An End to Performance Anxiety

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the performance principle, and about how it honestly has dominated my entire life.

The influence of my upbringing and my society has encouraged me to base most of my self-worth on what I do, how I perform, what I achieve.

I know I’m not alone in that!

I sense that God is changing that in me in a “three steps forward, two steps back” sort of way, and I have to tell you, slow as it is, that change is actually incredibly liberating and peace-giving.

I told one of my spiritual direction partners that I’m realizing over and over how much of what I do and what’s going on around me doesn’t matter in any final sense, and far from being nihilistic, that’s a joyful realization.

In conjunction with that strand of spiritual call, I’ve also done a lot of thinking about something that may sound a bit odd.

I’m starting to wonder if part of discipleship is just learning how to put up with the fact that we’re kind of jerks sometimes, and there’s probably a piece of that that we can’t ever grow out of or get rid of.

Does that make sense?

The honest spiritual desire to grow in faith, to practice spiritual discipline and see it effect real change in us, can lead us right back to the worthiness and holiness trap.

It’s the performance principle that used to be focused on the outer world—job, salary, possessions, looks, Facebook likes—translated into spiritual athleticism.

Suddenly we have a false and hollow goal that one day—one magical day!—we’ll have Arrived. We will have “achieved” Being a Good Christian.

Well, what if we never will?

What if some of the time, for the rest of my life, I will be a cranky, ungenerous brat who’s going full bore at the same old patterns of selfishness and status hunger?

At first that was a depressing thought, but it is actually kind of encouraging in a way.

If that were the only truth about the spiritual life, that would be pretty grim.

What’s the point of trying so hard if we’re not going to get anywhere?

Why bother with a prayer discipline and tithing and service and all the rest of it if at the end of the day I still find myself engaging in cruel gossip and looking down on people and withholding love as per usual?

I’m actually wondering if there is a call to a different spiritual discipline, and that discipline is holding in tension two opposing truths.

Truth number one: besetting sin is real, and there’s a fair bit of my frail humanity—self-centeredness, lack of compassion, deceit—that I will never fully escape or jettison.

Truth number two: our God is a God of transformation, and we really can learn and change over time, growing up into the full stature of Christ.

What if the call is to know those both to be true?

Richard Rohr puts it this way: “The saints are no longer surprised by their smallness or their greatness.”

Maybe the spiritual discipline to commit to is to be patient with the fact that we’re jerks sometimes and have faith that we’re really growing in holiness at the same time.

I guess in a resurrection faith, there must always be a bit of death mixed in with the life, right?

Advent is a time of mingled fierceness and tenderness.

It is a time of terrifying vulnerability and apocalyptic power.

It is a time of holy, reflective silence and raging upheaval.

Rather than try to separate and contain these conflicting dynamics within the life of our own souls, perhaps our prayer should be to welcome and cultivate them.

It’s a subtler and more challenging discipline than letting ourselves fall into our own caricatures of good and evil.

We don’t get to be God and we don’t get to be Satan—we must muster the courage to live humbly and honestly in the eternal mediocrity of an unfinished disciple of Jesus.

How do we go about that?

My eye was caught by the text from James this week. “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient.”

God’s patience with us is unending, but it is not a put-upon or condescending patience.

It is a patience that is full of tenderness, a patience that relishes the small and often slow steps of the journey of spiritual growth.

It is a patience that anticipates our blooming into our fullness while simultaneously loving us passionately exactly as and where we are, without requiring us to change at all in order to be loved.

What would it be like to join God in this generous, loving patience?

What would it be like to give thanks for where we are, knowing how deeply we are loved, while still pursuing the next spiritual discovery around the corner?

Our text says, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.”

That’s valuable advice as it applies to how we treat one another in church, at work, and in all of our communities.

But it also matters in our “internal community,” the many forces and faces of ourselves that sometimes war and fight and certainly judge one another.

Perhaps we could seek to be present in that “internal community” with as much loving patience as we try to in our external communities.

No doubt it will be equally challenging! But the rewards might be equally great.

Jesus spoke to this dynamic in our gospel today referring to John the Baptist himself. “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Even John, forerunner of the Incarnation and heir to the prophets, had his frailties and his flaws.

Even John, brave, bold, fire-breathing, justice-seeking John, found his faith faltered when he was up against the wall.

And whose wouldn’t?

And yet Jesus calls John one the greatest of those born of women.

The question is not whether we are composed of both strength and weakness, glory and sin.

The question is how we relate to this truth.

Do we play into the narrative of war, fighting with ourselves, exalting ourselves and then hating ourselves, always trying to get to moral perfection and worthiness by brute force?

Or do we learn to value the very struggle itself?

Can we not only live with the tension of being a sinner and a saint, but actually value that very contradiction? This is the question.

What’s the alternative to the metaphor of war for the spiritual life?

Let’s go back to James’ words. “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.”

You are the precious crop.

You are green turning to gold, fragile as you poke your head out of the soil, and the gentle soaking rain is the patient love of God nourishing you.

Or sometimes not so gentle!

The early rains and the late rains—consider that.

The early rains—the first rains of spring—often are soft.

Mist, drizzle, sprinkles and gentle, thunderless showers—all mingle with the melting snow to rouse the seeds within the earth, like the awakening waters of baptism.

But as the crops grow and the season rolls forward, the summer rains become stronger and stronger until the violent, pelting thunderstorms of August crash upon us.

The rain is no longer gentle, but the crops have grown strong enough to handle gully-washers.

They even grow stronger from bending to the wind and rain and standing straight again.

This is what the spiritual life is like.

The rain of God waters us in the field of community, and under the sun of the gospel we grow up nourished and ready to become nourishers ourselves.

And if there is one thing this process requires, it is patience.

It cannot be hurried, and warlike force and anger are futile to the point of being irrelevant.

I guess where I need the patient rain of God the most is in giving up the idolatry of the performance principle.

I, like all of us, am addicted to control, and feeling like I can “make it happen” myself spiritually gives me a sense of control.

But the crops in the field have no agency.

They don’t walk out of the furrows and go get sun and rain to create their own growth.

They are acted upon by these benevolent forces, whose patient attentiveness slowly and gently shepherds them to growth and flourishing.

“You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”

I suppose that’s the final truth of Advent, isn’t it?

We can’t make Jesus come when it’s convenient to us or to accomplish our own agendas. He comes in his own time, the right time.

We feel torn by our sinner and saint selves, always a bit afraid that the gentle rain of God will peter out and there will be some kind of drought of grace.

Anxiety can be the enemy of patience.

And patience is a quiet and humble virtue, shy behind louder graces like joy or generosity.

But the promise made to us as we search for patience within ourselves is the ever-renewing promise: “The coming of the Lord is near.”

He is always coming, and always arrived, always near, and always here.

He lives “in the middle” as much as we do.

But perhaps “mediocrity” is not the synonym for the “middle” we thought it was.

Perhaps “miracle” is the better word.


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