When we hear the word “perfectionism” we probably assume that it refers to the doctrine of complete sanctification. There have been believers, not all of them Biblically illiterate, who have thought it possible for Christians in this world to progress beyond personal failure. The idea of sinlessness is wonderful. Each and every regenerate soul longs for that state. It is a condition to which we are predestined. It is a condition toward which we ought to strive tirelessly. However, it will not occur in this present world! Instead, we will contend with the conflict registered in Romans 7 until our souls are glorified at death or until our souls and bodies are glorified together when Christ returns. Even so, come Lord Jesus!
However, the concept of perfectionism is not limited to this erroneous doctrine of achieved sanctification. There is a more subtle and innocuous version. In its most popular form it appears in something akin to the American dream. Part of our heritage as Americans is the hope of a better life, an idyllic life ever-after: the beautiful wife (or handsome husband), wonderful children who are only cutely mischievous, the new and perpetually neat house with the perfectly manicured lawn, the dream autos (at least 2), the vacation house at either the coast or mountains or both, the job that pays a huge salary with no possibility of lay-offs, and a favorite football team that rarely loses and always goes to a BCS bowl. Many of us grew up thinking that something like this was indeed possible. Some may have thought that we actually deserve such a life. Within the Christian church, where we are much too sophisticated to believe in Santa Claus, we may have adopted a less obvious perfectionist dream.
I am referring now to the expectation that because the Bible commands certain ideals that all the real Christians in our world will live up to these ideals. Thus, the Christian husband expects that his Christian wife will always submit to him and will do so joyously (and, will always be beautiful while so doing). The Christian wife expects that her Christian husband will love her so completely as to never be thoughtless or selfish. The Christian parents expect that if they obey Proverbs they will never have a “foolish” son or daughter. The Christian pastor expects that if he is faithful to the Bible all true Christians will love him and his ministry. The regenerate church members expect that all other regenerate church members will treat them just as the Apostle Paul directs in his epistles. Most of all, Christians expect that if they believe, God will never disappoint their expectations. In much less subtle forms than just expressed, this kind of perfectionism is wounding its millions within Christianity. Marriages are failing, people are leaving churches and even organized religion, folk are suffering emotional breakdowns and worse–people are giving into anger and lust, all largely due to bitter disillusionment. Their expectations are failing. And, ultimately, God is blamed, if only very quietly. ‘Biblical religion does not work; thus, there is no reason to continue.’ To varying degrees this type of thinking is frighteningly common.
The problem is related to that form of perfectionism which we have supposedly rejected. We reject the idea or even possibility of entire sanctification; yet, we seem unprepared to live with the alternative. This is more than a theological truth: we live in a broken world and we are broken people. Redemption guarantees that we will be made entirely new and whole. We are entirely whole in our position before God through the mediation of Christ. Moreover, Christ is making us inwardly new. However, that is very much a work in progress. While we know that, we seem unwilling to live with the reality. Our spouses will never be what they are supposed to be. Our marriages will disappoint perfectionist expectations. Our children will not be perfect, in fact they will never be Christians apart from a work of God’s sovereign grace. They will not be what we want them to be simply because they are our children or because we try really hard to parent them well. Our fellow church members will struggle with sin, including sin against us, all the way to glory. In addition to all this, God is not going to grant all of our expectations because we have unwarranted expectations. In other words, life will be a struggle all the way to the end.
However, the reality is that God will be everything we need even in this broken world filled with broken dreams. He will supply us with special grace to cope with the disappointments of failed expectations. Perfection is not accessible but perfect grace is ours in Christ. He Himself will never leave us or forsake us; therefore, we may and must be content. Above all, we have a perfect future–an eternally perfect future.
The question is will we trust Him until we are there? Will we seek Him tirelessly for grace to be patient with all the struggling souls in our lives (including those living in our houses with us)? Will we be faithful to trust Christ for grace to perform our responsibilities toward others, even though we may receive little more than hurt in return? Will we do it for Christ because He is our hope and because He is worthy, not because it makes us immediately happy? Will we accept the fact that our perfectionist expectations are wrong?
Please understand, nothing said here excuses failure to do what we are commanded to do. However, the focus is upon the stiff fact that imperfection is an inescapable reality. Can we accept that and persevere in light of it? We need grace. We need Christ. We need a robust belief in Heaven. And, we need forbearance with others–the same kind of forbearance that we expect toward ourselves when we fail. Let us pray always and not faint over the weight of pressing after faithfulness in an imperfect and burdensome world.Gary Hendrix, Pastor Grace Reformed Baptist Church Mebane, North Carolina