When I finally came to the life-changing realization that I was a perfectionist, I told a close friend. She laughed. It was already obvious to her then, and in hindsight, it’s obvious to me now. Still, by the time I recognized it, perfectionism had already marked my walk with God for decades.

Psychologists who study perfectionism define it as a personality disposition characterized by extremely high standards and overly critical self-evaluations. These two characteristics are known as “perfectionistic strivings” and “perfectionistic concerns.” Most perfectionists don’t experience perfectionistic strivings and concerns in all areas of life. Rather, their perfectionism is focused on select domains such as sports, work, academics, relationships, physical appearance, or—as is my case, and that of many Christians— spirituality.

I am a Christian perfectionist. My perfectionism is an anti-Midas, turning moments dark at the slightest touch. It twists my view of the past. While I know it’s not fair to expect, say, 19-year-old me to have acted as I would now, when I look back, my predominant feeling is often regret. I should have cared more, known better, been different.

Perfectionism keeps me second-guessing my choices too. It brushes against the desires I have to do good, and what was once a joyful, exciting opportunity to love others becomes beset with self-doubt and questioning. Am I doing this for the right reasons? Is this really God’s will? What if I do more harm than good?

In the past, when I suffered larger failures and committed bigger sins, I often plunged into despair. You will never be good enough. You’re fake. Are you sure you’re a Christian? You are so self-centered, even now in your supposed repentance. Nowadays, my perfectionism tends to be subtler: a low-level guilt or anxiety lurking in my gut when I’m trying to rest; the feeling at the end of the day that I didn’t do all I should have, even when I’m not sure what I neglected.

Fear of failure, rumination about past mistakes, decision paralysis—given how distressing perfectionistic concerns are, it can feel natural to conclude that our perfectionistic strivings are themselves the problem. That is, the problem with perfectionists is that we want to be perfect.

This is the assumption behind advice commonly given to Christian perfectionists: Focus on loving others instead. Believe the gospel more. Be humbler. Repent of your perfectionism. Just stop trying so hard. Not only do these proposed solutions often effectively add to our running lists of things we need to change about ourselves—to truly be perfect, we need to stop being perfectionists—they imply that our problem is a misguided, possibly sinful, desire for perfection.

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But is that really it? Are we wrong to want to be perfect? Is the pursuit of perfection a fool’s errand—or, even worse, a symptom of people-pleasing, pride, or gospel-less religion, as some might suggest? Or could it be that something more is going on?

Years ago, I stumbled upon an editorial by theologian D. A. Carson that shed much-needed light on the heart of my own perfectionism. In “Perfectionisms,” published in Themelios, Carson describes genuine, Christ-centered believers who understand and love the gospel yet still struggle with despair over their sin. Up until then, I’d largely heard Christians address perfectionism in terms of pride or unbelief in the gospel. But Carson writes of a “species” of perfectionism that isn’t a matter of ego or doctrine. Rather, those who struggle with this type of perfectionism are “so uncomfortable with their wrestlings [over sin] because they know they ought to be better.”

This is the crux of the Christian perfectionist’s struggle: We ought to be better, and we know it. At the heart of it, we aren’t legalistically trying to earn our salvation or seek people’s praise. Rather, aiming to run hard after God, we feel daily the weight of our failures to love him and neighbor as we should. Most Christian perfectionists, buckling under the weight of a tortured conscience, sorrowful over even the smallest of sins, and desperately wanting to do right by God, are longing for a perfection commanded by God himself (Matt. 5:48).

So, the question remains: If the solution isn’t to stop striving for perfection, what do we do about our “perfectionistic concerns”? How can we pursue holiness without constant self-doubt when we know we’re going to sin again? How can we seek to obey God without being paralyzed by fear of stumbling? How can we have peace and joy in relationship with God when we keep failing him?

In other words, how can a Christian perfectionist find rest?

Jesus once spoke to those exhausted in their pursuit of God. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” he said. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30).

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Although this passage is often used to encourage those who are tired in a general sense, Jesus was addressing something more specific and of particular help to the Christian perfectionist. In The Coming of the Kingdom, theologian Herman Ridderbos explains that the language of “yoke” was used in the Jewish tradition to refer to a confession of monotheism and a commitment of obedience to God’s law. This yoke was “taken up” when a person became Jewish and whenever they obeyed the law.

Laboring under the harsh standards imposed by the Jewish religious leaders, though, Jesus’ listeners had grown weary under what they thought were God’s demands. The religious teachers of the day had tied up heavy burdens and laid them on their followers without lifting a finger to help (Matt. 23:4). Knowing this, Jesus says, Take up my commandments, my yoke and my burden; learn from me instead.

Twice in this short passage Jesus promises rest, hearkening back to God’s words through the prophet Jeremiah: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (6:16, emphasis mine). Where is this ancient path? This good way we can walk in without weariness? It is with me, says Jesus. The rest Jesus promises we’ll find is the rest he gives, and we receive it in relationship with him.

Perfectionism is complicated. Its causes are varied and there is no quick fix to the anxiety, guilt, and scrupulosity that plague us. Thankfully, Jesus knows this, so his word to the weary is not simply do this or believe this more. It is relational. Come to me. Learn from me. As Christian perfectionists come to know God as he truly is, we will find that he is far more gracious, patient, gentle, righteous, and merciful than we may have dared to believe. And as we experience the way he deals bountifully with in-process people like us, our souls will begin to find the rest we desperately need (Ps. 116:7).

Our Savior does not berate us for being weary or shame us for our guilt. He sees us as we—failing him and eaten up inside because of it—do our best to follow him. Thus, with compassion, his invitation goes out: Christian perfectionist, come. Find rest for your soul.

Faith Chang is the author of Peace over Perfection. She serves at Grace Christian Church of Staten Island and on the editorial board of SOLA Network.

This article has been adapted from Peace over Perfection by Faith Chang. Published by The Good Book Company 2024 and used by permission.