Have you ever wanted God to give you something so badly that you did a quick spiritual inventory and secretly started to “do better” in those areas where you lacked—like praying more, giving more, studying your Bible more, signing up to “serve” in your church, or going to church “every” Sunday?
There is a nature inside of us that believes what we do or don’t do determines whether or not we get what we want. Unfortunately, this mindset comes with us into our relationship with Jesus Christ. It is something we must fight against every day.
I’m not talking about a “works-salvation” mindset. Most of us believe that by grace through faith we are given the gift of salvation (Eph. 2:8-9). Afterward, the battle between living by the law or living by grace begins.
We know that doing well benefits us and not doing well hurts us. That’s generally true as we move through the many facets of life:
- If you study hard, you get good grades. If you don’t study hard, you fail.
- If you fulfill your duties in a job, you get paid. If you don’t, you get fired.
- If you are a good friend, you have friends. If you aren’t, you lose friends.
This world system has taught us that our works, good or bad, affect our lives in positive or negative ways.
Performance-based thinking is low-level legalism in Christianity. We believe how God treats us is based on how well we perform. When we perform well, we expect to be on good terms with God and receive His blessings. When we perform poorly, we expect to be on God’s naughty list and receive His punishment.
There are five core heart idols that drive us to perform for selfish gain: self-righteousness, self-justification, self-reliance, self-pity, and self-esteem.
Heart Idols of Performance-Based Thinkers
- Motivation: To gain God’s approval by my good works
- Lie: My good works are good enough for God to love me and to bless me.
- Truth: No one is righteous, and we must submit to God’s righteousness (Rom. 3:10; 10:3).
- Motivation: To gain God’s peace by excusing my sinful heart and actions
- Lie: I have a good excuse for my actions; therefore, God will see it my way.
- Truth: I have peace with God through justification by faith (Rom. 5:1).
- Motivation: To acquire God’s love by trying harder
- Lie: If I try harder and work harder, God will love me.
- Truth: God’s love is unconditional, and His grace is sufficient (Rom. 5:6-8; 2 Cor. 12:9).
- Motivation: To show disagreement with God in how He treats me
- Lie: In feeling sorry for myself, God will see my suffering and make things better.
- Truth: My life is not my own. God will do with it what He wants (Gal. 2:20).
- Motivation: To gain God’s acceptance by building up my worth and value
- Lie: If I feel good about myself, then God will feel good about me.
- Truth: There is nothing good in me. My value is in Christ (Ps. 16:2; Luke 12:7; Rom. 5:8).
The Perilous Cycle of the Performance Trap
We get stuck in the performance trap without realizing it. Our hearts want love, acceptance, approval, recognition, joy, peace, and comfort. We enter each day driven to perform well in the roles that will give us the greatest applause. We continue to reassess and readjust our efforts if we’re not reaping the rewards.
This toxic cycle of self-deception weighs heavily on us. Feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, and despair invade our hearts. God feels cold, distant, and unapproachable. We find ourselves stuck in a cesspool of sin and destructive behaviors such as food and drug addictions, pornography, overspending, workaholism, etc. The Apostle James warns us of this cycle in James 1:14-16:
“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.”
When life goes desperately wrong, we search through our dusty sin archives: I committed adultery. I had an abortion. I stole the money. I cheated on my taxes. I lied to my boss. I had a baby out of wedlock. I married an unbeliever, etc. We deceive ourselves, thinking that we can steer God’s will by our performance.
- God is punishing me.
- God doesn’t love me.
- God may be good to you, but He’s not good to me.
- What am I doing wrong?
- Why is God punishing me?
- What must I do to be on good terms with God?
Breaking free from the bondage of the performance trap requires three crucial elements: believing God, receiving His grace, and obeying God.
1. Believing God
Performance-based thinkers must believe God at His word when He says, “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb. 11:6). The work that is required that we “do” first is to believe in Jesus Christ (John 6:29). Believing in Jesus means to believe:
- God unconditionally loves us (John 3:16).
- God justifies us (Rom. 3:24).
- God accepts us (Rom. 8:31).
- God gives us His peace (Phil. 4:7).
2. Receiving His Grace
We receive God’s grace by faith in Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:10, Paul proclaims it is God’s grace that enables him to work hard in service for God. Like Paul, God’s grace transforms our life from one characterized by self-centered performances to one characterized by God-centered acts of obedience.
3. Obeying God
Obedience without faith is self-righteousness. Obeying God’s commands because we don’t want to be punished, we want assurance of His love, or we want to justify our actions are acts of self-love. God desires obedience through faith in Christ, which is evidence of our love relationship with God (John 14:23). Instead of performing to win God’s favor, let us respond in obedience because of His favor.
Questions for Reflection
In what ways do you see your life caught in the performance trap? If you can’t think of anything, ask someone who knows you well. They can give you some hints. How do the three elements of breaking free apply to your walk with Jesus?