things.

The Perfect Truth

There are two definitions of the word “perfect” — the world’s and God’s. In the Bible, being perfect does not mean being free from errors, mistakes and sins. This is how the world defines perfection, but not God. The world counterfeits God’s idea of perfection because Satan wants us to always feel defeated — we cannot possibly ever be perfect if we believe the world’s definition. But God’s definition is possible to achieve, otherwise Jesus would not call us to become perfect like God.

The world tells us that to be perfect like God means to be all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving. In other words, to be perfect is to be God. This is Satan’s sin that converted him from angelhood to a demonicness. He wanted to be God. This is also the first sin with which he tempted Eve and Adam: he awakened their desire to become all-knowing about good and evil.

We have been tempted all of our lives to believe we must be all-knowing. We think we have to know what other people are thinking, or what their unspoken needs are — so that we can make them happy. We think we have to correctly foretell the future — “If I make this decision, I must be right about the consequences or else disaster will happen! We think we have to know how to handle every situation in the best possible way — anything less than the best is a failure and we will look bad.

Some people are tempted to try to become all-powerful. These are the control freaks and the abusers. Isn’t it interesting that Satan never tempts anyone to try to be God’s third attribute: to be all-loving!

The true definition of “perfection” — in God’s kingdom — is to love unconditionally. That means to love no matter what, to forgive “70 times 7 times” (countlessly), to give love even when we are not loved back, to do loving deeds even if they won’t produce the good results we hope for. Finally perfection is achievable! Well, only through God is it achievable, and that is the point, because God is love. The more we are in good relationship with Him, the more we can love Him and others and ourselves unconditionally. That is to say, the more we love God, the more we are perfect!

God does not expect us nor ask us to become perfect over-night. Even Jesus Himself did not reach perfection until He suffered on the cross! Hebrews 5:8-9 (NIV) says:

Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

What God wants us to do is grow in love more and more every day. In other words, He wants us to make perfection (i.e., unconditional love) our aim. Love that is conditional is not love at all, because it has a beginning and an end — it is limited. Love is God and therefore has no limits. Conditional love works against real love, and if we believe we have to be perfect (as the world defines perfection) in order to feel good about ourselves, then we are putting conditions on loving ourselves. And we cannot love any one else more than we love ourselves.

Putting Jesus’ instructions about perfection into context, we read:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 4:43-48 NIV).

Each day, if we are immersed in unconditional, always-forgiving love more than the day before, we are being obedient to Jesus’ call to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We haven’t become perfect yet, but we are becoming perfect. As long as we are headed in that direction, we are good stewards of God’s love, and He is very pleased!

© 1999 by Terry A. Modica


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