Freed From The Prison Of Performance
Have we truly grasped the reality of grace? Or do we still struggle and strive to perform for God? Most of us have lived with the pressure to perform. This is the problem that lies at the heart of much of the counselling that I do.
Each of us has developed our own mental script that conditions us, arising out of our need for acceptance, love and belonging. ‘Performance addiction’ is the belief that perfecting our appearance and achieving status will secure love and respect from others. Internal conversations convince us that the more we achieve, the more we’ll be loved.
Jeremy is an entrepreneur, the father of three beautiful children, has a comfortable home and a full set of consumer durables. But Jeremy is restless in his marriage, unfulfilled in his work, and finding it difficult to connect with his children. He has discovered that a person’s net worth is no guarantee of a sense of self-worth. He is burnt out.
Jeremy is a textbook Performance Addict. His problem is compounded by his brand of Christianity; he’s afraid that if he disappoints God, then God’s rejection of him will be far more damning than the rejection he senses from his father. Jeremy is not able to invest the time in church that he thinks he ought to. Other Christians seemed so much more dedicated. There is also a dark shadow cast over him in the form of his brother, Aaron.
From the first moment that his father appeared to be favoring his brother over him, Jeremy became swamped by the overwhelming sense that he might be forgotten. Jeremy felt as though life was a cruel game of emotional snakes and ladders. Each time the dice landed on a snake, the accusing voice of under-achievement whispered ‘Loser!’ in his ear. Somewhere along the way many of us, like Jermy, picked up the idea that acceptance is a results-related business. Even those of us who believe that we are loved by God rarely truly believe that God accepts us the way we are.
Self-Replacement, not Self-Improvement
However, God is not interested in self-improvement; God is in the self-replacement business. Acceptance is based on one thing – perfection (Matthew 5:48). Whose? Not ours, but his! Christ himself is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus did not just live his life for us. He lived it as us. He died for us then, so that he could live in us and as us now. Consequently, when the Father sees us, he sees him. Yet because we don’t realize that, Christianity has often been reduced to trying to become who we already are. We strive to attain and retain what we already have and cannot lose. Adam fell from grace because he believed the lie that there was something that he could (and should) do to become more like God. We have been deceived into thinking that in spite of the finished work of the cross, there is something that we could and should do in order to be more liked by God.
When Christianity is presented as self-improvement, it simply feeds the addiction. The addiction is mind-altering, affecting the way we see God, ourselves and others, and makes us paranoid about the way we are perceived. Jeremy had never thought of himself as an addict. He rather disdainfully associated the word with drug and alcohol abuse, but as we talked about his ‘symptoms’, he mellowed. He knew precisely what it was to feel that you have to work harder than other people in order to get recognition. He was forever comparing his lot in life with the lot of others.
These Feelings aren’t Unique to Jeremy
There are at least five things that shape the image we have of ourselves, any one of which can cause a Performance Addict to turn to activity in the same way as alcoholics turn to drink:
- Parental influences
- Life experiences
- Unreasonable and/or unattainable standards
- Unwise comparisons
These things provide emotional background music, and inform every decision we make. Escape comes through awareness, spiritual literacy. That requires an alignment of three things: Identity (knowing who we are), Self-image (how we see ourselves) and Self-esteem (how we feel about ourselves). These are the building blocks of spiritual intelligence.
In the world of psychology, practitioners help people to develop Emotional Intelligence (EQ, derived from ‘Emotional Quotient’). EQ is seen as the key to developing resonant leaders. Historically, businesses have tended to promote those who are able to demonstrate a high IQ (Intelligence Quotient), but in recent years it has been seen that there is no direct link between success and IQ. Leadership is an intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual journey.
EQ focuses on our self-awareness, and the management of self in relation to others and the environment. EQ is built on four building blocks: self-recognition, self-regulation, social awareness and relationship management.
Spiritual Intelligence (SQ) focuses on our search for meaning, integration and authenticity. It is that authenticity that is so elusive. By the time we have made it to puberty, the world has shaped us. Our family, education, friends and heroes have all told us how to behave. But authenticity comes from a deep inner knowing of who we really are. The Bible alerts us to the possibility of a fifth intelligence, an intelligence that harnesses and leverages the four ‘intelligences’ – mental (IQ), physical, (PQ), emotional (EQ) and spiritual (SQ). Permit me to call this CQ – Christ Intelligence; the mind of Christ, which is knowing, being, and being present.
LWe ought not to confuse CQ with Bible Intelligence (BQ). Recognition of oneness with God requires something other than simply reading the Bible. We do not develop CQ from studying the written words of God, we get that from abiding in the word of God, or more precisely, from the Logos, Jesus, living in us. Read through this lens, the words become literally rhema words; that which is or has been uttered by the living voice of God.
Being Conscious of Christ Living in You
I define the term ‘Christian’ as a person who is conscious of the fact that Christ lives in them. Consequently, spiritual growth can be measured in degrees of consciousness of this reality, and the degree to which we cooperate with the in-dweller.
Having spent more than 30 years seeing his brother’s reflection when he looked into the distorted mirror of his self-esteem, Jeremy’s self-perception had become an issue. Nothing seemed to bring him any sense of fulfillment.
