The Problem of Perfectionism – MBFLP 251


A reader asks, “What can you do about an over-conscientious child?”

C.S. Lewis observed that our sins are often forms of virtues which have gone astray. The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Colossae, “Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24)  We should be pursuing excellence–but it’s very easy to let that pursuit turn into self-righteousness, arrogance, and pride. And it can also drive a person to distraction, depression, and despair, as the reality settles in that we can’t truly reach perfection in our own strength.

So what should we do when we see one of our children … or ourselves … leaning on human effort and achievement instead of faith in Christ? When striving for excellence becomes an unforgiving and ungracious pursuit of the unattainable? When our obedience to God is based on appeasement rather than love?

But doesn’t the Bible speak about perfection?

Yes, it does. Jesus speaks of loving your enemies, a supremely unnatural thing to do, and says if you do this, “you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) While it is true that God is pure and sinless, we aren’t and won’t be until heaven. Yet we can strive after this kind of perfection, which is not sinless but rather, balanced and mature, like James describes: “But let patience [as a result of the testing of your faith] have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:4)

The sort of perfectionism to beware of has several unhelpful fruits:

  1. Pride – if I think I’ve achieved it, or I think I’m capable
  2. Arrogance – if I look down on others who aren’t trying as hard as I am
  3. Inefficiency – putting too much time and effort into unimportant things
  4. Fear – if I’m not confident I’ll succeed, I don’t want to try
  5. Faithlessness – if I don’t realize how desperately I need Christ
  6. Guilt – if I don’t recognize my inability, any disappointment is my own fault

Really, it’s a form of legalism–hoping to earn God’s favor or dissuade His anger by our own diligence. (continued …)

Can we be over-conscientious? 

It’s good to be careful, watchful, observant. Our hearts are still drawn away from Christ and God’s law, so we need to be on guard against our own sinfulness. Our conscience can be helpful – Paul says in Romans that Gentiles who didn’t know the law of Moses sometimes did the right thing anyway,

when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them (Romans 2:14-15)

But our conscience can be mistaken or confused. Paul wrote the church in Corinth, “I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 4:4) And the apostle John wrote, “If our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.” (1 John 3:20)

Romans 14 deals with matters of personal conviction, and Paul says, “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.” (verse 5) – but we do need to recognize that our conscience needs to be trained by the word of God. And we need to remember that each of us is on life-long road of growth–and we haven’t all reached the same level of maturity yet!

So how should we guide our children in this area?

  1. Our hope and our self-worth are not found in our report cards, our job descriptions, our paychecks, or our prizes — hope and identity come from our relationship to Jesus Christ
  2. Encourage your perfectionist children to try things they might avoid. Encourage your bookworm to learn tennis or dancing. Get your athlete piano lessons or tutoring in French. Help them realize that they can’t excel in everything – and they don’t have to!
  3. Be sure to praise the intangible things. Character doesn’t come with a scorecard, but God is much more concerned with the sort of person we are than the numbers we achieve on the tests.
  4. Help them gauge the real value of quality. If over-exactness makes you late on your homework, you still lose. Sometimes “good enough” is the right answer, and better than “good enough” may actually be a distraction–or worse.
  5. Finally, be sure they understand that By grace you have been saved through faith, that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Instead, our obedience to God is not meant to earn His forgiveness or love–it’s our loving response to what He’s already done for us. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)