I see you.
You, the exhausted, worn out and weary soul, tired of chasing grace, yet refusing to accept it.
I see you.
You, who are fully aware you aren’t living in the freedom Jesus promised, yet paralyzed by desperate, failed attempts to taste His sweetly promised peace.
I see you.
You who’s been beaten down by shame and who’s given the reins to the enemy to attack you with his accusations. You – trapped in an exhausting cycle, a victim of the less-than-perfect, never able to meet the demands of perfection, yet refusing to ever accept the reality that we are surrounded by an imperfect everything.
Yeah, I see you. And in every way, I’ve been you.
Before I collided into the brick wall named Jesus during my sophomore year of college, I was playing the Christian game – you know the one. It’s the be good, do good, go to Church, say amen, surrender nothing, worship an idea, fake it and think you can make it game. I was really good at it.
But then sophomore year came, and Jesus came chasing after me, hard.
And suddenly that game I’d been playing became a lot tougher, and while the rules became clearer, they also became much harder to embrace, and as much as I tried and tried, I couldn’t figure out this new game called Life with Jesus.
You see this new game had new rules. Rules like grace, mercy, forgiveness, freedom, peace, and joy. Things I wasn’t all that familiar with. And things that weren’t really rules at all.
And I told myself I knew the significance of those concepts because I knew the right things to say at Bible study, but then again…did I? Did I really know what those words meant? Because I looked around at my life and where grace should have been, I only saw effort and a penalty box and a fear of the Throne Room. And where forgiveness should have been, I found condemnation. And where freedom and peace and joy should have abounded, there were chains and anxiety and so much striving and so little living.
So, to you dear perfectionist trying to play the saved-by-grace, but loved-by-works game, I have unending empathy and compassion for the battle you are fighting.
I am all too familiar with the shame that comes with being a Christian and a perfectionist. I know what it is to hear the grace message, pray it sinks in, only to fall quickly back into a view of God where He is mostly disappointed in you, mostly waiting for you to turn it around. I know what it’s like to be told you’re a legalist, but never told how to find freedom in a way that makes sense to your brain that only sees things in black and white, right and wrong, good and bad. I know what it is to see the less-than-perfect everywhere you go, to always be the victim of the less-than. And I know what it’s like to be caught up in a never-ending cycle of trying to achieve perfection, failing, feeling condemned, working harder, pleading for mercy, and again, falling short of truly believing that it is by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:8.)
And I know you want relief from the wrestling match between your desire to be perfect, and your desire to be perfect at accepting grace.
And I know you don’t need to be told you’re a legalist or that you have too high of expectations. No, what you need to be shown is how to capture the cross of grace and how to redeem your expectations for perfection with the Gospel.
See what most people don’t understand is that when you tell a perfectionist they’re a legalist, they will try to fight their legalism with more legalism.
“You aren’t accepting grace. You keep trying to be good enough.” Okay, I will work super hard to accept more grace.
“You need to pursue Jesus because you love Him, not because you think He doesn’t love you if you don’t.” Okay, yeah. Stupid me. Love Jesus more. Come on, do it!
And on and on you go, with clenched fists and furrowed brows, working harder and harder and moving further and further from the Cross of Grace.
And the thing is, it’s not wrong to chase Jesus harder, to work at loving Him more, to meditate on grace until you believe it. The Bible says to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37, ESV.) Yes, the Bible is clear that we are to run after Jesus with everything we’ve got and that it is obedient to do so.
But the problem is, as perfectionists, we get the idea that we are somehow going to fix “it” – whatever the “it” is. Choose a sin, choose an area of disobedience, choose an area of our lives where we aren’t following the Lord and we believe that with enough work, we can fix it.
So, when it comes to perfectionism, we believe we are going to perfectly overcome it and perfectly accept grace. We believe we are going to be perfect at accepting the imperfection in ourselves, in others, and in our circumstances. And this becomes an exhausting, effort-based system where we try to get ourselves to a place where our craving for perfection no longer exists and no longer wreaks havoc on those around us.