Jeremy’s father had unwittingly got his son hooked on performing by sending him the message that his love and approval was conditional. My mother communicated to me that I was not worth loving by abandoning me when I was 45 days old. Rather unsurprisingly, I have spent much of my life achieving goals to make me feel worthy. But the momentary flush of success would soon give way to self- recrimination: ‘I should have done that better…’ Performance Addicts are like gamblers; so many of their sentences start, ‘If only I could…’ or ‘I’ll be ok if…’ Once our faith is in the ‘if’, we’re on a slippery slope.
People change when they hurt enough that they have to, when they know enough that they want to, and when they are loved enough that they are enabled to. Jeremy was in a world of pain. He knew he needed help. He could see that as long as he insisted on making the link between affirmation and performance, he would never experience unconditional love. He came to see that it is not possible to love someone you need; the very fact that we need people ensures that our love is likely to be conditional, and thus compromised. To live free from performance addiction, the performer must have come to a deep realization that God doesn’t fall in and fall out of love with us…in fact, God doesn’t fall in love at all – God is love. That’s his nature, his default setting. The truth is that while our experience may be that people love us because they need us, God needs us because he loves us.
Sooner or later, every believer must confront two foundational questions: ‘Does God accept me? And if so, on what basis does he do so?’ Our understanding of acceptance must be the same as God’s. We are accepted by the Father in Christ. We are to God what Rachel was to Jacob (see Genesis 29-30); never his Leah, but always his beloved Rachel. Yet, acceptance is such a deeply rooted problem in the mind of humankind that even someone such as Rachel, who was adored by Jacob, was convinced that her husband would love her more if only she could give him a child. Leah, Jacob’s wife by virtue of her father’s duplicity, sought to win the heart of her husband by giving him children (typical of good works). The principle that God will surely love us more if only we could produce some good works is embedded in the religious mind. Rachel missed the fact that Jacob would not love Leah any more because of her good works, and not love Rachel any less despite her lack of works.
Grace does not function like that. Failure to accept that we are loved and accepted unconditionally effectively torpedoes our relationship with God.
Jeremy eventually found freedom from his performance addictions. But it required a radical renewing of his mind (Romans 12:2). This renewal is the product of a Christ-centered mindset, through which the believer is enabled to make a transition from selfishness to selflessness. Through the lens of selflessness, we are able to see with sufficient clarity to be able to discern between appearance and fact, and to forsake the temporal world. When we do so, we come into that for which we were made – the eternal. Then we may enter onto the path of Divine Union with God, which is the life hidden with Christ in God.
However, while clearly a desirable state to be in, Divine Union is also a disposition ordinarily entered into only after the exhaustion of all other attempts to relate to God, ourselves and others. The culmination of this process of exhaustion is what I call ‘Burnout’.
The great breakthrough for Jeremy came one evening after we’d spoken about perception. He finally saw that he didn’t have a success problem; he had a belief problem. He understood that the reason he was doing the things he was doing was because he was thinking the things he was thinking, and the reason he was thinking the things he was thinking was because he believed the things he believed.
For him to be free of the need to perform, he would have to learn to be present in the ‘now’. Like most performance addicts, Jeremy spent most of his time living in one or two places, neither of which exist in reality, but both of which interfered with his enjoyment of the moment. Jeremy typically lived in the past or in the future. The past only rebuked him over his failures, and the future made him anxious that he would repeat those failures. But there is no God who is called the ‘I Was’, nor is there a God called ‘I Will’; there is only the one true God who is called the I AM. The I AM lives in the eternal present – the divine now. I asked Jeremy, ‘What do you lack at this precise moment?’ ‘Nothing,’ he replied. I whispered the words of Psalm 46:10: ‘Be still, and know that I am God’. ‘Now that,’ I told him, ‘is the key to it all.’ Be still, abandon, relax, refrain, forsake, be disheartened (with one’s self), let alone, be quiet.
Jeremy had come to the place where he had no option but to stop. He had discovered the reason that the writer to the Hebrews said, ‘So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from His’ (Hebrews 4:9-10). When we finally enter into God’s rest we stop evaluating and measuring everything we do, and refuse to indulge our misguided attempts to resolve our self-worth issues through our achievements.
Jeremy came to see that God does not want recommitted Christians. He wants dead Christians. We cannot fully know the power of the resurrection until we fully know what it means to be dead. I gave Jeremy a copy of something that helped me. Maybe it will help you too:
Get A Revelation (Author Unknown)
Christians need a revelation of what it means to be dead in Christ. The struggling-self strives to have its own way, own rights and its own life. The religious self (‘I ought to’, ‘I should’) keeps the performing-self alive! You are dead. Just think of it. Indeed, dead persons –
- cannot respond to the Law;
- do not need to keep any laws or enforce any laws on others;
- are totally unable to perform;
- have no plans for the future, any regrets for the past and nothing to do in the present;
- cannot do good deeds or be moral;
- have no ability to fix themselves nor do they need to;
- do not need improvement or strength to handle problems;
- do not need ‘how-to’ or self-improvement books – there is nothing to improve;
- do not need any physical healing for they are dead;
- do not have any strength to fight the devil, nor do they need to, for why would the devil attack a dead person?;
- do not need a psychologist, for they do not need to analyze themselves nor understand their behavioral patterns.
- do not need to be more spiritual or to maintain their spirituality through good works;
- do not need to be more committed to God or to rededicate themselves over and over again;
- do not have to try and have faith because in Christ, we live by the faith of the Son of God.