Perfectionism, Pride, and Grace (Winter)

 This is one of those books I keep coming back to even though I read it quite a few years ago: Perfecting Ourselves to Death by Richard Winter.  It really is worth the read if you need a resource on the topic of trying to be perfect (having the perfect job, the perfect kitchen, perfect kids, a perfect body, perfect grades, etc.).  Here’s one section near the end of the book where Winter talks about perfectionism, pride, and grace:

You may be wondering why my focus is on Christianity alone. All the great religions of the world, except one, have developed rituals and duties that are designed to make us feel more secure in an uncertain, lonely and threatening world.  But, whether it is Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism or Confucianism (and even in some versions of Christianity), believers can never be sure that they have done enough to make themselves acceptable to “God.”

… This is why Christianity has such a profound answer to some of the issues at the heart of perfectionism. The philosopher and theologian Francis Schaeffer never tired of saying that Christianity is both the easiest and hardest religion. His reasoning was that it is the easiest because we do not have to do anything to contribute to our salvation; we need only come with empty hands and a repentant heart to receive the free gift of God’s forgiveness and love. it is the hardest because we are proud, and we do not want to be indebted to anyone, not even God. We want to do something to ensure our own salvation. But the core of Christianity is about receiving God’s free gift of grace.

Richard Winter, Perfecting Ourselves to Death, p. 130-131.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002


Naming our Struggles (Murray)

 Quite often we as Christians know the various sins against which we struggle.  We might be strong in some areas, but are weak in others.  For example, a person might not have a violent or quick temper, but he does struggle with discontentment and envy.  A Christian might have real and genuine loves for others, but she has a hard time being a good steward of her money.  The list goes on.  Usually as we mature in the faith, we start to see our strengths and weaknesses.  The Lord, through Scripture, helps us see our failures so we can repent of them and ask for grace to “put off” what is sinful and “put on” what is good.  However, sometimes we can’t always name our weaknesses, we don’t know what to call them, or they haven’t been pointed out to us yet.  In Refresh, the authors list some of the main areas of stumbling for women – though I’d add these are areas of stumbling for men as well:

Idolatry.  We make idols of beauty, fashion, career, husband, or children – especially their success in school and sports.

Materialism.  Our pursuit of money or bigger and better homes often results in working more hours or jobs than we can handle and also nourishes the womb of discontent that gnaws away at our minds and hearts.

Debt.  One of the greatest causes of stress is living beyond our means.  Maybe we don’t spend 50 percent more than we can afford, but 10 percent, year on year, grows our debt and our anxiety levels.

Comparison.  Pinterest, Facebook, and mommy blogs can lead us to compare ourselves unfavorably with others who seem better looking, better homemakers, better organizers, and better everything.

Indiscipline.  Although it’s hard to be disciplined and organized, it’s more stressful to be the opposite, which so easily occurs as we use technology.  How many hours are wasted on the internet, resulting not only in guilt over wasted time but a pileup of other duties that now have to be rushed.

Identity.  We define who we are by our successes, our failures, or some part of our past, instead of who we are in Christ.

Media diet.  Just as what we put in our mouths affects our emotions, thoughts, and hearts so what we put in our ears and eyes has emotional, intellectual, and spiritual consequences.  Many live as if Philippians 5:8 said, ‘Whatever things are false, whatever things are sordid, whatever things are wrong, whatever things are filthy, whatever things are ugly, whatever things are terrible, if there is any vice, if there is anything worthy of criticism, meditate on these things.’

Perfectionism.  We strive for flawless family, house, meals, and appearance.

Failure.  We fail at school, or at a job, or at homemaking, or in witnessing, or we fail to meet our own or others’ expectations.

Later in this helpful book the authors talk more about dealing with these dangers and sins in light of God’s grace and his word.  It’s good to know our sins and weaknesses so we can, by God’s grace, fight them.  We don’t want to wallow in weakness, we want to press on obediently in the strength of the Lord!

NOTE: I edited the list for length; you can find it in its entirety on pages 46-48 of Refresh by David and Shona Murray.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Perfecting Ourselves To Death

Product DetailsAwhile back someone recommended Richard Winter’s book on depression called The Roots of Sorrow.  I thought it was such an excellent book that I ended up getting a few more by Winter, including Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment and Perfecting Ourselves to Death.  Though these are all good reads, right now I want to highlight the latter: Perfecting Ourselves to Death.

This book could be classified as a sort of pastoral counseling guide in the areas of achievement, success, failure, and frustration.  Winter examines an unhealthy desire for perfection, which is often accompanied by depression, idolatry, coveting, anxiety, shame, guilt, and other sinful or debilitating traits or outcomes of perfectionism.  While Winter doesn’t only talk about the religious aspect of perfectionism, he does well note that the pursuit of perfection in all areas of life has much to do with the main truths of Christianity (sin, salvation, and service).

In the first part of the book, he discusses the different pieces and parts of perfectionism.  For example, he mentions OCD, the fear of man, anger, eating disorders, indecisiveness, abuse, the craving for acceptance, and the influence of social media.  Basically, he looks at the pursuit of perfection from all these different angles.

In the second part of the book, Winter examines the philosophical and theological side of perfectionism.  Here is where he talks about the image of God, biblical anthropology, sin, a fallen world, and what the gospel of grace means to perfectionists.  He also gives biblical guidance on dealing with perfectionism.  I appreciated his emphasis on grace, the need for a Christian church community, and the hope of the New Creation, where God’s people will no longer live in an imperfect world with imperfect minds/bodies.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes.

“These seductive sirens of the advertising and Hollywood cultures that surround us stimulate our partially conscious fantasies and dreams of perfecting ourselves.  They increase our dissatisfaction and discontent with who we are and what we possess” (p. 21).

“Most perfectionists do not live in reality because they assume that setting the highest possible standards always leads to optimum performance.  Somehow they need help to move from this idealism to realism” (p. 140).

“The average model is thinner than 95 percent of Americans.  No wonder we have seen a huge increase in the incidence of eating disorders in recent years.  No wonder the enormous amounts spent on plastic surgery grow each year” (p. 113).

“We can rest in that deep security and know that we have significance in being made in his (God’s) image and in being a child of God, saved by his grace, not by anything we have done or earned.  At the deepest level, understanding and experiencing God’s grace is the key to unlocking the prison of perfectionism” (p. 160).

If you’re a perfectionist of any stripe, or if you are a Christian who counsels and helps other Christians through life’s struggles like these, I recommend this book.  Also, if you’re a pastor I’d suggest getting it – it will certainly help you think about this issue from an informed and Christian perspective.

shane lems