“If I Could Only be Perfect … “

Advice and Devotions for Teenagers

 

“If I Could Only be Perfect … “

Why do we feel like we have to work so hard to earn acceptance?

It happened when I was 12, but I remember the moment like it happened this morning. My older brother had gotten himself into trouble—again. My mom and I were folding laundry, talking about the situation and how worried she was about my brother’s actions. Then she said to me, “I know we’ll never have to worry about you, honey.”

Now my mom meant it as a compliment. Her intention was to tell me she knew I was well-behaved and smart enough to avoid some of the stuff that had gotten my brother in hot water. But in my mind, her words set a huge weight on my shoulders. When she said, “We’ll never have to worry about you,” I heard, “Make sure we never have to worry about you.”

That simple conversation set me on a mission—to be the perfect daughter. My goal was to make sure my parents never had a doubt about where I was, what I was doing or who I was with. So I never missed a curfew, never drank a beer, never hung out with anyone who might lead me into trouble.

Those few times I did get into trouble with my parents, I felt horrible. And even though I got off with a few stern words, I still felt like I’d let them down.

My desire to be perfect carried over to my relationship with God. I honestly thought God would love me more if I went to youth group, if I said my prayers, if I went to Bible camp. I believed I could impress God if I did all the right Christian things. I didn’t always do those things because I wanted to. I did them because I wanted God to think I was perfect.

And I know I’m not the only one who has felt like being a good person—being a perfect Christian—is the key to God’s heart.

The Problem with Perfection

Striving for excellence isn’t always a bad thing. Doing our best is part of the Christian life. Way back in the Old Testament, God’s people were told to “present as the Lord’s portion the best and holiest part of everything given to you” (Numbers 18:29). Even though God was talking about tithes and offerings, we know our whole lives are offerings to God, and that we need to give God our best.

The New Testament is just as clear. Matthew 5:48 says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are supposed to shoot for the highest standard of goodness—God’s goodness. And Paul tells the Corinthians, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

But perfectionism is “doing our best” for all the wrong reasons. Perfectionism is about us, not about God.

I was being good because I thought it would help me earn love and acceptance. If my behavior pleased my parents, they’d love me even more. If my behavior pleased God, I’d earn his favor. I came to believe my worth was based on how good I was—and on how good other people thought I was.

Inside, I was stressed out. The pressure to be perfect was almost too much to handle. But I didn’t think I could tell anyone how I felt because that would mean admitting I wasn’t perfect. And that was the last thing I wanted to do.

God’s Perfect Plan

When it comes to God’s love, we perfectionists tend to get the order of things all mixed up. We think, If I’m good enough, if I do all the right things, God will love me. But God reached out while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). God made the first move.

Once sin entered the world, the relationship between God and humans was strained. And all through the Bible, people tried to fix that relationship with animal sacrifices, with money, even with a huge tower to heaven. But it took God’s sacrifice to bring us back to him. God’s incredible gift of salvation is ours because God loves us, not because we earned it. (Check out Romans 4:4-5.)

When Jesus tells us to “be perfect” in Matthew 5:48, he’s saying that God’s idea of perfection is radically different from the world’s idea of perfection. The world says perfection is having the best body, the most popular friends, the happiest family. But Jesus tells us God is our best example of perfection. That means perfection is only found in striving to follow God. And as the apostle Paul explains in Philippians 3:12-16, God wants us to keep our eyes on him and follow the example of Christ in all we do.

Yet even Paul, one of the greatest Christians of all time, admitted he wasn’t perfect. He knew he could only gain salvation through a relationship with Christ. But he continued to do his best as a natural response to God’s love for him. And for Paul, doing his best meant growing in his faith, seeking God in everything he did, loving God with his whole heart.

The same is true for us. Being perfect in Christ isn’t about living up to expectations—the world’s, your parents’, your own. It’s about being obedient to God, day in and day out.

But before we perfectionists get all worked up about trying to be perfectly obedient, we need to remember this: The Bible says our actions don’t have anything to do with God’s acceptance of us (Ephesians 2:8-9). They are simply a sign of God living in us, a result of the new life we have in Christ (James 2:14-26). They demonstrate our desire to make our faith stronger. They are a way for us to give glory to our loving God. And when we follow God’s commandments, we show his light to others (Matthew 5:16).

Showing others the light of God doesn’t mean you can never mess up. In fact, our efforts to be perfect can often give people the wrong idea about our faith. One of my friends once told me she didn’t think she was good enough to be a Christian. She didn’t think she could live up to the expectations everyone had of Christians—always being nice, never getting into trouble. She saw Christianity as a secret club that only the “good” kids could belong to. My efforts to be the perfect person sure didn’t help her think otherwise. But if I’d have been more honest about my own failures and shown her how God forgives, she might have felt differently.

Perfectionism is a losing game. Fortunately, it’s one we really don’t have to play. After all, God reached out to us when we were as far away from him as we could possibly be. Being a Christian isn’t about being perfect; it’s about being forgiven. So we can relax and be confident that God knows we’re not perfect and loves us just the same.

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