Spiritual Perfectionism

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.


Image © Lars Justinen from GoodSalt.com

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?



Spiritual Perfectionism — 10 Comments

  1. Jesus’ command to “be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven…” is a promise. It won’t lead to coldness or self approval, but rather to meekness and self-distrust, with complete dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit. It will been seen in self-sacrificing deeds for the good of others, but not by those doing those deeds, who will always feel there is more that could be done. Perfect trust leads to perfect obedience, but with the focus being on the trust, not the obedience, which will follow naturally.

    This is how Jesus was perfect, who lived by every word that came from God and prayed for and received the Spirit without measure, because it was His great need as a man. He invites us to take His yoke and learn of Him.

    • Sometimes I get caught up in "Perfect." So, I looked up the word and for myself a better word is complete. I really like perfect trust leads to perfect obedience,but the focus being on the trust, not the obedience,

  2. All, I always thank God for coming clear via our Sabbath School lesson in telling us the true MOTIVE or REASON of obeying God’s will. That is in every time the Sabbath school lesson brings us the topic in regards to sanctification – it’s always reminds us that the process are not legally destined to earn or merit us salvation. It is my plea to every Adventist presenters to do the same in every Adventist pulpits whenever you touch any aspect of this sanctification topic. To conclude, that can only happen if we are clear with our salvation message “We are legally saved through the FAITH of Jesus Christ and not our faith. We are legally saved through the WORKS of Jesus Christ, and not our works. We are legally saved through the PERFECT of Jesus Christ, and not our perfect. We are legally saved through the RIGHTEOUS of Jesus Christ and not our righteous”. We need to be very honest in the way we present the truth. That will inspire our listeners to live a selfless life with Jesus. GB!

  3. Ulaiasi, Thanks so much for your post! My favorite part is where sanctification is "not legally destined to earn or merit us salvation." Amen! I believe, though, that legal justification is connected to sanctification. "If you give yourself to Him, and accept Him as your Saviour, then, sinful as your life may have been, for His sake you are accounted righteous. Christ's character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned.More than this, Christ changes the heart. He abides in your heart by faith. You are to maintain this connection with Christ by faith and the continual surrender of your will to Him; and so long as you do this." STC 62.

    To dismantle one from the other would be to create an environment ripe for "saved in sin." But we must continually remind ourselves that none of it contributes to our justification or possesses merit.

  4. I'm often blessed to see your success at bringing forth the subtle into clear perspective. I would never have know how to describe this phenomenon although I understand it well. You have a gift with words and may that gift increase in His service. God bless

    • I want to take a moment to thank God this morning for His robe of righteousness. Matthew 22:11,12 Now, why didn't he have a wedding garment? I do believe it was because he didn't accept the gift of salvation as talked about in Ephesians 2:8,9.
      Good day

  5. Jen!! What a fantastic picture of the stuggle humanity has with perfectionism. I think of perfect in Matthew 5:48 (KJV)
    48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect, to mean, "mature". Your post and Ulaiasi's say it all-we won't know when we stop sinning, and someday we will grow up into mature Christians who aren't competing. Thanks so much!I always look forward to your post.


Please leave a comment long enough to say something significant and considerably shorter than the original post. First and last name required.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *