I’ve heard that the wise old owls at the American Psychiatric Association who revamp the diagnostic manual every ten years have considered a diagnosis of “perfectionism.” What do you think? So far the owls believe that 301.4, obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD, not to be confused with OCD, [or CDO if you want the letters in alphabetical order]) suffices. OCPD is, “a pervasive pattern of preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control, at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency.”
Ring a bell?
Most of us have New Years’ Resolutions. Some will keep them for a time, then relapse into couch potato chips and full-fat dip, or whatever our temptations happen to be. Some will stick to them, finding delight in fruits, vegetables and abs of steel. A few of us will drive ourselves into the ground with endless harsh and difficult demands, utterly panicked by the thought of failure. These are the few, the proud, the perfectionists.
The most poisonous form of perfectionism known to man is the religious version. It makes decent people into self-centered pietists and obscures the goodness of God. But it’s easy to see how it happens. The utter panic of failure seems validated by the thought of the woeful consequences of failing the judgment of a holy God. We should keep a healthy fear that ultimate, irreversible loss. But like all perfectionism, spiritual perfectionism becomes self-defeating as healthy fear morphs pathological. Driven by that fear, we turn our attention to our performance. Then, the same drive that may work for piano recitals and calculus exams backfires miserably. Why? Because God’s law is love, and no amount of self-centered fear will make us loving. In fact, fear will suck us into ourselves like emotional black holes from which nothing loving or loveable can escape.
I must admit the Bible teaches perfection, but a different form than we may assume. Let me give an overview:
-God called Abram to “be thou perfect,” (Gen. 17:1).
-He commended kings such as Asa for having “perfect” hearts before Him (1 Kings 15:14).
-He bragged that Job was “perfect and upright” (Job 1:1; 1:8; 2:3).
As truth progressed, the New Testament warmed up the subject.
-Jesus prayed that the disciples would be “perfect in one” (John 17:23).
-Paul followed His thread by saying believers should be “perfectly joined together,” “perfect. . . of one mind,” and “come in the unity of the faith,” (1 Cor. 1:10; 2 Cor. 13:11; Eph. 4:13).
What? Spiritual perfection can’t be accomplished alone, every man for himself? Apparently not!
-Paul even rebuked the Galatians for trying to be “made perfect by the flesh” and enjoined believers to make sure others were perfect in Christ (Galatians 3:3; 2 Cor. 13:9).
-Then John repeated the idea of perfection in love almost like a mantra (1 John 2:5; 4:12; 4:17; 4:18).
Summing this up, let’s say that God’s perfection bears no resemblance whatsoever to the ice-cold, self-protective spiritual perfectionism that sometimes plagues us. Job said, “If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse,” Job 9:20. The moment we think, even in the privacy of our own observations, that “I am perfect,” the more imperfection we reveal. Flip that script: Our very approach to the light of God illuminates more and more detail of our inner corruption. This makes growth toward perfection in Christ unmonitorable—an unconscious process. The very nature of it demands that it must happen apart from our notice. Something more than vanity must motivate us because spiritual vanity sabotages the growth process.
Some of us are launching into 2013 determined to live up to God’s law for once and for all. Just a quick reminder: That law is love. Self-centered concern with our own performance, whether characterized by pride or insecurity or a twisted cycle of both, will constitute disobedience to that law, and therefore failure. The more appropriate and functional motive is admiration for Jesus’ loving and loveable character and a desire to be like Him just because He’s awesome; and to love those around us even when they’re not. Then we just might be cured without knowing it. Let the wise old owls keep their diagnoses. We have a Healer, and His name is Jesus. Happy New Year! What are your resolutions?