The end of the line for Christian perfectionism is not perfection, but atheism. This is because what we imagine to be the constant unsatisfied look of God upon us, is a burden too heavy for any human to bear.
One of the biggest psychological studies on perfectionism was led by a team of researchers from several universities from Canada and Great Britain and published at the beginning of this year, in the Personality and Social Psychology Review journal. The study consisted of an analysis of 77 other studies, carried out over the course of 25 years, with 25,000 participants.1 The results made the researchers declare that they were “very troubled by what we have seen”.
“Young people today have more of a tendency to perfectionism than in the past. More precisely, we discovered that the incidence of perfectionism has grown exponentially from 1990 onwards,” said the psychologists. These results come as a confirmation of the first trans-generational comparative research regarding perfectionism: a meta-analysis of some studies published between 1989 and 2016 indicating the same growth tendency when it comes to the incidence of perfectionism, initiated a decade earlier than the British-Canadian study.
We might tend to believe these statistics foresee generations who are more and more fulfilled. However, what concerns the researchers is that, in reality, these statistics show that we have become increasingly ill, sad and prone to self-sabotage. Why? Because perfectionism, in time, eats away at one’s personality. Indeed, the mere acknowledgment of the fact that more and more people struggle with perfectionism is less interesting than the researchers’ remarks regarding the perfectionists’ evolution over time.
As they age, perfectionists start turning their predispositions into self-damage, psychologists discovered.
Their personalities becomes more and more neurotic, that is, more prone to negative emotions, like guilt, envy, anxiety and, counterintuitively, they become less meticulous. (According to a very popular classification of the types of personalities, meticulousness is seen as an innate predisposition towards organisation, efficiency and self-discipline.)
The surprise, therefore, is that people who aim at perfection, in time, tend to erode exactly those qualities that would help them evolve to a higher standard. In fact, said Sarah Egan, senior researcher at Curtin University (Great Britain), “the more of a perfectionist you are, the more you will suffer from mental disorder”.
“Perfectionists transition towards burnout as they age”, said researchers, “which makes them more unstable and less perseverant.” A study with a bold title—“Too imperfect to fall asleep”—correlated insomnia with the perfectionist’s predisposition to recur to counterfactual thinking and to feel counterfactual emotions (regret, shame and guilt) before going to sleep. This is shown to disrupt sleep. Worrying about mistakes or doubting about the best course of personal action have been strongly correlated to severe insomnia, while simple organisational thoughts do not show the same correlation.
Sleep disorders cause a long chain of harmful consequences for both the body and the mind.
Popular culture gives a wrong definition of perfectionism
Clinical studies on perfectionism over time suggest that it might be a factor which predisposes and perpetuates a wide range of psychopathological states, from anxiety to depression, and even eating disorders2.
What is then the explanation for the popularity of the clichéd answer to a job interview: “My flaw is that I am perfectionist”?
Analysts from the Harvard Business Review say that the explanation is supported by two types of perfectionism: one centred on an effort to achieve excellence, which is positive and would pay off at work. The other one is centred on avoiding failure, which is a paralysing attitude for work efficiency, and its result is stress, workaholism, anxiety and depression.
Culturally, we are used to seeing something good in perfectionism, a trait of those who achieve excellence. Andrew Hill, research psychologist at St. John University in York, however, said that “although there have been some suggestions that, in some cases, perfectionism might be healthy and desirable, based on 60 studies I carried out in the field, I would say this is a misunderstanding”. Hill is convinced that “working hard, being devoted and persevering are, of course, desirable traits. But, in the case of a perfectionist, these are actually symptoms or side effects of perfectionism. Perfectionism does not imply high standards, but unrealistic ones.” Perhaps even clearer than this, Hill says that “perfectionism is not a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.”
Perfectionism does not imply high standards, but unrealistic ones.
