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.

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?

January 2013 gigs:

Jan. 26- Finding Peace seminar, Fairview Village, PA

Feb. 1-3- Finding Peace seminar, Joshua, TX

7 thoughts on “Spiritual Perfectionism

  1. Nancy Ingham Reply

    Hi Jen. Good one, As we look at our lives we must see the love of JESUS for us and that includes forgiveness which is one of the bottom lines of HIS government that has been challenged be the enemy and that gives us hope and then we learn to trust HIM more and more and grow in HIS love. At 82 I still need this daily as I try to walk the walk. Praise HIM for HIS great and awesome love and patient endurance.

  2. Sunny Meyers Reply

    So glad to hear from you, as I have been wanting to thank you personally for your inspiring message, “The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown”, at the Clearwater SDA Church in Florida on Dec. 22nd. I was very personally touched by your message and spent several days afterwards, going over my notes and looking up scriptures and re-reading them (mostly Isaiah 9:6 and and Phil. 2:5-11). By the way, I met you after the service with Carolyn Albarelli.

    My understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross has been made clearer in my mind by my Sabbath School teacher who says that rather than a substitution taking place, Jesus laid down His perfect life, took on Himself the sins of the world (which crushed His soul to death) which all died with Him, and when He rose, He took on His perfect life that he laid aside, which He then offers to us as His gift when we accept Him as our Savior. I never think about being “perfect”, because that is not a possibility in my flesh on this side of heaven. Rather I trust that if I stay “in Him”, He will keep me close and lead me in a more perfect way each day. I am assured of my salvation and have no doubt that I can trust His promises. There is no work for me to do except believe that He has done it for me as I cannot do it for myself. So it is extreme love that compels me to trust that He is in control and leading me.

  3. Leroy Moore Reply

    Hi, Jennifer, good thoughts below. Our perfection (righteousness) is in Christ. And its revelation is in love, the most powerful motivater in the universe. And you are right, no one can become perfect in themselves, as this is the essence of self-centeredness (sin). The perfection we are called to involves complete union with Christ, by the Spirit. But it can only be acquired in a corporate process. For love, the perfecting agent, reaches out to others and humbles itself in relation to others. The ultimate perfection which will prepare for the final crisis and Christ’s coming (COL 69) is a perfection of Christ’s corporate body, the remnant.

    May God bless you in this new year of opportunity.

  4. Anon Reply

    Interesting reflections. The dilemma is cheap grace versus unbridled justice. My father’s focus is on perfection, so as to be ready to live without a mediator after probation closes etc. Knowing that you’re SDA I think you understand that lingo. I can’t say that he’s wrong, or that anyone’s lifestyle or ruminations/comments on perfection can ever strike a perfect (woops, couldn’t help using that word) balance, but I somehow resonate with your essay. To my father’s credit, I think, he at times qualifies his perfection theology by saying that what God is looking for is a perfect attitude….. I would say that attitude would be with respect to God and fellow man, so that one’s motivation was constantly correcting as it were to perfection, like the needle of a compass or a gyroscope. Admittedly this is quite abstract, but in practical terms I suppose that an emotionally mature person might be able to distinguish such a fluid state as being importantly if not obviously different from a paradigm of perfect performance in all physical and spiritual engagements.

  5. Edward Jerez Reply

    I only know that I’m not perfect, but my goal this Year is overcome with the power if the name of Jesus everything that separate me from my savior, I pray that this would be the motive to follow Jesus just to look more like Him, may The Lord be with you Jennifer also with your love ones,till we meet again.

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