The Alluring Lie of Performance
As an adjunct professor of Bible at Abilene Christian University I have the privilege of working daily with young people as they explore the witness of the New Testament. I also have the privilege of interacting daily with the biblical texts, stories, and themes; not only does this interaction inform my classroom experiences but, at least when I allow it to, it also forms my own faith and Christian walk. A recent confluence of events has highlighted for me a biblical message that I needed to hear, and perhaps it could also benefit you.
Those who know me could readily attest that I am a very driven person. A classic Enneagram One in so many ways, I have lengthy to-do lists, even if primarily in my head, and exceedingly high standards for myself. I feel a need for effectiveness and productivity, sometimes including the strategic productivity of planned relaxation, and I can be harsh in my self-criticism. So when a recent bout of the flu knocked me down hard for over a week and had continuing impact for two additional weeks, I found myself languishing not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. It was an immensely trying experience for me—an active, ambitious, accomplishment-fueled woman—to lie in bed for days in a row, unable to attain even the simplest goals of keeping myself fed or hydrated, much less caring well for my two young children, making progress in my work or studies, or meeting my obligations like submitting this blog post on time.
Though reluctant to do so, I had to accept my limitations and rely on the graciousness and service of others to carry me through those days. I struggled with receiving assistance and especially with accepting my utter uselessness in the moment. As I unsuccessfully attempted to ward off the despondency that accompanied my inactivity, I was reminded none too gently of the dangerous territory I frequently enter when I place an inappropriate emphasis on my own ability to accomplish as the measure of my worth. Productivity and achievement can certainly be good things. But gauging my own validity as a human being by how efficient and effective I am—or, for that matter, how successful I am by any human standard—is perilous. It was not the first time I have fallen into the trap of believing my value resides in anything other than in the God who created me good and pursues and sustains me throughout my days.
While all of this was happening in my personal life, I was also in the midst of teaching the Gospel of Mark to my freshmen students. The lesson could not have come at a better time for me. Mark is a beautifully written Gospel, known for so many wonderful things: its emphasis on Jesus’s identity as Messiah, the expertly crafted original ending (you can argue with me, but I think it’s astounding), an emphasis on the way of Jesus and his disciples also being the way of the cross. … It’s inspiring to dwell on any of these things, but the particular message of Mark that I needed to hear during this difficult time was that Jesus is faithful always, despite his followers’ continued failures.
Yes, Mark says, God calls us to the way of Jesus and the cross. That charge remains valid no matter the circumstances of our lives. At the same time, however, so does the love and faithfulness of Jesus. No matter the circumstances of our lives, our faith, or our (in)ability to perform. We see this throughout Mark’s Gospel again and again. Jesus’s followers are oftentimes clueless idiots who completely misunderstand what Jesus is up to. Peter goes so far as to rebuke Jesus, thinking he knows more than the one he’s just declared to be the Messiah. The disciples betray, abandon, and deny Jesus in his time of need. And the women who receive the news of the Resurrection run away and say nothing to anyone because they’re afraid. And yet Jesus pursues them, Jesus welcomes them, Jesus loves them. Always. Always. Always.
The way of discipleship to Jesus is not, I must note, a one-to-one corollary with the ambitious way of life to which my Enneagram One-ness drives me. Sometimes, in fact, they are at odds. But in both cases I, at least, can tend to base my value and belovedness on my ability to perform, whether it’s how far I’ve whittled down the endless to-do list in any given day or how perfectly I’ve lived the way of discipleship throughout my life. All too often, when I look at myself, I see a failure. Not an absolute one, to be fair. There are some things I’ve done well, and I feel some assurance in those things, especially on days when I can see the tangible results of my efforts. But even that is a false assessment of security, measuring myself and determining my worthiness based upon my actions, my faithfulness, anything that I have done or could do. That’s dangerous territory right there.
I don’t know about you, but I need to hear this lesson frequently. Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’s faithfulness despite the disciples’ failures is an essential reminder that no matter how much I fail, no matter how clueless I am, no matter how well I do or how badly I screw things up, the love and faithfulness of Jesus are there for me. And for you. Always. Always. Always.