Not that long ago, reading Jesus’ words about “abiding in Him” in John made me wince.
Why? Because grace-filled faith seemed like a Catch-22.
I knew I needed to stop “performing for God,” stop trying so hard to earn God’s favor. But as far as I knew, the only way to stop performing was to try harder.
In other words: Try harder to not try so hard.
Even as I saw the absurdist irony, I despaired.
All around me, Christian friends had regular quiet times, faithfully prayed and found joy in church attendance without confusing any of it with winning God’s favor. I knew others were seeing these life-giving practices in a radically different way than I did. I knew I was missing some aspects of God’s Kingdom made manifest in my life.
But I couldn’t stop performing any more than someone color-blind could see red. I agreed with Paul in Romans: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Performance-oriented, perfectionist thinking is addictive. It looks pretty on the outside, but it lands you in the same pit of alienation from God. And perfectionists like me need more than firm resolutions and better ideas. We need a miracle.
Here’s what mine looked like:
Give Up on the Checklist
I used to feel unrelenting shame when I didn’t feel like connecting to God. I would force myself to spend time with Him, and then feel awful that my heart wasn’t in the task.
I hated feeling like time with Jesus was a chore. But if I didn’t spend time with Him at all, how could I grow in my faith?
About two years ago, at my wits’ end in faith, I tried a radically different approach.
I stopped doing Christian stuff I didn’t want to do.
Instead, I got brutally honest with God. If I didn’t feel like praying, I told Him, and asked Him to give me that desire. Ditto with the Bible, church, and other disciplines.
Funnily enough, that brutal honesty was the most earnest praying I’d done in years.
For the first time, I’m being honest with God and myself. Just as importantly, I am finally seeing that God is the author and perfecter of my faith, not me.
Make Joy a Priority
The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that the chief end of man is, in part, to enjoy God forever.
For most of my life of faith, I ignored this idea completely.
I thought of prayer or Bible reading like sandpaper that would take off my rough edges. The more I disliked it, the more effective it was.
But that attitude wore me thin.
Lately, I’ve paid attention to ways I actually enjoy encountering God. Writing, liturgy, a prayer partner, worship music and long meditative walks give me regular ways of exulting in God’s presence.
The transformation this has wrought is nothing less than spectacular. I used to feel resentful when I spent time with Jesus. Now, being with Him is the best part of my week.
I long for God to help me enjoy every way of connecting to Him—both traditional and unorthodox. But for now, prioritizing joy means that His jubilant Kingdom reigns in my heart.
Be Willing to Offend Someone
When I started to focus less on things I saw as tasks—like regimented Bible reading or church attendance—I was mostly worried about what my friends would say.
Would they think I was backsliding? Lazy? Losing my faith altogether?
If I’m honest, much of me performing for God is really about performing for other people. I want others to see me as a “mature Christian,” suitable for leadership roles and with a sparkling, impressive testimony.
It turns out that the biggest chain that kept me tied to performance-oriented faith was what other people thought. I stayed resentful, anxious and cynical because it felt safer than others seeing my real relationship to Jesus. I wanted to keep my messy theology, my questionable maturity and my boredom with the Bible secret.
But like Paul said, my good reputation is rubbish. The more I stop caring what others think of my weird faith, the more desperate I get for Christ.
The honest truth is when we stop performing for God, it hurts. We lose control over how we appear to other people, lose the certainty that we’re “good Christians” and we face hard truths about grief, pain and our own brokenness. It’s easier to keep on happy masks and lose out on the abundant life we’re promised.
What’s more, we can’t stop performing for God on our own. Just like everything else in faith, Jesus is going to have to do the heavy lifting for us. It’s only in humility, desperation and radical dependence that we’ll take a seat in the audience and applaud at God’s performance in our lives for the very first time.