by Winston Hottman
According to Merriam-Webster, perfectionism can be defined as follows:
A disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable; especially the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.
Despite the need for a little more nuancing, this description serves as a strong working definition. Perfectionism doesn’t seem like a big deal to most people, and even we as Christians tend to look at perfectionism as a “respectable” sin. The simple truth is that perfectionism, like all other sin, is a blatant form of human pride. One thing is clear too: I’m a perfectionist.
As a Christian, my brand of perfectionism can be a little more subtle because it sometimes disguises itself in pious clothing. But even when perfectionism seems to be aimed at godly living, it is prideful because it expects from ourselves now what only God has promised to accomplish in the future. Perfectionism disregards God’s promise to make us who we ought to be by attempting in our own strength to meet the goal of that promise in the present, and by positioning ourselves as the final judges of our performance.
Depending on how well we do in our own eyes, perfectionism can play out in a variety of negative responses: feelings of worthlessness, inordinate preoccupation with the opinions of other people, paralyzing fear, impatience with others, and a sense of superiority.
While I’ve recognized my perfectionist tendencies for some time now and while I am confident that God is changing me, the reality is that I tend to carry that disposition into my relationships, not least of which is my marriage.
The Perfect Marriage?
As an avid reader, I spent the years leading up to my marriage reading plenty of Christian books on marriage and husbanding. I gleaned much truth and wise advice, but as I grew in my understanding of what marriage should be, what was partially a sincere desire to glorify God became a self-oriented, unrealistic expectation. It led to an anticipation that if I just tried hard enough, I could meet the biblical standard of a godly husband, or at least come pretty close. It led to a demand for a spouse that was exactly what God says a wife should be, and a marriage that perfectly mimicked the scriptural picture of that relationship.
But when it comes to a struggle with perfectionism in marriage, I know I’m not alone. I have spoken with many fellow Christians, single and married, who operate under idealistic ideas of what their marriages will be or should be. Some of them have spent years overlooking potential mates as they search for that “perfect” match while others struggle for patience and joy when their marriages don’t measure up to the standard they have envisioned for the present.
And while singleness can often accommodate an inflated perception of one’s spirituality, marriage guarantees that a person’s imperfections are going to be exposed, as I quickly discovered once I became married. No matter how good our marriages are, as the most intimate relationship two human beings can share, marriage functions like a spotlight on our hearts by enabling us to see our selfishness from the up-close perspective of another person. It exposes us. And, consequently, it has a way of demolishing the pretensions of our self-confidence. It brings the abstract notion of our human depravity up close and personal, showing us the depths of our self-centeredness. And while all the right principles and steps may go a long way, eventually we have to come to grips with the reality of our weakness and the weakness of the one with whom we have taken up the sacred task of marriage.
In other words, God is using my marriage to destroy my pride.
The Power of the Gospel
While the principles, steps, and practices of Christian marriage advice are often helpful and correct, the gospel is most central truth in any marriage. As with the rest of our lives, it is the message of God’s redemption in Christ and our restoration in him that enables us to understand, process, and respond appropriately to the failures that we experience in our marriages. It keeps us from both a sinful arrogance that ignores the depth of our sin as well as a sinful shame that refuses to accept the forgiveness and promises of God for ourselves and our marriages. In the gospel, we find that indeed our marriages will be seared, smeared, and smudged by our best efforts, but that our Father is at work in our marriages through his Spirit, making something of beauty as he restores us and our spouses to the dignity and glory of the image of his Son, Jesus Christ.
As a newly-wed, I don’t have anything new to propose by way of marriage advice. But if someone were to ask me one piece of counsel, I would offer this: know that it’s ok to be ok with not being ok. Complacent? No. Lazy? No. But aware and honest that you and your spouse are both sinful, imperfect individuals who in the present will never meet the perfect standard, or even near-perfect standard, of a marriage? Yes. And confident in the faithfulness of an all-powerful and gracious God who has promised to make your marriage the kind of relationship fit to communicate the love of Jesus for his bride even when the present reality of our marriages seems to fall so far short? Yes. It’s about in whom you place your hope and trust. To borrow the words of Saint Paul, our prayers should be:
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in our marriages and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Winston Hottman is currently a student and employee of Criswell College. Pursuing a Master of Divinity, he also serves as Executive Editor of the college’s For Christ and Culture blog. He graduated with a B.A. in Public Policy and Business from Houston Baptist University. He lives in Dallas with his wife, Bryn, and is a member of Sachse’s First Baptist Church.