Most of us who struggle with self-effort are locked into a mindset that traps us in an endless cycle of performing, simply for the sake of doing something. This way of thinking has the potential to lead us to perfectionism. The world may hold perfectionists in high esteem, but this often ends in frustration and burnout. Changing our focus from performing to receiving by faith what God’s grace has made available frees us.
Perfectionism is defined as a personality trait characterized by striving for flawlessness, accompanied by critical self-evaluations, and concerns about others’ opinions. We have unrealistic expectations of ourselves if we’re sticklers for perfection, because no one but Jesus is perfect. After we got born again, we most likely had to make major adjustments in what we thought was right, since that was previously defined by the world. “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…”(Romans 12:2).
Perfectionism is a law-based way of thinking. Until Jesus’ death and resurrection, the only way to achieve perfection was through self-effort. Jesus’ answer to the rich young ruler reflected this. “Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Now that grace has replaced the law and faith has replaced works, we’re perfected by Christ living in us. “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).
There’s nothing wrong with giving our best effort and trying to do good. The problem is that when we rely on ourselves instead of on God’s grace, we spin our wheels but accomplish nothing. Striving for perfection without His help causes us to fail, feel guilty, beat ourselves up, get depressed, and suffer from low self-esteem. This is what happens when we’re operating in the flesh; it’s definitely not God’s best for our lives. “For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death” (Romans 7:5).
We find freedom from performance-based Christianity when we move away from what religion teaches about working to deserve good things from God, and just receive by faith what He already made available to us. Through our own merits, we’ll never be able to do enough good deeds to deserve anything from Him. Everything we have under the new covenant of grace we received through Jesus, not through our performance. “And since it is through God’s kindness, then it is not by their good works. For in that case, God’s grace would not be what it really is—free and undeserved” (Romans 11:6, NLT). This takes tremendous pressure off of us to do everything just right.
Living by self-effort is stressful and hard; it gets us nowhere. Living under the grace God offers gives us much-needed rest, and reminds us that we’re already in right-standing with Him. “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30, MSG). This is true freedom.