Freedom from the “Performance Treadmill”

Sixteen years ago, I was gifted a book written by one of my favorite authors, Jerry Bridges. The book is entitled Transforming Grace. I immediately read the first few chapters and set it aside for no memorable reason (Providence had another plan to use it later). There it sat for ten years, until, when I sensed a powerful working of the Spirit in my life bringing me to a “new,” deeper understanding of God’s grace.

I found myself constantly frustrated and, at times, depressed. I felt like a constant failure who could never measure up to my perfectionist expectations and, therefore, did not feel fully accepted by God. Oh, I knew I was born again. There was no question in my mind about that. But I found it almost impossible to simply rest in my acceptance with God. So, He sent Jerry Bridges to me as a faithful counselor to help me see the cause of my frustration: I had shifted the basis of my acceptance with God from His grace alone to His grace plus my daily performance for Him. The writer exposed my wrong thinking:

My observation of Christendom is that most of us tend to base our personal relationship with God on our performance instead of on His grace. If we’ve performed well—whatever “well” is in our opinion—then we expect God to bless us. If we haven’t done so well, our expectations are reduced accordingly. In this sense, we live by works rather than grace. We are saved by grace, but we are living by the “sweat” of our own performance.

Can you relate? Even though you know in your head that your salvation was accomplished solely by the grace of God apart from your own works, do you sometimes wonder if God really accepts you? If you do not always “feel” accepted, it may be you have exchanged the security of your standing in Christ with the uncertainty of what Bridges calls “the performance treadmill” and, therefore, are not truly living by grace. Here’s how he describes it:

Living by grace instead of by works means you are free from the performance treadmill. It means God has already given you an “A” when you deserved an “F.” He has already given you a full day’s pay even though you may have worked for only one hour. It means you don’t have to perform certain spiritual disciplines to earn God’s approval. Jesus Christ has already done that for you. You are loved and accepted by God through the merit of Jesus, and you are blessed by God through the merit of Jesus. Nothing you ever do will cause Him to love you any more or any less. He loves you strictly by His grace given to you through Jesus.

To live by grace is to live solely by the merit of Jesus Christ. To live by grace is to base my entire relationship with God, including my acceptance and standing with Him, on my union with Christ. It is to recognize that in myself I bring nothing of worth to my relationship with God, because even my righteous acts are like filthy rags in His sight (Isaiah 64:6). Even my best works are stained with motives and imperfect performance. I never truly love God with all my heart, and I never truly love my neighbor with the degree or consistency with which I love myself.

Therefore, if we base our favor with God on our performance, we will never truly think we are accepted, because all our past and present performances are flawed by our sin and the stubbornness of our depravity, and there will always be another performance ahead—a performance we might just fail. Instead, we must meditate on key passages of Scripture that assure us of our standing in grace:

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Rom 5:1, 2)

For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6–8)

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom 8:1 NASB)

For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (Rom 8:15, 16)

As we meditate on truths like these, our minds are renewed and freed from enslavement to performance. Focusing on the truth that our acceptance with God is purely because of His grace toward us in Christ will keep us humble and dependent on the Spirit of God. Bridges ends his chapter on, “The Performance Treadmill,” with an illustration of Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan (2 Samuel 9), in which he likens the lame man’s ever-helpless physical condition to our spiritual need of grace and makes this application: “Mephibosheth never got over his crippled condition. He never got to the place where he could leave the king’s table and make it on his own. And neither do we.”

That is the key! We must never lose sight of our helpless condition and desperate need of grace. As we make progress in the Christian life, we must guard against the pride that too often grows from valuing our performance above His grace. True acceptance is based solely on God’s gracious work in Jesus. When we learn to rest in this truth, feelings of acceptance by God will follow.

[This post is adapted from my book Delight in the Word.]

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