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Legalism vs Grace: How to Let Go of Perfectionism & Grab Hold of Grace

legalism vs grace

Some people smile as they say, “I’m a bit of a perfectionist.” which implies, “I’m conscientious and strive to do everything with excellence.” And perfectionism can work well in some situations. Certainly, if you’re trusting the work of a tax accountant, surgeon, or airplane mechanic, perfectionism can be a good thing!

But an unstated, even subconscious belief under perfectionism might be, “I’m a more valuable person than someone with low standards.” And that’s where it can be a slippery slope.

The Harvard Business Review summarized research about perfectionism:
“…perfectionists strive to produce flawless work, and they also have higher levels of motivation and conscientiousness than non-perfectionists. However, they are also more likely to set inflexible and excessively high standards, to evaluate their behavior overly critically, to hold an all-or-nothing mindset about their performance.”

Ooof, did that sound like me in my early parenting years – struggling with perfectionism about both myself and my kids!

  • Inflexible high standards: “I should consistently parent with ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness…’
  • Quick to criticize: Critical thoughts of myself – “I am such a control freak! I need to just lighten up!” Critical of my kids – “Seriously, shoes all over the front entry!! Again?”
  • All-or-nothing (good-bad) mindset: My sense of worth rose and crashed with my parenting performance and my kids’ behavior. (Letting three lively, often dysregulated youngsters define my self-worth was not a wise choice!)

When you tie your sense of worthiness to achieving excellence, you become very emotionally vulnerable in times when you’re not perfect. Research has also revealed that “Perfectionists are more likely to experience decreased productivity, impaired health, troubled interpersonal relationships, and low self-esteem. Perfectionists are also vulnerable to: Depression. Anxiety…”

Perfectionism is like a measuring stick that grows taller the closer we stand to it. And the taller it gets, the higher the standards and the greater the discouragement, anxiety, and shame we feel.

As a recovering perfectionist and now a parent coach, I am all too familiar with how perfectionism feeds discouragement and anxiety and chokes out joy and connection in families. Discouragement, anxiety, and shame often choked out the joy and connection I so desired with my kids.

If perfectionism is your norm, you’ve probably already found that the discouraging measuring stick you use for yourself as a parent usually turns into a measuring stick for each of your children as well. And, perhaps, even a spouse! A parent who feels they can never measure up will most likely raise children who feel like they themselves can never measure up.

“Perfectionists are more likely to experience decreased productivity, impaired health, troubled interpersonal relationships, and low self-esteem. Perfectionists are also vulnerable to: Depression. Anxiety…”

How do you get out of that pattern? (I even became perfectionistic about trying not to be a perfectionist! Haha!) How do you get to the root of the issue?

Perfectionism isn’t just a mental or emotional issue. Perfectionism can have a sinister spiritual underbelly: legalism.

Sometimes, in our zealousness to follow God, we embrace an idea of the “perfect” Christ-follower. And then the goal of becoming that is our primary passion, rather than Christ. And that is legalism. Let’s take a closer look…

Perfectionism, Legalism, and Grace

Perfectionism

“the wish for everything to be correct or perfect” (Oxford Dictionary)

Legalism

“strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code” (Merriam-Webster)

Legalism is essentially spiritual perfectionism. Practically speaking, it is about doing good things and following good laws as a means to gain God’s approval or righteousness. And that’s a bad thing! Legalism opposes God’s grace!

And the solution is:

Grace

“the free and unmerited favor of God” (Oxford Dictionary)

We don’t need to work to earn God’s approval in any way because Jesus finished that job on the cross. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

God’s favor is a gift that we receive by faith. You can’t earn it. It’s not lessened by bad behavior. It’s not increased by good behavior.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9

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

The Apostle Paul patiently corrected the messed up, even immoral, believers like those in Corinth. But his angriest words were reserved for those believers in Galatia who were hooked on “getting it right” — 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

The impact of their striving was a loss of joy and connection… “Where is that joyful and grateful spirit you felt then?” Galatians 4:15a NLT

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!”

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 powerful story:

“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 okay!!! That I was enough!!”

When grace powerfully cuts through 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 and CAPABLE as well as RESPONSIBLE for changing 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, to be ‘okay.’ This brings such freedom!

Replacing 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!”

Place your perfectionism at the foot of the Cross

Perfectionism is an unbearably heavy burden. Set your burden at the foot of the Cross Let the 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 his beloved 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

Practical Perfectionism-Busters

What are some ways to stand firm in your freedom when perfectionism sneaks up on you again to steal the joy and connection in your family? We have practical tools for you because we love to come alongside parents in this important journey of growing in God’s grace!

  • Post key “grace-and-truth phrases” in visible areas to anchor you in challenging moments. (See our 100 Grace and Truth Phrases PDF)
  • Focus on growth, not an end result, and guide your family toward an identity of “We are a family of learners!” (See our blog post on cultivating a growth mindset as a family.)
  • Listen to our podcast about God’s grace during messy moments.
  • Share with your kids that you’re working on bringing God’s grace into your family’s difficult moments, and even ask them to remind you of this when you get critical or discouraged.
  • Celebrate when you do remember God’s grace when you’ve messed up. “God’s grace is so much bigger than what just happened now, and that’s awesome. I’m so glad I remembered!”

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 extraordinary grace and truth.


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Lynne Jackson
Lynne Jackson
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