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Biff is a perfectionist. At least, that is the persona he presents. It is maddening to Mable, his wife. Biff says absolute excellence in all things is how you glorify God. He is particular about how to do things and explicitly explains why his way is better and more pleasing to God. Mable tried to help him see how striving for perfection is detrimental to his relationship with God and her, but Biff is not your average Christian. He is relentless in his pursuit of excellence. There is something deep inside that drives him to perfection. If you were to counsel Mable to come alongside Biff as a gentle restorer (Galatians 6:1-3), what are a few things you’d like for her to know? How would you guide her?
I will assume two of those things would be his presupposition and worldview. A presupposition is what he thinks before he thinks, his pre-thoughts that give meaning to his thoughts. His presupposition forms the window through which all his thoughts find an interpretation. E.g., if his window is blue, he interprets life through a blue lens. His worldview is the substance of those interpretations. His presupposition creates his worldview. His worldview motivates him to strive for perfection. There are no exceptions to this rule.
There have been three primary shaping influences in Biff’s life that have created his presuppositional, interpretive filter. The first one is Adam. After Adam became imperfect through the fall, he tried to compensate by becoming perfect. Biff inherited Adam’s presupposition—for all have sinned (Romans 3:23, 5:12). The second negative shaping influence was Biff’s dad. He was managed and manipulated by a heavy-handed, non-encouraging, authoritarian father. Talking to Biff years later, he tears up as he shares how impossible it was to please his dad. As an adult, God saved him, but he landed in a legalistic religious church culture where following the rules was paramount. It was the trifecta: Adam, early adverse childhood influences, and Christian legalism.
Born in Adam officially stamps us as legalists. Adam wanted his works to matter, and so do we. Christianity is the only religion in the world where our works cannot save us. Unfortunately, that little truth does not keep individuals from smuggling their performances onto their resumes to impress others. You can take the boy out of Adam and put him in Christ, but you cannot take Adam out of the boy—not until the boy gets a glorified body. When you put the boy, whose daddy manipulated him to strive for acceptance as a child, in a larger group of like-minded legalists, guess what? You are going to have a legalistic religious culture.
The legalism that drives perfectionism is an illusionary lifestyle. It only works if we can hide our real problems—our true selves—by avoiding public scrutiny. Think fig leaves (Genesis 3:7). If we can keep our issues hidden, we can present ourselves well in a performance-based religious culture that pursues righteousness and harshly judges mistakes. The temptations to self-deception and perpetuating deception in these cultures are strong. Parading as a perfectionist is high-end, religious game-playing that needs the disinfecting light of the gospel.
The game is that if your trouble does not transcend your ability to present yourself well, you can live in a legalistic culture. What happens too often is that relational conflict and personal problems steadily increase until we cannot keep the pretense going any longer. Biff is nearing the breaking point. He needs a courageous, competent, compassionate friend who can help him see what he is not able to see. The desire to please others is classic fear of man (Proverbs 29:25). Perfectionists always try to please someone.
This last point—pleasing yourself—speaks to the man who has a man-centered view of what excellence should be and is striving to hit this self-imposed standard to self-approve or self-congratulate himself. While the first two scenarios require other people to be his audience—God or people—this last deception differs because he lives in a self-contained universe where the performer and the audience are the same. Regardless of who he is seeking approval from, something rooted in his heart motivates him to strive for aspirations only the LORD can provide.
Perfectionism is a twisted and dangerous theology, though it is not the best word to describe what is going on with Biff. However, that word can serve as a portal to a more biblical typology. Perfectionism is a cultural concept that can start the conversation, but it is always better to push for theological precision. The closer you get to the Bible’s way of talking about our problems, the better you can identify what is going on in the perfectionist’s heart and bring biblically precise care to the person. A better definition will permit you to do these four things:
Here are eight things I would look for if I were counseling Biff. I’m not saying they all are valid for him, but I would want to run him through a biblical filter to have a clearer picture of the person I’m trying to help.
1: Partial Obedience: You can only be perfect in the things which you are good at doing. Selective perfection is where God’s theology and Biff’s theology collide. The LORD says Biff is not perfect and will never be perfect outside of Christ, so to over-strive for perfection is at odds with who God says he is and how he achieves biblical perfection. On his best day, he will fail. While giving all his life and projects his best shot is nice, Biff must be a biblical realist. He cannot hit perfection in every area of his life. A person motivated toward unbiblical and unrealistic excellence will be dysfunctional in other vital areas of his life. He will spend most of his time performing in ways that guarantee success because he will always work within his strengths.
