The Gospel & Perfectionism

Caroline White  |  November 15, 2017

I’ve spent the last decade on college campuses in three different states, both as a student and as RUF staff.  In my experience, there is no stronger motivation that informs college students than the desire and pressure to be enough, to be perfect.  Every day I see friendships, schedules, decisions, dating, bodies, even religion, that are controlled by perfectionism—the state or quality of being or becoming perfect, free from all flaws or defects.

This slave-master has left us hopeless in shame (“I am nothing”) or hardened in self-righteousness (“I am enough”). Why can’t we shake this need to be perfect? The Bible says it’s because we were made for it. God, in His Word, has revealed the secret to the struggle of perfectionism: you were made for a perfection far better than what you’re working for, and more hopeful than what you’ve given up on – the perfection of Jesus Christ, yours by grace.    

God’s creation and design of all things is the picture of perfection. Genesis 1 and 2 depict the world we were made for: physical beauty, an abundance of resources and wealth, skillful and satisfying work, trustworthy devotion and commitment, security, acceptance, and power. God looked at everything he had made and said, “Perfect!” And so it was (Genesis 1:31). God made everything perfect, most especially you.     

Eden answers for us two profoundly significant questions: “Why do I want to be perfect?”, and “What makes me perfect?”.  You want to be perfect because you were made to be, and God’s declaration makes you so. 

Eden also answers the questions, “Why can’t I reach perfection?” “Why is it never enough?” As Our Story progresses, man falls prey to the lie from Satan that they are not enough, they and their world were not made perfectly. Thus, paradise is ruined, perfection breaks. But as we know all so well, while perfection is lost, our desire for it remains. So we look for it where we can, working towards it in the wrong ways. Perfectionism is our reaction to a fallen world and a longing to be in a perfect world and a perfect self once again. It is subscribing to Satan’s continued coaching, “If you could just be better, do better, look better… you’d be ok. You’d be perfect. You’d be enough.”  Perfectionism whispers, “Work to be ok.” And so perfectionism becomes our idolatrous attempt to take control of a frustrating and out of control world, to attempt to bridge the gap sin created between you and God, and you and others. 

And no wonder you’re left feeling exhausted, depressed, disillusioned, and lonely. You’ve realized no amount of work can get you to that “Eden standard” of perfection (holiness), so you convince yourself to try harder and harder, or you’ve given up, and you’ve isolated yourself because you don’t want anyone to see the real you that you can’t make better or fix. 

Lastly, Eden holds for us a promise that changes everything: God promises to make us, to make everything, perfect once again. He promises to send the One who will crush the serpent, to defeat the one who is wreaking havoc on perfection (Genesis 3:15). 

Why is this promise good news for the perfectionist? Because the promise of Jesus is the promise of perfection. The gospel of Jesus Christ is all about perfection. The gospel says that Perfection took on flesh, earned a perfect life record, and in His death and resurrection, made that perfection available to you. A record, in Christ, you can stand in and call yours today. Alas, perfection attainable. 

Jesus was the perfect child for you, the perfect student for you, the perfect friend for you, lived in a human body perfectly for you, was even the perfect Christian for you. In every sense, he achieved perfection for you. Hebrews 5:8-9 says, “Although Jesus was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.  And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Why? Because He set His love on you long before He made you and must, therefore, have you back with Him in the new Eden. 

The key to experiencing freedom from the enslavement of perfectionism is taking your eyes off of yourself and focusing them on the Perfect One, Jesus.  It is in Him that you can be confident that change is real, that you are becoming perfect. It is God’s work in you, not your own, that is your hope. In Christ, God has declared you perfect, and so you are. 

In the words of Sally-Lloyd Jones, “One day, Heaven would come down and mend God’s broken world and make it our true, perfect home once again.” And so, with our perfection-longing hearts, we cry with the saints, “Come, Lord Jesus!” 

Caroline White currently serves as Campus Staff at the University of Kentucky.