The life of a perfectionist is hard. I speak from experience.
The perfectionist is frequently frustrated by other people. He winces when he hears a public school teacher say, “The gift is from Bob and I,” and he wonders why educators are not taught to speak English. If the perfectionist is of the confrontational type, he rapidly alienates the people he is constantly correcting. If he isn’t, he must resign himself to a sour stomach when co-workers do a sloppy job.
The perfectionist is also a nuisance to himself. He spends so long getting tiny details of a project just right that he doesn’t accomplish as much as he should. Granted, there is a place for that kind of attention to detail. As Michelangelo said, “Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle.” However, most perfectionists are not creating masterpieces; they are just fiddling and fussing.
I think I am less neurotic than I used to be. I can be happy with some jobs that are well done, even if they aren’t perfect. I have also become more selective about which things deserve my best effort. Learning these lessons has been a matter of survival because no matter how hard I try, I don’t have time to do everything well, and I can do nothing perfectly. I am an imperfect perfectionist.
The more serious problems with perfectionism are not interpersonal or psychological. They are spiritual, and they come, roughly speaking, in three varieties. The first variety is represented by the Pharisees of Jesus’ day who thought they were so righteous that they needed no repentance. They thought that they kept the law of God perfectly, but they were only deceiving themselves.
The second (and opposite) problem with perfectionism is that it tends to crush the sensitive conscience. Unlike the Pharisee, the sensitive soul believes he must be perfect to earn God’s favor, but he knows that he can never measure up. He sees (correctly) that his best good deeds are tainted by sin, and he concludes (incorrectly) that there is no hope for him.
The third problem related to perfectionism is the placid acceptance of mediocrity: “It’s good enough for God. He should be happy with anything I do for Him. After all, I’m not a bad person.” God’s command, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16), has become “You shall be nice most of the time.”
There isn’t much hope for the Pharisee or for the lover of mediocrity. They are pretty much headed straight for the pit. The gospel of Jesus Christ is specifically designed by God to reach down to those who are crushed by a sense of their sinfulness and unworthiness, as we see in this parable of Jesus.
‘‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14).
Jesus gave His life as a sacrifice for sins; He rose from the grave to grant forgiveness and eternal life to all who repent of their evil deeds and who trust in Him to save them, “for whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:9-10, 13).
(Note: I published this post first in the Allentown Morning Call for Nov. 5, 2013).