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.
Unlike the pursuit of perfectionism, a life aimed at attaining Christian perfection probably won’t impress the world or even our friends at church. The saints who walked this path before us faced ridicule, misunderstanding, and suffering, and their lives often ended in apparent failure.
Think of Francis of Assisi, shedding his clothes in the dispute with his father and marching off, stark naked, to embrace evangelical poverty. Look at Mother Teresa of Calcutta, striking out alone at age 37 to start a street ministry in India’s slums, then spending the next 50 years suffering secret desolation while laboring for a God whose love she could no longer feel. Consider Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, dying at age 24 in a French convent where the other nuns fretted that they’d have nothing to write in her obituary because she was so unremarkable.
Then there’s Paul, who gave up a life of living and thriving by the Mosaic law to become an itinerant preacher of a gospel that got him whipped, beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, robbed, hunted, betrayed, tormented by anxiety, left in the cold, and deprived of food, water, and sleep—not to mention harassed by that “thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan sent to torment me and keep me from becoming proud” (2 Cor. 12:7 NLT).
The way of gospel perfection is the narrow way, and it doesn’t always make sense. Many of the saints struggled for years to surrender to God, to give him permission to show his power through their weakness. Once they began to make that surrender, though, they discovered the deep-down, lasting joy that comes only from God. Even Mother Teresa, tormented by feelings of divine rejection, wrote these words in the thick of her darkness: “Today really I felt a deep joy—that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony—but that He wants to go through it in me.—More than ever I surrender myself to Him.—Yes—more than ever I will be at His disposal.”
Surrender is the heart of gospel perfection and the antithesis of perfectionism. We can’t accomplish holiness without God’s grace. With him, though, “all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26)—even freedom from perfectionism.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an award-winning author, print and broadcast journalist, and former presidential speechwriter. Her latest book is The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s.
This piece was adapted from The Heart of Perfection by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Copyright © 2019 by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Published by Howard Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster. Used by permission.
256 pp., 19.6
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