From afar, it seems there is no difference between a meticulous person (as a personality trait) and a perfectionist. However, time and the reaction of the two types of personality to challenges or failure clearly reveal the differences. A perfectionist is capable of turning “a light breeze into a fifth-category hurricane”, says writer Amanda Rugger, a self-declared perfectionist. “A perfectionist feels every bump on the road”, says Andrew Hill. “Perfectionists are quite stress-sensitive.” When faced with failure, studies show, perfectionists feel much more guilt, shame and anger than non-perfectionists. And they give up more easily. When things cannot be perfect, a perfectionist will try to mentally recover by simply giving up. “Their technique to cope with negative situations is, generally, to avoid them”, explains Hill. For a perfectionist, performances are one with their own identity. That is why, when they fail to reach a goal, perfectionists not only feel they failed to reach that goal, but they themselves feel like failures. And this last point reveals both the reason why the perfectionist sometimes wears a religious disguise, and why this should not happen.
A not so unique perfectionist species
“Many sincere Christians express dissatisfaction over the fact that they continually fall short of perfection. Many admit of continual failure in the spiritual life, of repeating sins again and again, of giving way to patterns of habit contrary to the life of Christ. When they read the command of Christ: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as Your heavenly Father is perfect’, the effect is both condemnation and discouragement”.3
Christian perfectionists “are genuinely Christ-centered. They have a great grasp of the gospel and delight to share it. They are disciplined in prayer and service. (…) Precisely because their consciences are sensitive, they are often ashamed by their own failures—the secret resentment that slips in, the unguarded word, the wandering eye, the pride of life, the self-focus that really does preclude loving one’s neighbor as oneself. To other believers who watch them, they are among the most intense, disciplined, and holy believers we know; to themselves, they are virulent failures, inconsistent followers, mere Peters who regularly betray their Master and weep bitterly.”4
This is the portrait of the Christian perfectionist, seen from outside as an astounding model of consecration; however, self-perceived as a spiritual fiasco due to the inability to continuously honour his values.
In the emotional backstage of Christian perfectionism lies a certain theological interpretation of perfection and the Christ-centred life, which, as we will see, is not biblically accurate. Man does not have to become obsessed with Christ’s perfection, but to allow Christ, who is perfect, to live in him. He must not seek to be perfect for Christ’s sake, but to allow Christ to complete His perfect work in him.
The vision of traditional Christianity
All Christians believe that, following their conversion, their sinful nature will be radically transformed and that God’s image will once more be flawlessly reflected in them. However, there is no consensus among Christian denominations on the moment in which this transformation—glorification, in theological terms—takes place.
The Church Fathers, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen believed and taught that perfection is the final stage of spiritual maturity, which was to be reached after a constant crescendo where falling no longer occurred: perfection at the end of perfection. Thomas d’Aquino saw three possible levels of perfection: absolute perfection, which belongs exclusively to God; an intermediary perfection, possible after one’s death, not while one is still alive, as a result of constantly being filled with God’s love; and an inferior perfection, attainable even during one’s lifetime.
Catholicism perpetuated this vision. Defining perfection as fullness in nature or purpose and stating that humanity’s final purpose is the perfection of its communion with God, it declared that absolute union with God is not possible on this earth.5 However, it proclaimed that, during his earthly existence, man can attain “relative perfection”.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the universal teaching of the Church Fathers and theologians” states that relative perfection is a supernatural state of union with God, from which bliss (unmediated knowledge of God, only possible in Heaven) is excluded. This state is, however, characterised by human suffering, rebellious passions and even venial (light) sins, “for which man would be directly held accountable if it were not for a special kind of grace and privilege given by God”. “This perfection consists of charity”, notes the encyclopedia, using the same word, “charity”, as a synonym for love: “Deus caritas est: et qui manet in caritate, in Deo manet, et Deus in eo” (1 John 4:16: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”)6
Apart from the perfection accessible to all Christians, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes the existence of a superior perfection, which is reserved for members of the religious order who willfully submit to certain spiritual disciplines, additional to keeping the Ten Commandments.
