Shannon Whitmore explores the difference between the divine command to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” and the struggle of perfectionism.
I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist. I was a straight-A student, and I cried the first time I got a B+ in a class. My notebooks and folders were all pristine, my locker always perfectly organized, my bedroom a perfect representation of my need for order. My clothes were always neat and wrinkle-less, my hair smooth and straight, my skin as flawless as I could make it. I agonized over every pimple, every split end, every extra pound. I wanted to be perfect, and I fought a daily battle to get as close to perfect as I could.
My perfectionism served me well at times. I was a superb student while I was in school, and an organized and responsible employee when I worked. I went to good schools, earned scholarships to cover large portions of my tuition, and was named valedictorian when I graduated eighth grade and again in twelfth. Even after my school years were behind me, I continued to use my need to be perfect to my benefit.
But my perfectionism was also destroying me, even if you couldn’t see it beneath my near-perfect exterior.
My need to be perfect left me perpetually anxious and stressed. It destroyed my self-esteem and led me into a decade-long battle with an eating disorder. It made me self-critical, but also incredibly critical of others. I could not tolerate even the slightest imperfection -- in myself and in others. I wanted pure perfection.
If anything, my return to the faith made my perfectionism worse. I mean, Jesus flat out says that He wants us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). And who am I to argue with God? If He wants me to be perfect, I need to be perfect. And so, in a rather ironic turn of events, as my faith in Christ grew, so too did my lack of self-esteem and my skewed self-image. My perfectionism was justified by God, even if it left me hating myself.
But here’s the truth. God loves us, and He wants us to love ourselves too. Our value is found in Christ, and our self-worth comes from Him too. An extra pound (or ten), a split end (or countless grey hairs), a wrinkled skirt (or forehead) will not make God love us any less. God calls us to perfection, but none of those things make us any less (or more) perfect. We might see them as imperfections, but when Christ looks at us, He sees His beautiful creation. Our bodies are beautiful, good, and perfect just as they are. God gave us those bodies after all, and He only creates beauty and goodness. God is Beauty and Goodness in person, and we are made in His Image.
God is Beauty and Goodness, but He is also Truth. He says so in Scripture: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). God does not lie, so when He says He wants us to be perfect, He’s not lying. If we want to go to heaven, we must be perfect, just as our Heavenly Father is perfect. God demands perfection, but His definition of perfection is very different from mine. His definition has nothing to do with the number on the scale, the hairs on my head, or the wrinkles on my face. It has nothing to do with grades, achievements, or prestige in the workplace.
Our view of perfection is nothing compared to God’s.
God’s definition of perfection is so much harder than ours. But it’s also so much easier, because it has a reachable goal. God’s version of perfection is possible. Ours is not. Geniuses can still make mistakes. Accomplished writers still need editors (and sometimes those editors miss typos). Models have bad hair days and the occasional pimple. Perfectionists aspire towards an impossible goal. God gives us a possible one.
God calls us to moral perfection. He calls us to be saints. He call us to choose goodness, to choose truth, to choose beauty. He calls us to give our all, to do our best, even if it’s not perfect. His call is difficult, but with God, all things are possible. With grace, perfection is possible. Perfection draws us closer to God; perfectionism leads us away from Him. We can be made perfect. We can become exactly what we want to be -- perfect, yet freed from the bonds of perfectionism. We can become what God wants us to be -- because He wants us to be perfect, not perfectionists.
Reflection Question: How do you struggle with the need to be “perfect” as the world sees it? How does that image of perfection differ from God’s?
Copyright 2021 Shannon Whitmore
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About the Author
Shannon Whitmore currently lives in northwestern Virginia with her husband, Andrew, and their two children, John and Felicity. When she is not caring for her children, Shannon enjoys writing for her blog, Love in the Little Things, reading fiction, and working in youth ministry. She has experience serving in the areas of youth ministry, religious education, sacramental preparation, and marriage enrichment.