I know a lot of men who get wrapped up in performance — work, sports, even community service or church attendance — competitiveness in any arena.
But it’s not just men. For some of us Christians, we are no more vulnerable than in the arena of spiritual performance. I am historically vulnerable to that one. Like the older brother of the prodigal son, I can do the right things for the wrong reasons.
Luke 15 tells the well-known story of the rebellious younger son who returned home filled with shame, assuming his behavior negated his right to be called “son.” We sometimes miss the reverse assumption made by the older son. Indignant that everyone is celebrating his brother’s return, the older brother says to his father:
Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him! (vv. 28-30)
In his mind, the poor performance of his younger brother negated his standing with his father. The older son’s own righteous (though probably resentful) performance should have elevated him to the level of “favored son.” He was wrong on both accounts. The point of Jesus’ story is applicable to both sons: The Father’s love for you is not dependent on behavior. Neither outright rebellion nor hidden resentful performance will sway the Father’s love.
When he was in Antioch, the apostle Paul was asked if he had “a message of encouragement for the people.” The core piece of his message is this:
Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38, 39)
Jesus is the source of our justification. He brings forgiveness. He brings life. He brings freedom from every distorted compulsion of the law of Moses — rule-keeping, legalism, judgment, comparison, point-keeping, and spiritual performance. Those “laws” birthed Pharisees in Paul’s day. They still do today.
Are you vulnerable to spiritual rule-keeping or legalism?
Paul reminds us that
the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. (Galatians 3:24, 25)
Faith justifies us, the law doesn’t.
Are you vulnerable to spiritual judgment or comparing yourself with others?
Paul urges us,
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3-5)
The verses following reveal Jesus’ remarkable spirit of humble servanthood and self-sacrifice:
…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (vv. 6-7)
Yet, one day every knee will bow before him. So the gospel of faith in Jesus Christ frees us from comparing ourselves with others because we know what we are justified in God’s sight.
Are you vulnerable to spiritual point-keeping and outward performance?
In Matthew 23, we read the account of Jesus’ encounter with self-exalting, other-condemning, point-keeping Pharisees: “Woe to you teachers of the Law!…Woe to you hypocrites!…Woe to you blind guides!…You snakes!…You brood of vipers!” Piercing, stark, unmistakable words of conviction against point-keeping and performance. Jesus hated it.
By contrast he told the multitudes who followed him not to be like the hypocrites who, for example, pray on the street corners so they will be seen by men. Rather, says Jesus,
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:6)
Jesus’ harshest criticism is against spiritual performance; his deepest message, indeed the message of the cross, is that we are free from the law that condemns us. Our justification, and our significance, is all because of Jesus. Without his sacrifice, we are entirely without hope; but with it, we are fully, completely, eternally justified. There is no room left for works-based righteousness gained through performance.
Act, serve, speak, teach, lead, defend, and give comfort, not because you must, but because your heart is so filled with joy, hope, and gratitude for what Jesus has done for you. Do these things because “…the love of Christ compels us” (2 Cor. 5:14, NIV). Do them because we can’t not act.
There is no more keeping score. Just liberated freedom to be exactly who he created and gifted us to be. All because of Jesus. Thank God!