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The Gospel Calls Us to Perfection, Not Perfectionism

Holiness is a hard challenge. The key is surrender, not striving.

I’ve been called an overachiever. In elementary school, I considered a B-plus an abject failure, and I was updating my résumé before most kids could spell the word. I used to return my high-school boyfriend’s love letters to him spellchecked—in red ink. A journalism colleague once predicted that given where I was at age 25, my next career move would be a midlife crisis.

You don’t have to be a congenital perfectionist like me to have a problem with perfectionism. Nor must you demand flawlessness in every part of your life. Perfectionism is simply an addiction to control and a refusal to accept imperfection in some human endeavor. Looking at our culture today, I’d say a whole lot of folks suffer from that.

What other common thread links today’s Tiger Moms and Helicopter Coaches, work martyrs who won’t take their vacation days, and exercise addicts who anguish over missed workouts? What connects our soaring rates of pharmaceutical addictions and eating disorders, our escalating levels of anxiety and depression, our epidemic of credit card debt, and the explosive popularity of cosmetic surgery? Many factors contribute to these trends, yes, but a key driver is our demand for perfection.

For believers, spiritual perfectionism is an equally pervasive and insidious problem. It’s dangerous precisely because so many of us mistake it for a virtue. Spiritual perfectionism is that same obsession with control and flawlessness transposed into our relationship with God. It’s rooted in the lie that we can earn God’s love and work our way to heaven. Most of us know better than to think that out loud, and yet we often live like we believe it.

Over the years, I’ve learned …

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