Legalism vs. Grace: Let Go of Perfectionism & Grab Hold of Grace

Let go of shiny. Grab hold of grace.

It’s perfectionism vs grace. Or maybe, better stated, it’s legalism vs grace. You can’t have both. We don’t want to be perfectionists. You don’t want to be a perfectionist. But, sometimes, in our zealousness to follow God, we embrace an idea of the “perfect” Christ-follower. And then this goal, rather than Christ, becomes our model for everything. And then we just don’t know how to let go of perfectionism. Right? Sound familiar?

As a recovering perfectionist and now a parent coach, I am all too familiar with how perfectionism chokes out the joy and connection in families. Perfectionism is like a measuring stick that grows taller the closer we stand to it. The taller it gets, the higher the standards and the greater the discouragement and shame we feel. 

In my early parenting days, discouragement, shame, and frustration often choked out the joy and connection I so desired with my kids.

If this is our norm, then the morphing measuring stick we use for us as parents (ie: our ever-changing standards) turns into us having a measuring stick for each of our children as well. And, perhaps, even our spouse! A parent who feels they can never measure up almost always raises children who feel like they themselves can never measure up. 

Grace vs legalism

Grace

MerriamWebster defines grace as, “unmerited divine assistance.” In other words, it’s a gift.

You can’t earn it. It’s not lessened by bad behavior. It’s not increased by good behavior.

Legalism

Legalism is about good works. It’s about doing good things, and following good laws, as a means to gaining God’s approval or righteousness.

But we don’t need to work to gain God’s approval or righteousness, because Jesus finished that job on the cross. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

“Who has bewitched you?” Legalism and grace can’t coexist

That’s why, perfectionism isn’t just a mental or emotional issue, it’s a deeply spiritual issue. Because legalism is the opposite of God’s grace. And perfectionism is making your standard the set of laws that you hold to (in a legalistic way) instead of God’s grace.

The Apostle Paul patiently corrected the messed up, even immoral, believers like those in Corinth. His angriest words, however, were reserved for those believers in Galatia who were hooked on “getting it right” through legalism—attaining righteousness by perfectly following rules.

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified… Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?” Galatians 3:1,2

He’s essentially saying, “What are you thinking?!! You looked boldly at the amazing, infinite work of Jesus on the cross for us, and traded it in for try-hard, joy-stealing, love-depleting, works-based religion!”  

legalism vs. grace

What happens when you trade perfectionism and legalism for grace

One of my greatest joys as a parent coach is when a parent replaces perfectionism and shame with God’s grace and truth. Their whole relationship with God (and their family!) grows in joy and freedom as a result! When that happens, I get prepared for big changes in that family. 

This mom’s perfectionism was suffocating her

Nicole*, one of my coaching clients, gave me permission to share her journey:

I viewed our whole extended family as very influential, well-respected, and “having it all together.” They all looked shiny. Except me. I was the mess! I knew my mom and dad loved me but I didn’t know if they actually liked me or if I was just a problem that needed to be fixed …“too sensitive,” “too complicated,” “too deep,” “annoying.” I was a bundle of anxiety just trying to measure up and prove I wasn’t a mess.

I always thought I was failing God miserably, and maybe wasn’t even a Christian because I couldn’t ever measure up to perfection. Becoming a parent multiplied this anxiety and striving. Every time I messed up, or especially when my girls messed up, I felt an overwhelming sense of failure and deep sadness. I so badly wanted God’s (and people’s) approval…just someone to tell me that I was ok!!! That I was enough!!

When grace cut through her legalistic perfectionism

Through workshops and coaching Nicole began to receive and understand the Connected Families messages for herself. It was as if God were telling her, “You are safe with Me, and you are loved no matter what.” She finally knew it in her soul. She was ENOUGH.

I no longer feel like God is constantly and deeply disappointed in me. God has made it so very clear to me that He sees me through the righteousness and perfection of Jesus.

As Nicole basked in that truth she also realized she was called, capable and responsible to change the hurtful messages she was unintentionally sending to her girls. She dove into parent coaching with eagerness and vulnerability—no more passing her anxiety and shame on to her family. She stopped using critical, condescending parenting that communicated, “You are a problem. You are not enough.” What a difference it made!

I now understand that each mess we experience brings the opportunity to grow in God’s grace through Jesus! The pressure is off to be perfect in order to be “ok,” and that allows for SUCH freedom!!

She replaced perfectionism with an identity in Jesus

I desire to teach my girls who they are in Jesus! To affirm them!! Our girls bring us such joy now. All of this is a work of the Holy Spirit, and I continue to ask God to pour out His Holy Spirit on our family.

As a “recovering perfectionist” Nicole has thoughtful insights about other families:

I think families that seem to have it all together might need the Connected Families messages the most!  Are other shiny families (like mine growing up) aware of the messages that their kids are actually receiving from them – that they have to be perfect to be accepted?

We have such an incredible opportunity to share the Gospel with our kids in ways that truly reach their hearts!

Let go of perfectionism at the foot of the Cross

As we come out of the Easter season let your gaze rest on Jesus Christ who was clearly portrayed as crucified for you! Let that crucifixion take all your shame, the hard-to-forget horrible parenting moments and hurtful words, and wash them away in the abundant forgiveness that flows from the cross. 

“I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist.” Isaiah 44:22a 

As you deeply drink in God’s mercy and forgiveness, you can confidently receive God’s grace to begin to change your parenting and let go of perfectionism.

Later in his letter Paul encourages the Galatians:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1

Stand firm in the truth of the Gospel:

  • Your problems are opportunities to display God’s grace and power.
  • Through Jesus’ work on the cross – you are ENOUGH!  

Today, may you receive and pass on to your children these profound messages of God’s wonderful grace and truth!

*We share this story with permission, but have changed names.

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