2 Corinthians 7.10: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.”
To be labeled a perfectionist has become something of a negative label in our modern times. We recognize the importance it is for people to recognize grace and forgiveness for their mistakes, failings, slip ups, etc., whereas perfectionists are often stereotyped as being unable to show this grace to themselves and/or to others. While this stereotype has some truth, there are various forms of perfectionism in terms of who and what is to be perfected and various strategies people have in dealing with deviance from the desired perfection. Unfortunately, as most stereotypes are based upon the worst forms of a specific type of people, to be labeled as perfectionist leads to be immediately characterized by the worst forms of it.
While there are multiple ways of characterizing perfectionism, I want to highlight one form of perfectionism that has problems when it comes to the Christian life: what I refer to as impatient perfectionism (IP). By IP, I mean the traits of persons who immediately try to fix the problem upon getting any sort of negative feedback. People with IP are uncomfortable with negative feedback to the point that they will immediately try to address any negative feedback. It can manifest itself by trying to immediately deny the negative feedback, rushing to fix the problem, etc. In my experience with people who I would look back and designate as impatient perfectionists, they vacillate between deny the problem and accepting the problem in a way that allows them to immediately redeem themselves from it. This is a pattern that is commonly associated with strong levels of narcissism, who have trouble accepting negative self-perceptions of themselves.
Now, on the one hand, the problem with denying problems should be immediate an obvious to most anyone. People who adamantly refuse to accept realistic assessment of their actions continue the same patterns over and over again. However, what may not always be so obvious is the surface-level repentance that impatient perfectionists often exhibit. They my apologize, they may try to fix the situation, etc., but it is all done with an eye towards putting an end to the negative feedback and criticism and quickly restoring positive social perceptions. This is especially the problem that occurs within Christian circles, as it is deemed unchristian to not recognize one’s sins, so Christians with IP will tend to exhibit surface-level repentance.
Repentance is an important part of the Christian life. It is where we come into a place of reflection about our actions, words, and attitudes and come to recognize that we need to reorient and redirect ourselves. True repentance takes time; it is not a spur of the moment recognition about ourselves. True repentance entails that we recognize the things that are sins and problems and weigh what about ourselves lead to them. True repentance is how we learn and redirect ourselves to follow the light of God’s Word and the words of others that we allow into our hearts for reflection. Sometimes our sins and the unintentional errors are a matter of simple mistakes on our part that are easily correctable, but sometimes they are a reflection of deeper issues in our heart. To engage in true, deep repentance entails that we allow ourselves to accept that they are simply mistakes or that they reflect deeper problems we need to learn about or something in between. Repentance is the passive part of Christian/Spiritual moral formation where we are open to the fresh, new leading from God to seek to discern our own sins and errors in light of God’s word, which will then lead us to to the active part of Christian/Spiritual formation that calls us to act according to the leading of the Spirit to put to death the deeds of the flesh.
The struggle for impatient perfectionists is this: if they accept fault, it tends to be understood simply in terms of readily correctable mistakes again and again. There is very little willingness to take a moment and to reflect on what one has done and to consider if there is something deeper that one has overlook and missed in one’s own heart. It is often the result of an aversion and blocking of shame that makes people uncomfortable with moments of negative self-esteem that moral reflection and deep repentance can create. So, the deeper concerns of the heart are overlooked; impatient perfectionists don’t really allow a deeper access of God’s Word into their hearts that extended time will take. The feelings of shame reduce the willingness to take the risk of owning deep personal responsibility. Any deeper problems are always the responsibilities of other people, regardless of whether they have good, plausible reasons to place those responsibilities upon others, whereas the fault and self-reflection about their role that they accept is rather minimal.
Not all perfectionists are this way. Some perfectionists may have a tendency to overly wallow in their faults and lose confidence in themselves to ever be able to do as they should. But, impatient perfectionism is something we do need to be watchful for in ourselves and in others, as it is this tendency that can disrupt the passive part of our journey in Spiritual formation. Surface level repentance is no real repentance, but it is primarily a brief expression of grief at the negative perceptions that doesn’t produce real, Spiritual life. True repentance is a genuine repentance that is rooted in a godly grief that seeks after God and His Word as a light to understand our mistakes, failures, and sins, which opens our heart to hear to receive understanding of things that we were not aware of and allows God’s Word to produce life by the sowing of His Word in our heart through repentance.