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The Performance Trap

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Our life is completely soaked in a performance-based culture. Like running to the car in a downpour, we are totally drenched in a culture obsessed with performance.

It’s everywhere we look.

Think about the various areas of life. Health. Finance. Relationships. Work. Creative pursuits. Sport. Education.

There isn’t one area of life unaffected by performance. We are obsessed with it.

Our life is completely soaked in a performance-based culture. We are obsessed with it.

Take the area of finance, for example. We like to know the performance of our account, our investments, our superannuation fund, our tax offsets and returns, and of course our house price.

Or, perhaps the area of health. The doctor helps us evaluate our body’s performance through testing our blood pressure, taking blood tests, and looking at our sugar levels. We seek to improve our performance through better eating and exercise. We even buy little gadgets to strap on our arm to tell us how many steps we do each day.

We live and breathe performance.

I’ve even made reading performance-based.

If you keep up wtih this site then you’ll know I read regularly, and often write about my reading. But because I’m that kind of guy I’ve been keeping a list of every book I’ve read since 2005! It’s listed in a spreadsheet, with a rating, and perhaps even some notes. I have a goal of reaching 26 books per year. But, in the process, I’ve made reading a matter of performance.

We live in a culture where performance seems to be significant.

But living in this performance-based culture doesn’t just affect the way we live and think in these particular areas of life I’ve mentioned. It can also affect the way we think about our Christian faith.

Our discipleship, our service, our giving, our obedience, our morality and ethics, and our worship can all be turned into performance-based Christianity. We can fall into a performance trap that distorts our true understanding of God and what he has done for us – the gospel.

In Ephesians 2 we find Paul writing words that speak directly against this performance-based Christianity. He writes:

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. (Eph 2:8-9)

The faith we profess, the faith we have been given, is not about performance at all. It’s not about anything we’ve done. Instead, it’s about the grace of God, gifting us salvation and faith through a person – Jesus Christ.

In explaining these verses John Stott writes:

Here are three foundation words of the Christian good news–salvation, grace, and faith. ‘Salvation’ is more than forgiveness. It is deliverance from death, slavery, and wrath described in v1-3. Indeed, it includes the totality of our new life in Christ, together with whom we have been made alive, exalted and seated in the heavenly realm. ‘Grace’ is God’s free and undeserved mercy towards us, and ‘faith’ is the humble trust with which we receive it for ourselves.

You see, v8-9 is a reminder that our faith is not performance-based at all.

There is nothing we’ve done that makes us deserve the goodness, kindness, blessings, riches, and mercy that God has gifted us—nothing we’ve done to turn dead hearts to beating hearts.

God has done it all. It is a gift of God from start to finish.

This is amazing grace!

Practical Gracelessness

But why is it then, that more often than not, we end up living out our faith believing something slightly different?

Intellectually we get it. We understand the heart of Christianity really isn’t about us, it’s about God and what he has done. Yet functionally we keep trying to make it about us. We are drawn back to performance in our attempt to live out our faith. In the end, we fall into performance traps; distorting the gospel and making our faith about us once again. 

I’d like to suggest two performance traps we may fall into.

Performance Trap #1: We believe our faith is based on our performance when we think there is something within us that deserves God’s grace.

Paul writes in v8 very clearly that we’ve done nothing to earn God’s grace.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift of God.

This is the foundational performance trap we can find ourselves believing, not just in our heads but in our hearts too. When we believe there is something within us that makes God turn his face and shine his grace upon us then we are falling into this trap.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with our Aussie idiom, ‘He’s a good bloke.’ With this one phrase, we have the summary of a person. A man who has good social standing with peers, someone who looks after their mates, is willing to lend a hand when needed, and can be relied on to return a favour. In essence, a ‘good bloke’.

There are plenty of good blokes, but good blokes don’t earn the grace of God.

There is nothing within those good blokes—or in you and me—nothing in our character or attitude or ethics that can make us deserving of God’s grace. We may deserve human friendship, thanks, and trust, but there is nothing in us capable of earning the grace of God.

There is nothing within those good blokes—or in you and me—nothing in our character or attitude or ethics that can make us deserving of God’s grace. We may deserve human friendship, thanks, and trust, but there is nothing in us capable of earning the grace of God.

There is nothing within those good blokes—or in you and me—nothing in our character or attitude or ethics that can make us deserving of God’s grace.

Jesus, when addressed as ‘good teacher’ in Luke 10:18, hammers home the point: ‘Who are you calling good? No one is good—except God alone.’

If at any point we believe we are in and of ourselves good enough to deserve the grace of God, then we have well and truly distorted our understanding of the gospel.

Performance Trap #2: We believe our faith is based on our performance when we think what we have done for God is deserving of his grace.

This performance trap is probably the easiest one we can slip into.

We realise we’re not perfect and know there is nothing within us that can bring about God’s grace. But, as we live out our faith, we find ourselves living in a way that suggests what we do might bring about God’s grace and favour.

Here we begin to function in a way that makes God into a transactional God.

When we go to any store and buy whatever items we need or want, we pay for it and receive those items as our own. A transaction has taken place whereby we have paid for the goods and so receive those goods upon payment.

When we fall into the trap of believing God is a transactional God we have the same mentality.

In our minds, we come to God laden with all those good things we’ve done. Those people we’ve served for years, those programs we’ve run, those bible studies we’ve attended, those daily devotional times we’ve engaged in, those church services we’ve sat through, those acts of service, those times we’ve been really obedient, those scriptures we’ve memorised, and the list could go on.

We come to him and say, ‘Look Lord! Here are all the things I have done.’ We assure ourselves by believing we’ve done all these good and right things that a Christian should do in order to be stamped as one who receives the grace of God.

In v9 Paul reminds us that this grace we have been gifted is not something we attain by what we do. He says it is, ‘Not by works—so that no one can boast’.

Our actions and practices can’t merit God’s grace. When we truly understand this it holds us back from boasting. It reminds us of how powerless we are and how powerful God is.

Are You Trapped?

This performance trap is an easy one to fall into. If we aren’t reminded of God’s radical unconditional grace for us through Christ we will begin to believe we deserve it.

Perhaps another way to think about this is to ask two questions of ourselves:

When we serve, are we doing it because we think God requires it of us or because of what he has done for us?

  1. When we seek to obey, are we doing it because we think God will look fondly upon us or are we seeking to obey because of what he has done for us?
  2. God’s kindness and love is given to us, not because of our own performance in any way, but by the performance of a person – Jesus Christ (Titus 3:4-7).

Our relationship with God does not depend on our performance for Jesus, but on Jesus’ performance for us.

And what amazing grace that is.

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