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He’d almost decided the gospel didn’t work. Then he discovered the real gospel.

Nobody thought that a boy from a good Christian family like mine would become a bulimic. After all, when I was growing up, our family enjoyed doing many things together: snow skiing, waterskiing, camping, and even weekend cycling trips into British Columbia. There was plenty of love, security, and family time in our home. We also faithfully attended church as a family.

At home and at church, I was taught about Jesus and His plan to return to this earth to make all things new. I knew I wanted to live with Him throughout eternity, and I had no doubts that eternal life would be my experience. But that assurance didn’t last, and I questioned whether I could qualify for eternal life.

When I was a sophomore in high school, our family moved to Texas. In the new environment, I met some fellow students who had a strong relationship with God. I was especially impressed by their love for God and their desire to serve Him. For them, Christianity was about a living relationship with Jesus. Looking back, I can now see that, while I thought of myself as a Christian, I didn’t have my own living relationship with Jesus.

That year I began to read the Bible along with a wonderful commentary on the life of Christ titled The Desire of Ages. Jesus was beginning to be real in my own life, and I was excited about His love and salvation. During the next year a desire to help others come to know Jesus as their Friend grew in my heart. I even began to think about becoming a pastor. But with that goal came the realization that if I were going to be a pastor, I’d better take my spiritual life seriously. Unfortunately, my focus changed from simply enjoying a relationship with Jesus and letting Him transform my life to worrying more about myself and trying to evaluate my spiritual progress. And the problem was that I could always find fault with myself.

I would criticize myself for saying or doing the wrong thing, eating too much, or thinking wrong thoughts. “I should have” and “I shouldn’t have” became common phrases in my mind, which caused me to live with a constant, nagging guilt. Unfortunately, I had an incomplete understanding of the gospel, which prevented me from dealing with my guilt in a healthful way. And the result of my feelings of guilt was predictable: I failed to experience the victory that I so much desired.

As the guilt, failure, and lack of peace increased, I turned to binging on food. Food provided temporary relief from the spiritual and emotional pain—but it also added to my guilt and shame. Inevitably, this led to a cycle of addiction: guilt, shame, eating to relieve the pain, then back to guilt and shame—and so it went, over and over. Food was a “safe and acceptable” form of addiction, for everyone recognizes that food is necessary. However, the cycle was identical to that of any other addiction, and it created a hopeless, out-of-control feeling. I almost gave up my faith during college, because I wasn’t experiencing the peace and victory that Jesus promised. Christianity wasn’t working for me.

I would have given up completely, except for one thing: I noticed that the people who did give up weren’t happy, and I could see Christians who were. This told me that Jesus was indeed the answer. I just hadn’t figured out how to experience the joy of His salvation for myself.

Unfortunately, my guilt and shame produced enough insecurity that I was afraid to talk to anyone about my struggle. I knew God loved me and that Jesus had died for me, but I also knew that as a Christian I was supposed to grow. And since I wasn’t growing the way I thought I should, I questioned my relationship with God. If I was continually struggling with sin, how could God continue to accept me? How could He declare me not guilty when I knew I was guilty? If I didn’t have enough faith for sanctification, did that mean I didn’t have enough faith for justification? I was familiar with these theological terms, but I didn’t understand how they applied to my life in a practical way.

A breakthrough came during my senior year in college. First, a teacher referred to an article on perfectionism by David A. Seamands. It described me perfectly—someone trying hard to please God in order to gain His acceptance, but never feeling good enough. Then another teacher asked if I would be willing to visit him in his office. This invitation gave me the freedom to share my struggle. The teacher encouraged me to believe the truth that Jesus accepted me just as I was, as expressed in the song “Just As I Am.”

While I still didn’t have good answers to my questions, I chose to cling to that truth. This gave me enough peace that I was able to cope with life and even become a pastor. But I still found myself struggling, because my understanding of Christianity was still based on my performance. If things went well, I felt good about myself. If there were problems in my life, my family, or my church, I would blame myself and feel guilty that I hadn’t done enough or performed well enough. I still found myself binging on food and struggling with the addiction cycle, especially during stressful times. Another breakthrough came in 1990, when I attended a seminar that helped me understand the gospel much more clearly and proved to be life changing. After that seminar, I announced to my wife, “I will never be the same!”

Since that time, living as a Christian has been a joy. The addiction cycle was broken when I found peace and acceptance with God, based not on my performance but on the perfect life and death of Jesus. When I accepted His forgiveness and unconditional love, I experienced healing from the guilt and shame. Therefore the need for a temporary pain reliever was gone. Now I am able to focus my energy and thoughts on pleasing God, not in order to gain His acceptance but out of love and appreciation for what He had done and promises to continue to do.

Clinton Meharry writes from Anderson, Indiana.

Escape From Perfectionism

by Clinton Meharry
From the November 2005 Signs