The Wesleyan vision
Protestant reformers, in general, deem perfection to be a gift God gives to the faithful only after their death. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had a different vision which he thoroughly presented in his work, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, published in 1766. Wesley believed man’s spiritual regeneration was the beginning of his sanctification. In Wesley’s vision, the Christian would attain perfection when the sanctification process was complete, which resulted in “the purity of intention”, “dedicating one’s entire life to God”, “loving God with all our hearts” and “renewal of the heart in the fullness of God’s image”.7
Christians who had become perfect in love, could still sin, but not intentionally. In Thoughts on Christian Perfection, Wesley wrote that perfection was received by “a zealous keeping of all the commandments, in watchfulness and painfulness, in denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily; as well as in earnest prayer and fasting and close attendance on all the ordinances of God. (…) ‘Tis true we receive it by simple faith. But God does not, will not, give that faith, unless we seek it with all diligence in the way which he hath ordained”8.
The Methodist doctrine regarding “entire sanctification”, or, to be more precise, spreading this doctrine into other Christian denominations, was seen by the Methodist Church as the reason God brought this Church into existence.9
However, contemporary Methodist historians and theologians say that the new generations of Methodists have adopted a more respectable version in the eyes of other denominations, although the possibility that a Christian can attain perfection in this life (gradual and instantaneous) is still official church doctrine10.
Theology professor, D.A. Carson, said that, a century ago, Wesley’s ideas have been extrapolated by the theology of the movement Higher Life, by Keswick, who contends that the believer must advance past his initial conversion and experience a “second work” of God in his life, or, to be more precise, “absolute sanctification”, “the second blessing”, “the second touch” or “the filling with the Holy Spirit”.
Although followers of the doctrine stating that perfection might be possible during this lifetime are very few today, this does not prevent perfectionism from making its way into the religious experience of those who believe glorification will occur at the resurrection, says Carson. This is the dilemma of the believers who, as Carson said, “know glorification will take place in the future, but who are equally convinced that the gospel is God’s saving power, that Christians have not just been justified but also regenerated, and that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on them so that sin no longer rules over them and so that each sin may be found inexcusable.”11
In other words, although, from a doctrinal point of view, they know perfection lies somewhere on the horizon, in practice, some Christians drown themselves in the despair of their confrontation with sin because they know they should have already overcome it.
In an editorial published in 2010, Carson suggested that, even after the publishing of “the most comprehensive treaty” regarding the theology of perfectionism, by B.B. Warfield, the appropriate response to the idea of perfectionism remains “essentially unanswered”. Although disconcerting, coming from a scholar like Carson, his evaluation receives a practical nuance.
The theologian admits that Scripture is binary when it comes to moral issues, meaning it presents good and evil using a thoroughly pedagogical antithesis. For example, Carson says that apocalyptic literature puts Christ’s followers in antithesis with their evil opponents. “There is nothing in between”, says Carson. In the wisdom literature of the Old Testament we also come across antithesis, between folly and wisdom, which can never coexist in a human being. “The Lord Jesus can preach in many ways, one of them being the wisdom of polarisation: for instance, think about the antithesis at the end of the Sermon on the Mount”, wrote Carson, referring to statements such as: “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man (…); everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man” (Matthew 7:24, 26). However, next to verses which clearly refer to a perfection desirable in this lifetime, the Bible contains, as the theologian pointed out, “numerous narrative passages in which God’s people are described with all their inconsistencies, with their spectacular faith moments and their deepest ugliness. Abraham, God’s friend, repeatedly utters half-truths; Moses, the humblest of men, loses his temper and, consequently, does not get to enter the Promised Land; David, a man after God’s own heart, commits adultery and murder; Peter, (…) the preacher at Pentecost, acts and talks with so little insight, that he deserves Jesus’ and Paul’s rebukes.”11
One might accuse Carson of suffering from spiritual shortsightedness, mentioning sins that were rather exceptions in the spiritual experience of the heroes of faith and paying too little attention to the many more instances in which the patriarchs did not break the law.
The present discussion, however, does not focus on the quality of their faith, but on the attributes of their characters. To be more exact, it proves that, although they had a truly exemplary faith, none of the spiritual fathers had a perfect nature on this earth.
