All too often, as Christians, we get caught in the performance trap. When we do, it muddles our thinking and we’re prone to confuse our “worth” with “worthiness.”
Going there leads to all kinds of problems, including bringing out the absolute worst forms of judgmentalism and hypocrisy, and actually repels people from Jesus.
Not only that, but falling into the performance trap is exhausting and drains the life out of our souls.
The performance trap is exactly what Jesus was talking about freeing us from when he said,
Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.— Matthew 11:29-30
Sadly, for far to many believers following Jesus has been reduced to a list of rules about what they can and can’t do. Keeping a list of rules is far from easy. Just as anyone who is trying to lose weight by sticking to a diet!
Fruit of the Spirit
It’s not that we believers aren’t supposed to be doing good things. We most certainly are.
Paul told us in Galatians,
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!— Galatians 5:22-23
The trouble is we look at that list of “fruit” and we say, “OK. I can do that. How hard can it be?” Then we go off, try to produce that fruit, and get sucked right into the performance trap.
The thing is performance – manufacturing “fruit” in our own strength – may look very similar to fruit bearing from the outside. In fact, from the outside looking in we might not be able to tell them apart all.
But internally, in our heart and soul, there is a world of difference.
Throughout the New Testament we are called and encouraged to do good works. But these works should flow naturally, or even supernaturally, out of the Spirit living within us instead of something that we conjure up and create in our own strength. In fact the Bible talks about the things that we do in our own strength and power as being “in the flesh” (some translations will say “our sinful nature” instead) and contrasts that to the things we do “in the Spirit.”
And here’s the kicker. We can do good things “in the flesh” along with the nasty stuff that is obviously ungodly.
So how do we know the difference? Well, let’s look at “goodness” as an example.
I see the big differences between the goodness that is a fruit of the Spirit and the goodness that is a measure of our performance come down to our motivation, our expectations and our focus and finally the effect each has on us.
The goodness that flows out of our spirit is motivated by a desire to give and be a blessing to others. It may not even feel like fruitful goodness is even a big deal as we do it, because we are being divinely inspired and empowered.
Performance based goodness is motivated by a desire to be blessed and receive from others, including God. Our entire world is a performance based “what’s in it for me?” society. When we are looking to get instead of just to give without trying to manipulate a response then we are caught in the performance trap.
Out of our spirit flows goodness that doesn’t expect anything in return because it flows in response to what Jesus already did for us. Sure God will ultimately bless us for the good that we do because of the law of planting and harvesting. But we know that even though we will certainly harvest what we plant, we rarely harvest where we plant. God has a way of blessing us from entirely different fields than we plant in so we can let go of our expectations for an instant return whenever we plant goodness in others’ lives.
Performance based goodness, on the other hand, brings with it an expectation of a certain outcome and reward for “doing the right thing.” One strong indication that we’re in the performance trap is when we start thinking “I did this so you owe me.”
Many people look at God this way. “I pray, fast, go to church, donate tons of money, etc, etc. So why aren’t you blessing me, God?” God’s blessing is not based on what we do, but rather on what Jesus already did.
In short, the spiritual fruit of goodness is others focused, while we tend to fixate on ourselves when our goodness is performance based. “How am I doing compared to everyone else?” Or, “Compared to most people I’m pretty good.” instead of just wanting to bless others.
When we start comparing ourselves to others we are already stuck in the performance trap.
It’s easy to do. Peter had that problem. Even when Jesus was restoring Peter after Peter denied him, Peter was comparing himself to the other disciples. He asked Jesus, “what about him?” Jesus basically told him, “what I have in mind for him isn’t any of your concern. You follow me.”
Keeping our eyes on our own lane will help keep us out of the performance trap.
When we do good things in the flow of the Spirit welling up from within us we are energised. Not only do our actions lift up others, but when we are operating in the Spirit they lift us up as well. Even though it might be hard work or be physically challenging, we are spiritually refreshed when we operate in the fruit of the Spirit.
In contrast, when we are caught in the performance trap, the good things we do may lift up others but they tend to weigh us down and exhaust us – both physically and spiritually. Rather than building us up it tears us down. And it makes it just a little harder to do good things the next time.
Rest in Jesus
When we’re caught in the performance trap we will likely be very inconsistent in what we do. That inconstancy will be incredibly discouraging, and it has the potential to drive us further from God.
The better way is to rest in Jesus. Trust what He has already done. Spend time reading the Bible and learning what that means.
Then you will find the fruit of the Spirit will naturally flow out of you. It might even seem effortless!