2: Intellectual Dishonesty: You will find inconsistencies in Biff’s life. It will not be hard to discover them because a few threads will hang out of his garments whenever he tries to be something he is not. There will be areas where he is failing, and you hope he will be honest about those imperfections. To try to sell perfectionism as a way of life is not honest. His commitment to his excellent worldview will reveal the level of dishonesty and deception at work. While you can give him a hall pass for ignorance, you will find more than blindness in his life. There will be deception and deceit that may have twisted his thinking. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22).
3: Unconfessed Sins: Do not be surprised to find unadmitted sinfulness. Everybody knows they are finite, a reality that implies limitations or God-imposed boundaries (Genesis 11:1-9) that keep individuals from ascending too high in their estimation of themselves. The perfectionist has lost touch with biblical reality, and if he persists in this kind of thinking, he will have to alter his perceptions about himself, God, and life. He must twist the truth to grind out his pursuit of excellence. This process is futile thinking (Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:17-19). A typical way this works out is to make excuses for the things he cannot do well. If he strives for perfection—an unattainable goal at best—he must explain why he fails in areas where he cannot meet his perfectionistic standard.
4: Relational Fallout: The perfectionist will be self-justifying, rationalizing, and excuse-making, creating relational tension. Ask Mable. One of the tricks in the bag of the perfectionist is to put others down through critique, condemnation, and regular reminders of where they have missed the mark. Putting others down has a self-elevating effect: “If I put you down, I am maintaining a higher standard than you. If I cannot be perfect, I must be deceptive by being a self-righteous critique-er of others.” The fallout from this will be horrible. The perfectionist lives in a world where he acts superior while his wife, children, and friends look on with saddened faces as they watch the emperor with no clothes.
5: Missed Opportunities: The people who will be hurt the most are his wife and children. All high-demand, excellence-driven spouses or parents will decimate their families. Trying to execute perfection in children has horrifying effects. Children are imperfect on their best days. They are sobering pictures of who we all are before God the Father. Rather than pushing people to perfection, Christ came alongside individuals to let them know they could never be perfect.
Rather than making them be what they could never be, He gave them what they needed. He shepherded them to the cross, inviting them to pursue His perfection. There are redemptive purposes found in the gospel, and what better place to bring care to others than through their imperfections? The perfectionist does not perceive these redemptive opportunities. Demanding, critiquing, being harsh, or unkind is a total misunderstanding of the doctrine of sin and how the gospel connects to our imperfections.
6: Fighting God: Ultimately, this is a spiritual battle for Biff. He is in a battle of wills with the LORD. I am talking about pride here, the one thing God will resist in any human (James 4:6). The LORD did not come for perfect people. He came for the sick, the wounded, the needy, the incomplete, the weak, and the imperfect. The perfectionist attempts to put on perfection outside of God’s grace. These were the Pharisees during the time of Christ. They saw perfection as the chief end of man and had no problem sporting perfection on their shirt sleeves (Matthew 23:5).
7: Competing Strengths: There is an argument to be made by the perfectionist that excellence is a great way to glorify God. There is some truth here, but it is only a partial truth. People should always strive to be better and do better. The solutions are not to seek perfection because you are a perfectionist or to give up as though sloppiness is the only way to accrue God’s favor. There is another way to glorify God. The gospel is our chief witness for how humanity could make a mess of things, yet what Christ did was the most life-altering, world-shaking thing a man has ever done.
The person who refuses to understand how God makes His strength perfect in human imperfection will always be weak, even though he has twisted his mind to think he’s strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). Jesus died on a tree. Christ’s friends were looking for something, shall I say, a bit more perfect than a man dying on a tree. They could not, at least not then, wrap their minds around how the foolishness and weakness of God could be wiser and stronger than them (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Biff can either exalt his or Christ’s strength, but he cannot do both. (See 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, 4:7, 12:7-10.) If he chooses to compete with God, he will lose.
8: Gospel Disconnect: To think that humanly derived, perfect processes lead to perfect outcomes flies in the face of the gospel. From a man-centered worldview, this makes sense because there is logic there. But God defies logic, which is one way He shows us how the foolishness and weakness of God can thwart our world’s wisdom. We must believe that the LORD’s strength will work through us. Biff needs to see these things. He needs to be honest. Biff needs to find rest in Christ. He needs contentment. Biff has yet to learn the secret of life: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Paul also said,
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13).
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).