by Scott Johnson
Can you think of a time when persistent badgering seemed to drive you to the edge? Nagging might come from a parent, coach, mentor, friend, teacher, or sibling. It gives no comfort and leaves you feeling inadequate. It places constant demands and offers no forgiveness for shortcomings.
Nagging does not necessarily come from others. It can come from you. When self-nagging is taken too far, it can lead to perfectionism. The perfectionist is obsessed with obtaining an ideal life. Anything short of “ideal” is viewed as a failure. Perfectionists often concentrate their attention on one aspect of their lives. This could be in athletics, schoolwork, club service, or body image. Since their “ideal” is ultimately unattainable, perfectionists may spend countless, painstaking hours trying to reach their goals.
Perfectionism always begs the question, “Am I good enough?” Perhaps you seek perfect scores in every class, to do a faultless job at work, to perform flawlessly on the athletic field, or to be a perfect son or daughter. How has this worked out? You are likely left feeling far short of perfect.
An Impossible Burden
“So what if I’m a perfectionist? I just have high standards,” some might say. Perfectionism is more than having high standards; it is a consuming set of impossible standards. The ongoing worry of perfectionists makes them vulnerable to depression, overwhelming shame, anxiety and dissatisfaction. These emotions may also lead to destructive behaviors, such as self-isolation.
In reality, perfectionism is an extreme response to the demands of the Law written on our consciences. The Law demands perfection. “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Convicted by sin, humans attempt to liberate themselves. Perfectionism is one of humanity’s various attempts to satisfy the Law’s commands and prohibitions. Unfortunately, that is impossible. King David assessed the situation this way, “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm14:3).
So what do you do? If you are a perfectionist, I am sure that you have been told countless times that all you need to do is lower your standards. But this doesn’t work! This is the same as telling a sick person, “Stop being ill.” Furthermore, God’s Law cannot be relaxed; it still demands perfection.
Perfectionists, and all humans for that matter, cannot find relief in the Law. We need to be reminded that we are forgiven and cared for by a loving God. His compassion is unconditional. God has absolved our faux-pas, foul-ups, and all our imperfections! While it is impossible for us to be perfect or justify ourselves, Jesus already accomplished this:
[Jesus], in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. (Hebrews 5:7- 9 NKJV)
As sinners we are bent on trying to paint a “perfect picture” for ourselves and others to gaze upon. In the scriptures, our attention is instead redirected to the life and death of Jesus. Jesus accomplished total perfection on the Cross: “It is finished.” By baptism, absolution, His Word and Supper, He offers the perfection of the Cross to all. By His perfect work, He makes you perfect.
Perfectionists often deal with a lot of anxiety. Even after hearing the Gospel, their uncertainty doesn’t go away overnight. These feelings of inadequacy can be overcome! If you or a loved one struggle with such feelings, I offer my simple advice: Be patient. Get in the habit of frequently attending the Divine Service, where God’s perfect gifts are freely shared. Don’t be afraid to seek individual care from a pastor. Remember, God uses your weaknesses in this life to shift your trust to His unsurpassable perfection.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)
As a Lutheran, you do not need to put on a pious facade or obsess over your imperfections. In Christ, you are not simply good enough, you are perfect!
Scott Johnson is a second-year seminarian and a recovering perfectionist. Currently, he is studying at the Westfield House, a Lutheran seminary in Cambridge, England. He invites your questions, comments, and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org