A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

Just Right: Perfectionism vs. the Pursuit of Excellence


(Okay, those of you who know me personally: thou shalt not laugh.)

I used to think I was a perfectionist.

Those of you who do frequently interact with me in person—especially the detailed ones (you know who you are)—know that, I am intentional about many things. I am even precise: about words, art, and music, for example. WordPress says I revised this post no less than thirteen times. However…I am not detailed.

Following recipes exactly feels restrictive. Math, though necessary, is annoying to me. And when it comes to housekeeping, I have this little problem seeing filth; the flexibility that allows me to thrive cross-culturally also occasionally means I am not overly bothered by disorder. One of my friends laughs because when she arrives, I always run to put in the bathroom a hand towel that, well, I only remember to put out when she visits (she asked me for one once, and I am often picky in my attempts to please people).

This year (about two decades later), I finally pinpointed something: The reason I thought I was a perfectionist was actually because I hated my own failure.

(I’m not speaking for any other perfectionists, so all of you truly detailed people can relax.)


What’s the Difference?

Recently I heard psychotherapist and author Timothy Sanford helpfully differentiate between pursuing excellence and perfectionism.[1]  Here’s how I interpreted it:

FOCUS: pursuing achievable reality chasing the ideal (which is in truth, a fantasy); avoiding failure
PERSPECTIVE: includes all the circumstances in the “now”; considers all the factors affecting the outcome considers only the ideal end result, and what didn’t go perfectly (and shouldn’t I have seen that coming?)
SELF-TALK: considers the choices we have in our capacity to make schemes, forces, and/or manipulates a bit at times to gain our desired outcome

So where do holiness and self-discipline fit into all this? Doesn’t God say to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”? Shouldn’t we have zero tolerance for our weakness and sin?

When I was in high school, running hard after God, I really thought–if I could have one thing in the world–I wanted holiness. It sounds all uber-spiritual, I think. I mean, it wasn’t like I longed for unlimited leisure drugs or something.

But looking back, I actually think what I wanted…was to be perfect.

There in my leaking insecurity and steadfast identity in my accomplishments, I longed to be unchained from all my weaknesses and flaws. Yet as God shapes me deep inside, I have come to see holiness less as freedom from wrong and weakness.

Now, stay with me here. I don’t really believe, anymore, that holiness strictly lies in the perfection of my outward behavior. After all, my heart’s kind of a rotting onion: the further I peel into  knowledge of myself and God, the more underlying junk of my own is flayed open.


Author J.D. Greear writes,

There are only two kinds of religions: those that teach you to obey in order to be accepted; and those that teach that you obey because you are accepted. In every story…from the Bible…God confronts attempts at self-salvation[2, emphasis added]

Holiness now, rather than falling into fear–of failure; of weakness; of not being accepted–instead is falling into faith that I am unconditionally, overwhelmingly loved, accepted, and thankfully not in control. Rather than caught up in my ability to perform, holiness feels much more conscious of who I’m not; of just how–through Whom–I get to God. It seems more of a set-apartness, a nearness to God—where slowly He changes from the heart what I long for. I am no longer simply straitjacketing my behavior. Ultimately, I’m less and less focused on me and my rather sketchy (hand-towel-deprived) performance anyway.

Rather than strict control of my outward performance, holiness now feels like an act of worship, a jealousy for my life to be only His. True holiness, I think, has God as its source and object; perfectionism has myself as its source and object. You could say my behavior now more genuinely emerges (yes, through self-discipline) from my love for God, rather than a feverish clawing for His acceptance.

Honestly, His performance is a lot more reliable than mine. My ability to achieve seems to melt away in the presence of that kind of perfection.

Holiness is, in fact, an utter reliance on performance–on perfection. Just not mine.



[1] From Stoop, Dr. David. Hope for the Perfectionist.

[2] Greear, J.D. Breaking the Islam Code. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers (2010), p. 102. Kindle version.


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  1. 1 Peter 1:15
    But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct,

    Hebrews 12:14 ESV
    Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

    To be sure, biblical terms translated “holy” or “holiness” (qadosh, hagios) carry a strong secondary connotation of moral purity. But moral purity is not, first and foremost, what Scripture is talking about. Instead, the most basic meaning of the word is to be “set apart” or “dedicated” to God—to belong to God. “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” says Yahweh (Lev. 26:12; Heb. 8:10). Thus, prior to any consideration of morality, biblical holiness describes a unique relationship that God has established and desires with his people. This relationship has moral ramifications, but it precedes moral behavior. Before we are ever called to be good, we are called to be holy. Unless we rightly understand and affirm the primacy of this relationship, we fall into the inevitable trap of reducing holiness to mere morality.

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