Perfectionists must experience healing of their emotional wounds before they can accept God’s forgiveness.

Perfectionism is the most disturbing emotional problem among evangelical Christians. It walks into my office more often than any other single Christian hang-up.

What is perfectionism? It is a lot easier to describe than to define, so let us picture some of its symptoms.

1. Tyranny of the Ought. The chief characteristic of perfectionism is a constant, overall feeling of never doing well enough or being good enough. Karen Horney’s classic phrase describes it perfectly: “Perfectionism is the tyranny of the oughts.” “I ought to do better.” “I ought to have done better.” “I ought to be able to do better.” That goes from preparing a meal to praying to witnessing. The three favorite phrases of the perfectionist are: could have, should have, and would have. Always standing on tiptoe, always reaching, stretching, trying, but never quite making it.

2. Self-depreciation. If one does not feel good enough, he is likely to feel a continuous sense of low self-esteem, or self-depreciation, that leads to the feeling that God is never really pleased with him either. God is thought of as always saying, “Come on now, you can do better than that!” To which the perfectionist replies, “Of course.” Then he puts on his Avis button and tries a little harder. But try as he will, he always remains in second place, not first. Since he and God always demand first place, second is not quite good enough. So, back to the grindstone, back to the spiritual treadmill, back to the spiritual salt mines goes the perfectionist, with increased efforts to please himself and an increasingly demanding God, who is never quite satisfied.

3. Anxiety. The oughts and self-depreciation produce an oversensitive conscience with an overarching umbrella of guilt, anxiety, and condemnation. A great cloud hangs over the perfectionist’s head. It lifts once in a while; the sun shines through occasionally, like during revivals, deeper life conferences, and camp meetings, when he goes to the altar and prays and gets “reclaimed,” or “sanctified,” or “filled with the Spirit.” But it lasts just about as long as it did the previous time he made the same trip, went through the same process, and claimed the same blessing. Soon he falls off of spiritual cloud nine with a sickening thud. Try as he may, that general sense of divine disapproval—that condemnation—returns, nagging, knocking at the back door of his soul.

4. Legalism. The oversensitive conscience and the guilt of the perfectionist are usually accompanied by a great scrupulosity and legalism that rigidly overemphasize externals, do’s and don’ts, rules, and regulations. Why does legalism almost inevitably follow the first three symptoms of perfectionism?

The perfectionist, with his oversensitive conscience, his low self-esteem, and false sense of guilt, is naturally very sensitive to what other people think about him. Since he does not like himself, does not approve of himself, and is quite unsure of God’s approval, he desperately needs the approval of other people. He is easy prey to the opinions of other Christians. All the while the do’s and the don’ts are piling up, because more and more people have to be pleased. His halo has to be adjusted for this person, and readjusted for that one. He keeps fitting it this way and that way, and before he realizes what is happening, his halo has become what Paul called “a yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1).

The good news of God’s grace had broken into the lives of the Galatians and freed them from the spiritual yoke of the law. God’s way is not the way of perfect performance. No matter how much we try, we can never win God’s favor, Why? Because his favor, his being pleased with us, is a love gift of his grace.

Article continues below

To the Galatians, this seemed too good to be true, and they began to listen to voices in the marketplace. Maybe they listened to the Jerusalem legalists who said they had to keep all the law, including the ceremonial law. Maybe they listened to the Colossian asceticists who majored in giving up things in order to please God, observing special days and new moons and sabbaths. “They insisted on deliberate low self-esteem” (Col. 2:18). On “self-abasement.” They insisted on what Paul called regulations. Don’t handle this, don’t touch that, don’t taste this. Paul said. “Oh, they have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23).

The Jerusalem legalists and the Colossian asceticists produced the Galatian dilutionists, the Galatian reversionists, They reverted to a mixture of faith and works, law and grace. When they mix law and grace, immature and sensitive believers can turn into emotionally neurotic perfectionists. They become guilt-ridden, overloaded, tight-haloed, unhappy, and uncomfortably yoked Christians. They are rigid in their outlook, frigid in their lovelessness, conforming to the approval and disapproval of others. Yet, paradoxically, they critically judge, and blame, and bind those same others.

5. Anger. The worst is yet to come. The perfectionist may not realize it, but down deep in his heart a kind of anger develops, a resentment against the oughts, against the Christian faith, against other Christians, against himself, and saddest of all, against God. Not really against the true God, not against the gracious, loving, self-giving God who has come to us in Jesus Christ. Their resentment is against a caricature of God. The perfectionist’s God is never satisfied, no matter how hard he tries, no matter what he gives up. This cruel god always ups the ante just a little, always demands a bit more, and then says, “Sorry, that wasn’t quite good enough.”

6. Denial. Sometimes the anger is recognized, the legalistic tyranny is seen for what it is: a desperate Satanic substitute for, or dilution of, true Christian perfection. Sometimes the perfectionist works through this, finds grace, and is marvelously set free. But too often the anger is never faced. Instead it is denied. The mixture of bad theology, legalism, sanctification by performance becomes frozen. Deep emotional problems set in. Mood changes are so great and so terrible that the person feels as if he is two different people.

