Born to perform?
Whenever I get back from a bike ride, the first thing I do is sync my phone and my sports watch. Between them they compile data in an app I use called Strava. Strava monitors the route I take, the distance I travel, how fast I ride, how many metres I climb, etc, and it presents all the information to me in summary form at the end. If I happen to ride any part of a route I’ve ridden before, it compares my current performance against my previous performance, and serves to motivate me by also comparing my performance against others who’ve ridden a similar patch of tarmac that day. Somewhere deep in the annals of Strava are my first ever 100km ride, the time I passed 1000 miles and the time I came within a whisker of hitting 50mph as I descended Holme Moss. A history of my performance.
Strava tells us something about human nature – that generally speaking, we feel an innate need to perform, to prove ourselves. We may not always consciously recognise it, and it may not often be for purposes of self-promotion, but we feel the need – almost the drive – to perform. We want to measure, to monitor, to record, to improve. Faster, better, stronger. Be the King of the Mountain. We often derive on some level at least, fulfilment and a sense of achievement when we see figures clocking up and painting a picture, so the idea of ‘nipping for a run’ or ‘just heading out for a quick ride’ is almost inconceivable if Strava isn’t running or if the Garmin hasn’t been started.
We probably shouldn’t be surprised that performance has such a prominent place in our leisure lives (and make no mistake, it applies to many other activities – competence at a certain game or skill; record of books read this year; number of hats knitted for babies in NICU; pounds raised for charity, Steps taken daily, etc). After all, the whole foundation of western society is based upon performance and merit. “Only the strongest survive.” “We want the best person for the job.” “Work hard and you can be what you want to be.” These phrases epitomise our cultural mindset and condition us towards performance as a means of proving what we can do; showing what we’re capable of.
And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do your best, to improve, to perform well. In fact, it’s a commendable attitude. My concern comes, however, when it comes to God. It would be easy, when you think of a perfect, flawless God, to think that how we perform matters in terms of His view of us. To think that if we could get our act together, we may just about manage to impress Him, or that if we could just behave well enough for long enough, that we may just be able to earn His approval.
I’m afraid I have bad news. You can’t earn God’s approval. You’ll never be good enough to warrant his affection or affirmation. You’ll never measure up in such a way that He says ‘you know what, you’re alright. You deserve my love’. When it comes to God’s approval of us and His love for us, our performance can’t cut the mustard, no matter if it gets incrementally better and better.
If you read the Old Testament – the Bible’s record of what occurred before Jesus came along – you see a pattern repeating. You see people who, like us, were wired for performance. And you see people who, like us were inclined to think that their actions could earn God’s love and favour. Their mindset was simple… and tragically familiar: ‘follow these steps, comply with these rules and God will be pleased.’ Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Apparently not! The effectiveness of this approach is summarised as follows:
“When we display our righteous deeds [our best performance], they are nothing but filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6)
No, the best efforts of mankind would never be enough. The people way back in the Old Testament making sacrifices and keeping laws and regulations, doing their best to measure up, to prove themselves? Not enough! You and I trying to behave a certain way, refrain from certain things, invest our efforts in charitable causes and types of obedience all to impress God? Not good enough. It sounds like a pretty hopeless situation, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. You see every human ever born – except one – is born with an inherent flaw. Born with an inescapable limitation; its name is sin. Like cakes made using a defective cake tin, each person bears the same defect and lacks the ability to render themselves acceptable to God or to desrevenge His love. Our best performance, our ‘being our best selves’ can’t measure up. It can’t actually get us to the place that our striving and efforts are intended to take us. Is there any hope? There is, and his name is Jesus.
Jesus – fully man and fully God – came to the earth to perform perfectly where we couldn’t. He came to perfectly be and fulfil all that An unimaginably pure and holy God required, knowing that we were unable. And having lived a perfect life, having done no wrong, he was crucified – a death reserved for common criminals. It’s not a popular thing to talk about, but it’s necessary, and boy is it glorious. He hung on a tree, held by nails and wearing a bloody crown of thorns in order that something amazing could take place. You see, the death he died was the one that all of my shortfalls, inadequacies and sins deserved. He died in my place. And yours. And through his death and resurrection, he made available to those who would place their trust in him his perfection, his performance, his ‘good enough’. God offers His son’s perfect performance – we call it righteousness - as credit to any who would believe.
Most Christians get that, at least conceptually. We generally understand that the basis on which God accepts us into His family is not our worth or merit, but Jesus’ sacrificial death. Problems arise, however, once we’re in; once we’ve received God’s gift of grace. We so easily fall back into performance mode. Having received an incredible free gift – right standing before God through Jesus – we so easily fall into the trap of acting like our ongoing acceptance to Him depends on us. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a licence to do what you want and disregard obedience to God (more about that in a future post) but so often we act out our faith not as a grateful response of worship, but out of fear of losing His approval and love. As if, in one schizophrenic moment, the God who gifted us so much in His Son would turn around and, like Alan Sugar, declare us “fired”, let go, no longer fit to be called his children because our performance has dipped. The result is a kind of reluctant or obliging approach to serving God - the kind you may expect from a child scared of their unpredictable father. A kind of ‘I’d best do this to make sure I’m still in His good books’ approach rather than a joy-filled response to His undeserved kindness. Let me ask you – why do you do what you do? Is it to keep God happy? To stay on His good side? Or is it because you know that the matter of His acceptance of you is settled once and for all, and you’re now living out your heart-felt gratitude in response?
God’s acceptance of those who know him and call him Father never has been, and never will be based upon our performance. A perfect substitute performed a perfect sacrifice in order to settle the matter once and for all. So what? So go and live like a child of the King. Live like one set free from the weight of performance expectation. Live out of being accepted, not in order to be accepted for that, my friend, has been settled once and for all for all and any who choose to receive the free gift.