I have a confession. I am recovering from perfectionism.
On the surface, perfectionism doesn’t seem like a bad thing. After all, what is wrong with wanting the best. According to Robert McGee in Search For Significance perfectionism can lead to compulsion or withdraw. Lately, I have seen this vicious cycle in my own life.
For those who don’t know, I have been looking for a job for the past couple of months. I tend to go after jobs with a lot of energy. Submitting resumes and writing cover letters with gusto, until I get rejected. Then I fall into despair, feeling angry, frustrated, and like a failure.
Rinse, recycle, repeat. If only there was some truth that could set me free from this vicious cycle.
To all the perfectionist out there, I bring you the good news.
Jesus bought you through his sacrifice on the cross.
The basic gospel message: Jesus paid the debt that we could not pay to free us from sin. So your performance doesn’t matter. Jesus has done it all. Just believe in Jesus and he will look on you as righteous.
It sounds good until you start asking questions.
Who did Jesus pay? If it’s God, well then God doesn’t sound very loving. What kind of loving father would condemn his only son to a painful death to satisfy some sick sense of justice? If it’s the devil then that’s even more problematic. Jesus aka God shouldn’t owe the devil anything. Maybe it is the debt of sin itself? Yet if that was the case, why not just cancel everyone’s sins? You don’t need the theatrics or the sacrifice.
Also, why would God be merely content to call us righteous rather than making us righteous? After all, didn’t what God spoke in creation come to pass? For example, didn’t God say let there be light and there was light? So when God calls me righteous, wouldn’t I become internally righteous?
We must have a proper understanding of justification and atonement, otherwise, we fall into either despair or perfectionism.
Justification: the Truth that Combats Perfectionism
Robert S. McGee states that to eradicate the fear of failure, we must accept that Christ died for our sins. We must accept that Christ takes our sins and covers us with His righteousness. Since Christ has done it all, there’s nothing I can do. It all just seems too easy. Thus, justification is the forgiveness of sins and the declaration of righteousness.
Is it just me or does it feel like something is missing? Under this framework, there is no room for becoming a new creation. Yet St. Paul clearly says,
17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 2 Corinthians 5:17
God does justify us as a free gift in response to faith. This justification accomplishes two things. First, it forgives our sins, and second, it makes us a new creation. God is not content to declare us righteous rather he wants to make us righteous.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him, we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Romans 5:1-2
Since Paul says we can hope in sharing the glory of God, we know that we do not yet possess the glory of God. Likewise, we know that God prepares us to do good works (Ephesians 2:10) and we know that God will complete his work in us (Philippians 1:6).
Hence justification is not a one-time declaration, but rather it is a lifetime of growing in righteousness.
Atonement: An Act of Love
God is not angry at us. God did not punish his son, Jesus, to appease his wrath. Rather, Jesus came to restore our relationship with the father. Jesus took on flesh to elevate our own human nature. Jesus freely chooses to become satisfaction for our sin. Thus he lovingly frees us.
When I look at the crucifix, I do not feel shame nor condemnation. Rather I feel joy and overwhelmed by the father’s gift of love. His body is broken for us, not for us to remain sinners, but to become like God through self-giving and mercy.
I do not become like God through merely assenting to what Christ has done. Rather, I become like God by relying on God’s supernatural grace that God freely gives me through prayer, sacraments, and works of love.
When I first became Catholic, I was worried about scrupulosity. I worried that I would feel this pressure to do good works in order to earn my salvation. Yet a funny thing happened. I became less ridged. The church’s expectations are clear. if I follow them I will receive supernatural grace. I do not earn the grace due to my effort, but Christ promised to aid his bride, the church.
I ask the Christ will aid me knowing that the work he began in me at baptism, he will finish in me until I am the spotless bride of Christ.