Carson’s conclusion is that “we need the unflinching standards of absolute polarity in order to avoid moral flabbiness and, in this broken world, we need the earnest realism of these narratives which guard us against both arrogance and desperation.”12 He admits that we can see both of them accurately only when we hold them up to Christ’s cross—a symbol of God’s unconditional love for mankind.
Carson’s editorial ends without concretely pointing out what this joining means. However, a few writings of Adventist theologian Edward Heppenstall complete this picture. Heppenstall, a major influence in the development of Adventist theology on this matter, was convinced that “if there is one single truth to be centrally exposed in Scripture by the experience of all true believers which have come to know God’s saving power, then that is that the only perfection, the only righteousness they have ever seen or known is that of Jesus Christ, the only perfect and righteous man; and that they owe their entire salvation, righteousness and perfection to Jesus.”12
Heppenstall wrote that “in order to fully enjoy Christ’s salvation, any believer must learn one truth: his need to remain in Christ, to continuously keep his eyes fixed on Him, to depend on Him and to fully trust His righteousness. God’s salvation method does not involve eradicating the sinful nature, but counteracting it with divine power through the Holy Spirit. It is only through the Spirit’s counteractive presence that we can defeat sin and the sinful nature within us.”
From Heppenstall’s perspective, salvation “only through Christ” means that human nature’s inclination towards sin is too strong to be managed outside the permanent trust in Christ and in His power to deliver us from sin.
“Peter sank in the waves the moment he stopped looking at Christ. He sank because he had the tendency to sink. The only thing that kept him above the water was Christ’s power, temporarily manifested to counteract the gravitational force pulling him under. The same happens in the Christian life.”
Love is the goal
The perfectionist Christian (but not the lazy one) can extract his own remedies from theology. First of all, we should not focus on our own mistakes, thus spiraling down towards self-centeredness, but focus on God’s unshakeable love, which is worthier of our attention and time. Science has already documented the fact that, when compassion comes between perfectionism and depression, it manages to break this otherwise inevitable succession.13
What’s interesting is that psychologists have also already mapped out the crooked road of perfectionism, showing that instead of elevating man it actually flattens his personality. This might be what Solomon meant when advising the reader of Ecclesiastes: “Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool—why die before your time?”
Secondly, the Christian may notice that, by endowing mankind with freewill, God positioned Himself opposite to the image of the strict, control-obsessed parent.
Reformed Evangelical theologian, Kevin DeYoung, would respond to perfectionist Christians by challenging the logic on which they base their image of God: “Why do we imagine God to be so unmoved by our heart-felt attempts at obedience? He is, after all, our heavenly Father. What sort of father looks at his daughter’s homemade birthday card and complains that the color scheme is all wrong? What kind of mother says to her son, after he gladly cleaned the garage but put the paint cans on the wrong shelf, ‘This is worthless in my sight’?”
If a parent is capable of being compassionate in such situations, all the more will our Heavenly Father, who defines Himself as being love, show compassion towards man’s limited efforts.
In the movie The Man Who Knew Infinity there’s dialogue whose eloquence cannot be blotted out, not even by its fictional nature. In an alley off the courtyard of the University of Cambridge, the mathematician G.H. Hardy walks with hurried footsteps, accompanied by two oddities: an umbrella—even though outside there is no sign of rain—and an Indian student dressed in ragged clothes. It’s a surprise even for the one who would go down in history as the brilliant Srinivasa Ramanujan, that the teacher whom he admires is walking around with an open umbrella on a sunny day like that. “God and I don’t see exactly eye to eye: so if I prepare for rain, then it won’t. So far, so good.” He puts the umbrella aside, and, frowning because of the light, he lifts his eyes up towards the sky: “I am Hardy and I am spending the afternoon in the library!”. He then looks at Ramanujan: “Now we’re sure to have sunshine. You see, I am what you call an ‘atheist’”. “No, sir”, the apprentice shoots back, “you believe in God, you just don’t think He likes you.”
Instead of becoming absorbed in the attempt to form an image of their own shortcomings, from point to point, Christians would benefit far more by focusing their efforts on forming a realistic image of God. Even the failed effort to know an infinite God is more valuable than the successful attempt to know man’s limitations, down to their most humiliating details.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.