Recovering Perfectionist

Ok folks. If I’m honest, I’m really only okay being a needy sinner for a few minutes, a few hours, a few days maybe. But at a certain point I feel like I’ve wallowed in that gospel-neediness long enough and it’s time for me to get out there and DO something. Old habits die hard.

I know it’s cliché, especially in a job interview, to say you’re a “recovering perfectionist”—maybe in Christian circles it’s just a nicer way of saying “repentant judgmental Pharisee” (very likely)—but truly, I am. Here’s the problem: I see my deep, gaping need for a savior. All the things I’ve heard mature Christians say for years (The more you walk with Christ, the more you realize you need him. Greater knowledge of God leads to greater humility.) I see and understand. But the problem is:

I really, really, reeeeeally, REEEEEEALLY want to be good in and of myself.

I am so tempted to just try harder. I hope I’m not alone in this. I deeply believe the truth of the gospel, I understand that my righteousness unto justification is found in Christ alone. But I desperately want to add my righteousness to this. Especially when I see some area in my life that I’m lacking.

Here was my old legalistic pattern:

1. Identify a sin in my life.

2. “Repent” and develop steps to overcome it.

3. Implement steps to overcome the sin.

4. Fail, go back to Step 1, and Repeat.

Notice the lack of Jesus in this pattern? I put “repent” in quotes because what I was doing wasn’t so much turning away from sin to the gospel of Christ (to a substitutionary need for Christ) but a turning away from sin toward an attitude to do better, for God’s sake.

Here’s my new pattern:

1. Identify a sin in my life.

2. Repent and acknowledge the gospel (i.e. recognize Christ’s substitutionary righteousness over and above my own. Thank God for my status of justification IN Christ).

3. Implement steps to overcome sin…attempt not to fall into legalism.

4. Fail, Go back to Step 1, and Repeat.

See what I’m saying? I so, so desperately want to be good in and of myself that I feel like every time I even take a step in overcoming sin, I fall back into my same legalistic pattern as before. I haven’t figured out “gospel-empowered sanctification” on the ground. I believe that grace propels us to obedience, I just don’t quite know what that looks like. Am I missing something?

Is my problem in “implementing steps to overcome sin”? I think not, because Paul exhorts us to work out our own salvation and I am no Antinomian (I don’t believe grace negates the law). And how could we ever change our actions without actually doing something? I am overthinking this, I realize. You guys are getting a small taste of my analytical craziness.

Perhaps I’m missing a step between 1 and 2. Maybe I need to pray that my repentance would be genuinely grace-fueled and that the motives of my change of heart and actions would be pure, God-glorifying, and not out of disgust for myself and my “gospel-neediness” as described above. But, (look out, here comes the crazy) then that prayer could easily become another legalistic step I would create for myself. And if I do need that step, then if I didn’t pray for my repentance before I repented I’d have to repent of my wrongful repentance.

I’m gonna stop now before I scare you away for good. Thanks for listening. Help?

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15 thoughts on “Recovering Perfectionist

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about repentance and sin lately. In my read through of the bible, I just passed 1st and 2nd Samuel. It’s interesting how Saul sins and the kingdom is ripped from his hands. David sins, a lot more and arguably worse, and yet God forgives him and the kingdom remains.

    Both Saul and David wept for their sins, and “repented.” What is the difference then? Since we all sin, it seems that God is more concerned with our hearts, our desire for repentance. I’m still processing.

    I just thought that was worth mentioning. Maybe this will help?

    • Kevin, thank you for weighing in! Interesting example in Saul and David. I think it has much more to do with God’s sovereign choice of David to rule Israel than any discernible difference in David versus Saul repentance–a Romans 9 kind of thing.

      But I do agree that God looks at our hearts (Prov 16:2 and, awesomely enough 1 Sam 16:7–perhaps you’ve caught on to a theme in those two books!) I think God cares deeply about the motives behind any action, including repentance. So I want my repentance to be correctly motivated, but I can’t change my own motivations of my own volition. So I suppose that’s where the Holy Spirit comes in.

