Hope for the Perfect: Perfectionism, Eating Disorders and Do-able Righteousness

Jesus died for me. I've been able to say this since I was a child, but that does not mean I've always understood what it means. I have become increasingly aware of the richness of this phrase the longer I have lived because the longer I have lived I have seen more clearly why I need to be rescued from my sins.

Here's my problem: the longer I have lived I have also become more proficient at achieving my own standards of righteousness. I not only know what I like, I know what I need to do to get what I like.

Let me give you an example. I hate spelling errors. Don't take this wrong, but I sometimes hate people who make spelling errors. I drive down the street and criticize stores with marquees that play fast-and-loose with our mother tongue. I carefully edit email messages before I send them. I properly capitalize and punctuate online chat messages. That is not to say I never make spelling errors, but it is to say that it makes me sick when I do. I know the Bible says "no man ever yet hated his own flesh" and I believe that. But there is a self-loathing that goes along with not living up to a standard I am proud of. And pride is an intense evil in me.

So back to “Jesus died for me.” When I take pleasure in my ability to keep the Law of Steve I am saying, “If Jesus died for me, He need not have bothered.” Is that a stretch? No, because Jesus died to rescue those who broke the law of the true King and had no means of paying the penalty. In my kingdom I set the rules and the penalties for breaking the rules. I make the rules do-able for myself. I know what will satisfy my own demands on myself and I know how to make you pay when you violate my kingdom. Many people do the same thing.

· She ate that cookie so now she has to pay by running six miles.

· He shook hands with several people in church so he needs to rush into the bathroom and scrub his hands raw with antibacterial soap to avoid disease.

· She lied to her mother so now she has to cut herself because she thinks the punishment is fitting.

· He got a “B” on an exam, so he begs off a ministry responsibility and avoids his friends to study more and make sure that never happens again.

· She loved eating that pan of brownies but purged to avoid the caloric consequences.

Perhaps you are insulted that I would equate your perfectionism with self injury, eating disorders or even what has been labeled “obsessive-compulsive disorder.” But there is a common thread—and I throw my own issues under the same label. This is about an attitude of the heart that creates an artificial standard of righteousness and takes pride in achieving that standard. Get this: that attitude is no different than the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who did not think they needed a Savior.

This is where my claim to faith in Christ can become a hypocritical claim. If I can find better satisfaction in a day when everything fits into my neat little packages and everyone does what I want them to do, then Jesus is more of a rabbit's foot to help me get what I want than He is a deliverer to show me how futile my way is. My perfectionism is all about my kingdom. If I were the king of the world, businesses would get fined for misspelling words on their marquees and individuals would incur civil penalties for sending graduation cards that say "Congradulations!"

The remedy for these troubles is re-direction of worship rather than “avoidance techniques” and behavior modification (gaining weight, snapping rubber bands on the wrist to get “harmless pain,” learning to like dirt…). “Imputed righteousness” needs to be more to you than something you are proud you can pronounce. The Bible explains that, as far back as the first day of human sin, God was in the business of providing men a way back into fellowship with Himself. But the kind of righteousness God requires is not the kind of righteousness sinners have. We laugh at Adam and Eve’s attempted cover-up until we realize that our manufactured standards look as outrageous in God’s eyes.

Being thin is a fig leaf. Perfect GPA’s are fig leaves. Likewise, germ-free environments, controlled circumstances and perfectly-spelled documents. You and I do not need to uphold our own righteousness as badly as we need to have God’s righteousness credited to our account. Consider Romans 4:4-5:

Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,

Since you live out of what resides in your heart, the real need is a change of desire—a re-direction of worship. You cannot play the game of do-able righteousness and win. Stop trying. The One who knew no sin became sin for us so that in Him we might become God’s righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). The call is not to perfection but to repentance. Learn to spell that.

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