Is Perfectionism Underneath Some of Your Anxiety?

by Paul Tautges February 10, 2021

Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him, we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Rom. 5:1–2) Has perfectionism become the enemy of your inner peace? The heart of a perfectionist is never fully at rest. There’s always something more for perfectionists to achieve or improve. Striving becomes their pattern of life. And that striving often breeds anxiety. The pursuit of excellence may be a perfectionist’s lifelong friend, basing the motivation for his or her diligent work ethic on performance.[1] Perfectionists may fear personal failure or the disappointment of others. They may be stuck in a works righteousness mindset and thus never feel fully accepted by God.

Regardless of what triggers our unrest, the remedy for it is the same. In Romans 5:1–2, the apostle repeats the words “we have” three times in order to remind us of what is already true for believers—what we already possess in Christ. These three assertions of what “we have” show us that we build our experiential peace (the peace of God) on the foundation of our relational peace (our peace with God).

First, we have been justified. To be justified means to be declared righteous by God. In the courtroom of heaven, the status of the repentant sinner who turns to Jesus is changed from “guilty” to “righteous.” In exchange for our sin, Jesus gives us his perfect righteousness (see 2 Cor. 5:21). This is all received “by faith”—it is not gained through the perfection of our works.

Second, we have peace with God. Having been declared righteous by God, we change from being enemies of God into being children of God. Peace with God is not something we work for but something we work from, since Jesus is already “our peace” (Eph. 2:14). Acceptance with God is not gained through our spiritual performance; it is based on Christ’s perfect righteousness—not ours. God “made us accepted in the Beloved” one—Christ (Eph. 1:6 NKJV).

Third, we have access to God. Our permission to enter God’s presence is also “by faith”—not by works. Through Christ, we have access “into this grace in which we [already] stand.” We enter the throne room of God based on his grace, not on our prior or current spiritual performance. This gift of grace is the righteousness of his sinless Son (see Rom. 5:17). We can enter the presence of God only because Jesus first offered himself as the once-for-all sacrifice (see Heb. 10:10, 19–20).

When we renew our minds with these truths, “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). Thinking about what Jesus has already done for us breeds contentment, corrects our perfectionism, and retrains us to place greater confidence in the finished work of Christ than in our unfinished works. In short, truth feeds joy, which combats anxiety.

The next time anxiety strikes, don’t focus on what’s going wrong and on what you need to get done. Rather, fix your gaze on Christ and on his gift of righteousness to us. Because of the grace of Christ, there is no reason for us to be anxious.

[1] Both a striving for excellence and a diligent work ethic are good in their proper place. It’s the performance-driven motivation that’s an issue here.