Here’s the thing though: we won’t ever get to that place. That longing we have for perfection won’t ever go away because at its core, that longing isn’t wrong, or dirty, or evil.
No, in fact that longing for perfection was put in our hearts by the One who is perfect. See, we desire perfection because we were created for it. We long for perfection because the whole world longs for it and has been longing for it since the fall.
But, that desperate desire we have for perfection in ourselves and in others? That is nothing more than a warped version of a beautiful gift – warped by sin, and the fall, and the enemy. Which means that our craving for perfection isn’t sinful; but, looking for it in ourselves is.
Because the only place we’ll find our longing for perfection met is in the person who put that longing in us, and that person is Jesus. That longing we have for perfection is actually a longing for him. So, it’s a beautiful gift we’ve been given, because we’ve been given the gift of craving Jesus.
This beautiful gift becomes a messy sin when we get caught up in looking for perfection in ourselves rather than in Jesus. Because on this side of heaven, the best we’ll ever be is a redeemed child of God who still sins. We will not find perfection in ourselves because perfection has only been achieved by one man on this side of heaven: Jesus.
As perfectionists, we live feeling like God is primarily concerned with our sin. We live as if more than anything else about us, He is most interested in how good we are today. We forget his heart is moved by us. We forget he delights in us and is good to us regardless of how good we are.
And you know what? Prior to Jesus, God was concerned. Deeply concerned about the gap between himself and his children. So concerned in fact that he sent his one son, his only child, to do something about it. To do everything about it. To give everything for it. See, his main concern wasn’t just our sin, it was the fact that our sin was keeping us from him.
So rather than tell you once more to just accept grace and live free, I want to look at how the Gospel of Grace should actually make more sense to us as perfectionists.
Because the story of the Gospel centers around this: a perfect beginning ruined by imperfect sinners, but redemption made possible by the perfect sacrifice of our Savior.
The Gospel should make perfect sense to us as perfectionists because it acknowledges our deepest ache: the fact that we, the people in our life, and the world around us can never meet our standards of perfection. We are constantly aware of and assaulted by the fact that everything is less than it should be, fundamentally flawed and broken. There isn’t a need to explain to us that sin bent the world because we understand that more than anyone.
But the Gospel also provides the only solution that makes sense to a perfectionist. See, because if everything and everyone are broken and cannot be perfected, only someone truly perfect could atone for that gap between what is and what should be. And though we constantly try to fill that gap ourselves, we will never rest if the responsibility to make things perfect falls on imperfect people, imperfect us.
Jesus is the only solution. The Perfect One gave his perfect life in exchange for us. In the greatest exchange in history, we got his perfection and he got our imperfection. We got his freedom and he got our punishment. We got his grace and he got our death.
But praise God that the story doesn’t end with Jesus’ death, but with his life. Praise God that his resurrection guaranteed that we too who believe in him, will be resurrected and made whole and complete and perfect when we see his perfection face-to-face.
And praise God, that because of Jesus’ death on the cross, we are already seen as perfect in the eyes of the Father. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14, ESV.) Though we may be in progress on this side of heaven, we are already seen as perfect by the One who reigns in heaven. Because when he looks at us, he sees us as cleansed by the blood of his son.
You see reader, the Gospel doesn’t write off sin and imperfection –it deals with them. God doesn’t lower his expectations of perfection, he just shifts the responsibility from us to Jesus. Jesus paid the ultimate price to fill the gap between the imperfect and the Perfect One. It is a messy and brutal solution, but it is the perfect one. Because it leads us back to perfection, back to the Garden, and back to Him.
So, what we do we do with this craving for perfection? Until we return to the context of perfection we were designed for, what are we to do with the constant unmet expectations and the reality that on this side of heaven, imperfection will be infused into every person, every circumstance, everything?
We throw our craving for perfection unto the One who is Perfect. We turn our craving for perfection into worship of the Perfect King. We place every longing for perfection and every expectation unto the only one who can meet our needs perfectly. And we do things perfectly by doing them with lots of grace. Grace for ourselves, grace for our circumstances, and grace for others.
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” – Philippians 3:12 (ESV)