Getting perfectionism right

good enough“Perfectionism.” We use the word to describe an unreasonable attitude toward life and work in which anything less than perfection is unacceptable: there’s no such thing as “good enough.” It can make us harsh and demanding with ourselves and others. Or perhaps we’ve suffered under perfectionistic bosses or parents, and have felt their condescension or rejection.

In the religious sphere, the word suggests the belief that moral perfection is indeed possible. But the belief itself may be an abstract one. The question is what you do with it.

It can be daunting to hear Jesus tell his followers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48, NRSV), especially if we’ve grown up with perfectionistic parents or in spiritually abusive churches. The apostle Paul’s words may sound similarly intimidating:

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God. (2 Cor 7:1, NRSV)

It’s not all bad, of course. Paul affectionately calls the Corinthians “beloved,” reminding them of both his love for them and God’s. And he has just finished reminding them of the ancient promises delivered by the prophets, telling of a living God who promises an intimate father-child relationship.

But there it is: the command to be perfect, coupled with the threat of fear. It sounds like a grace-less return to a religion of works, of trying to make ourselves perfect in order to be accepted by a fearsome father. How do we reconcile this with a gospel of grace?

To begin with, there’s simply no getting around that phrase, “the fear of God.” We can soften it to “reverence,” as the NIV does, but that doesn’t quite do justice to the meaning. God is holy beyond measure, with a righteous wrath that burns against sin. Paul’s already made the point that there’s simply no way to reconcile righteousness and lawlessness, light and darkness (2 Cor 6:14).

But just the same, Paul’s bigger point is that we have been reconciled to God, and it’s all God’s doing (2 Cor 5:18-21).

We rightly fear a holy God, but such fear isn’t intrinsically incompatible with love. A child may love and trust her parents, and still fear their just judgment when she misbehaves. If the parents punish her in anger, then fear will be her primary motivation for change. But if they discipline her with a combination of loving correction, firmness, and a patient demand for her to do what is right, she is more likely to learn the lesson and make it her own.

The word “perfect,” as Paul uses it here, is less a matter of flawlessness than of completion, of reaching the goal. I like to think of it this way. Suppose your little boy envisions becoming the next Gordon Ramsay, effortlessly able to turn out flawless gourmet meals. To support that vision, you find the recipe for Beef Wellington, lay out the kitchen with everything needed, and invite him to begin.

But he doesn’t know what he’s doing; he can’t even crack an egg without making a mess. You get increasingly impatient and critical, saying, “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you get anything right?” The more pressure you put on him, the worse he does. Finally, you push him out of way: “You’re hopeless. Let me do it.”

Suffice it to say he’ll never want to be a chef. He may get the shakes just pouring himself a bowl of cereal.

But what if you worked with him, coaching him, making room for mistakes? You’re not giving up on the goal, but you know that it’s going to take time. To the extent that you train him with love and patience, he will want to learn more — and his motivation will no longer be fear but a loving desire to please you.

When God looks at his children, he sees the image of his son Jesus. In that respect, we’re already declared holy. But there’s another sense in which becoming more and more like Jesus is an ongoing goal — what theologians call sanctification, the process of becoming holy.

What Paul wants the Corinthians to see is that in Christ, God has already done everything necessary to reconcile us to himself. When Paul commands them to “Be reconciled!” (2 Cor 5:20), he’s begging them not to throw away the gift they’ve already received. And it’s in that context that he reminds them of the ancient promises: the knowledge of what God has done, and the kind of relationship he desires, should be our motivation to set aside everything that would stand in the way.

The kind of perfectionism that burdens is one in which we are constantly chasing an acceptance that always seems out of reach. But the right kind of perfectionism is one in which acceptance — radical acceptance — is already gratefully received, and we want to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.