  2. I’m a recovering moralist/perfectionist/legalist too. I’ve had to stop analyzing my repentance and state of my sanctification. I repent, believe the gospel and go on even it’s for the nth time that day. The fact that God has granted repentance by the Holy Spirit is cause to rejoice because it’s evidence that He’s at work. In the end, God will get me to where I need to be one step at a time. Phil. 1:6

    Hope this encourages you, Tricia.

    • That is very encouraging, thank you Persis! I know what you’re trying to say about over-analyzing, this is a large part of my problem. But I don’t want to be lax and keep doing the same things over and over. I want to trust and DO! Ok, I want my sanctification to be faster, that’s what I’m trying to say. Hurry back Jesus!

  3. What Persis said. 🙂 I too am a recovering legalist and the key for me has been asking myself where I run when step 4 inevitably comes. If I turn to the gospel then glory to God! His kindness has drawn me to repentance and I saw all over again the abundant He has lavished on me. If I turn inward, hating myself, resolving to try harder, despising the grace of repentance then, well, the battle of legalism still looms. Hope that helps! I highly recommend The Explicit Gospel, the whole thing of course, but Matt Chandler’s chapter on moralism SO got in my business! Also, Jared Wilson’s Gospel Wakefulness (also highly recommended) has a fabulous chapter on grace and gospel motivated sanctification.

    • I’ve read Gospel Wakefulness (and loved it) but I’ll have to go back and reread that chapter about sanctification. I forgot what it says. And I’ll definitely look into The Explicit Gospel, that sounds awesome. Thank you for the encouragement!

  4. I’m getting read to read Fesko’s “Christian Pocket Guide to Growing in Holiness”, which I’m hoping will help me get a basic view of sanctification. Right now I’m reading Ryken’s commentary on Galatians – written for “recovering Pharisees”. It’s a powerful commentary, and I would highly recommend it.

    As yet another recovering perfectionist/legalist/Pharisee, I constantly try to remind myself that God made His promise of salvation to me not based on ME at all, but only on Him. Such a struggle at times. Thanks for bringing this up, Tricia.

  5. I am late to this, but I would say that my wonderful sisters in Christ who have commented here have provided you with the best advice. There have been years where I have despaired over the continuing presence of sin. We all have besetting sins that keep us crawling back to Christ. They are reminders of our weakness. Sanctification is a slow process. When I think of how mature I believed myself to be fifteen years ago, I laugh. I knew nothing then, and I know nothing now. It’s a daily throwing of myself at Christ’s feet.

    • Sanctification is so slow 😦 That’s why I feel like if I just get out there & starting doing & trying harder, maybe it’ll speed up. I have so many areas to work on…too many. It feels daunting.

      But for grace in Christ. Thank you Kim!

  6. Thankful for the honesty of your post–I think many people feel this way but few of us are willing to admit it because we’re afraid that our failures would somehow condemn us as not being truly “gospel-centered.” The levels of irony…

    One thing that I’ve learned in my own struggles is to let God do His work. This is not to say that you simply “let go and let God” but that you trust Him more with your sanctification than you trust yourself. It is His work as much as your justification ever was.

    Also it’s really important to expand our understanding of the gospel. The gospel is more than simply legal justification although it is certainly this. When you begin to explore other facets of the gospel–like turning a diamond over in your hand–it can begin to radiate into areas of your life that a legal metaphor may not. This is why the Scripture talks about the gospel in so many, many different dimensions and perspectives.

    Again thanks for you transparency!

    • Hannah, thank you for your comment. You’re right, it is ironic that we are afraid to admit our own legalistic failings. But I was hoping many of you had walked this road ahead of me and perhaps have wisdom to offer. And you have! So thank you for the advice.

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