Sometimes the strain becomes too much and one of two things happens: either there is a breakaway or a breakdown. One-third to one-half of my time is spent counseling people who have broken away. The person who breaks away just throws the whole thing over. He doesn’t become an unbeliever. He believes with his head, but he can’t believe with his heart. Perfectionism is impossible to live up to. He’s tried it so many times, and it has made him so miserable that he just leaves it behind and quits.

Others suffer a breakdown. The load is too heavy to bear. That’s what happened to Joseph R. Cooke, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington. A brilliant Ph.D., he was well trained in biblical theology and became a missionary teacher to Thailand. But after a few years, he left the mission field a broken man. A nervous breakdown left him unable any longer to preach, or teach, or even to read his Bible. As he put it, “I was a burden to my wife and useless to God and to others.” How did it happen?

Dr. Cooke tells about it in Free for the Taking (Revell). These are his words: “I invented an impossible God, and I had a nervous breakdown.” He believed in grace, he even taught it. But his real feelings about the God he lived with day by day did not correspond with his teaching. His God was nongracious and unpleasable. “God’s demands of me were so high, and his opinion of me was so low, there was no way for me to live except under his frown.… All day long He nagged me. “Why don’t you pray more? Why don’t you witness more? When will you ever learn self-discipline? How can you allow yourself to indulge in such wicked thoughts? Do this. Don’t do that. Yield, confess, work harder.’ … God was always using his love against me. He’d show me his nail-pierced hands, and then he would look at me glaringly and say, ‘Well, why aren’t you a better Christian? Get busy and live the way you ought to.’ … Most of all, I had a God who down underneath considered me to be less than dirt. Oh, he made a great ado about loving me but I believed that the day-to-day love and acceptance I longed for could only be mine if I let him crush nearly everything that was really me. When I came down to it, there was scarcely a word, or a feeling, or a thought, or a decision of mine that God really liked.”

Article continues below

It is understandable why a sincere Christian who feels this way would have a total breakdown. After years of preaching and counseling and praying with evangelical Christians, I know that this disease of perfectionism is very common in the churches.

There is only one ultimate cure for perfectionism: it is profound and yet as simple as the word grace. In the New Testament this word has a special meaning: “freely given, undeserved, unmerited, unearnable, and unrepayable favor.” It means that God’s loving acceptance of us has nothing to do with our worthiness, nothing to do with what we deserve. Grace is the face God wears when he meets our imperfection, sin, weakness, and failure. Grace is what God is, and what God does, when he meets the sinful and undeserving. Grace is pure gift, free for the taking. The perfectionist begins with some initial experience of grace in salvation or sanctification, and then moves into a life lived by effort and perfect performance. The day-to-day healing of the perfectionist takes place in his day-to-day believing, realizing his grace relationship with a loving, caring, heavenly Father.

But there is the rub, for sometimes this cannot happen. The realization of grace cannot be maintained by some people without a deep, inner healing of their past. God’s care cannot be felt by them without a “reprogramming” of all the bad that has been put into them by parents and family and teachers and preachers.

These perfectionists have been programmed to unrealistic expectations, impossible performance, conditional love, and a subtle theology of works. They cannot get rid of that overnight. No trip to the altar will automatically change that. The change requires time, understanding, healing, and above all, reprogramming—the renewal of the mind that brings transformation.

This is how it happened in one young man’s life. Don was raised in a very strict evangelical family. Everything they believed in their heads was right and everything they practiced in interpersonal relationships was wrong. Don was taught one thing, but he caught an opposite message, and he was in great conflict.

Don grew up with unpredictable, conditional love. He was given to understand from his earliest infancy and childhood, “You will be loved if.…” “We will accept and approve of you when.…” “You will be loved because of … if you.…” He grew up feeling that he never pleased his parents.

Don came to see me as a young adult in his thirties because of his depressions. They were more frequent and lasting longer, and he was frightened. Some well-meaning friends made it worse by telling him that his problem was entirely spiritual. They said, “Truly spirit-filled Christians never have such feelings. They always feel joy and praise for God.” Don had a double sense of guilt: he had a problem, and he felt guilty because he had the problem.

Article continues below

It wasn’t easy for him to accept and to understand God’s love and grace, and to feel it at the gut level. It sounds very easy, but when every single experience in interpersonal relationships from childhood to adulthood contradicts grace and love, it is very difficult to believe it and feel it.

Don had an additional problem. During those down times of deep depression, he had entered into wrong relationships with girls. He used first one girl, and then another, to help him pull out of his depression. That was sin, and he knew it. Such misuse of another person added to his guilt, so he had real guilt on top of his pseudoguilt. Again and again he had gone through the whole cycle of tears, repentance, salvation, renewed promises, only to break them later.

During a year of counseling, there was healing and reprogramming. Don tried many times to maneuver me into rejecting him, to withdrawing my loving acceptance of him. He was trying to get me to act like his mom and dad did, and to act the way he thought God did. Slowly, but surely, Don discovered grace in God’s incredible and unconditional acceptance of him as a person. He got more control over his thoughts and his actions. His depressions began to lift, until now he has the normal ups and downs that we all have. Whenever I see Don alone, he comes up and smiles and says, “Doc, it’s still too good to be true, but it’s still true!”

That’s the message. The trouble with the perfectionist is that he has been programmed to think it is too good to be true.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.