For many years I lived under the influence of legalism. Legalism can be defined as trying to achieve salvation through one’s own efforts. Most of us believe that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). The conflict between living by the law and living by grace then starts. We understand that doing well benefits us and doing poorly hurts us. This world system has taught us that our actions, whether good or bad, have an impact on our lives in positive or negative ways. That is generally true as we go through the various aspects of life:
- You can achieve good grades through diligent study. You fail if you don’t study.
- You get paid if you perform your job’s obligations. If you don’t, your job is lost.
- You will have friends if you are a good friend. You will lose friends if you aren’t.
Any anxiety I experienced was fostered by performance-based thinking. I believed that how God treated me was determined by how well I performed, and I failed miserably. I expected to be on good terms with God and to receive His blessings when I performed well. When I performed poorly, I expected to be placed on God’s naughty list and punished.
I desperately wanted God’s approval and acceptance. I realized that nothing could choke the heart and soul out of walking with God like performance orientation. I discovered that striving to earn God’s approval goes against the grace principle and doesn’t work. I suffered from performance anxiety. Where did this come from? I wasn’t aware of it, but I was driven by the spirit of “rejection.” As a result of being born unwanted, I unknowingly strived to “earn” my place in life. The desire to be accepted was also transferred to my relationship with God. I had a compulsive need for acceptance and approval, but at the time I didn’t feel that I deserved it.
Those who suffer from performance anxiety will often be insecure but won’t admit to it; needs to be complimented but can’t believe or receive compliments; views criticism as rejection; is often defensive; will minister to others but cannot be ministered to; hides behind a mask, and cannot be truly intimate, and is therefore lonely. Because I was among other things enslaved to masturbation I found it difficult to break free from condemnation, guilt, and shame, but most of all I felt unworthy of God’s goodness in my life.
“You have to get that legalism out of your soul,” said a wonderful prayer counselor. I inquired, “How?” I was overcome with performance anxiety and I constantly nick-picked myself. I was critical of myself. I had this unshakeable sense that God was disappointed with me. He disapproved of me because I kept making the same mistakes repeatedly. I believed that God had a heavy heart over me because I simply could not measure up.
Have you ever wanted God to give you something so badly that you secretly began to “do better” in those areas where you lacked—like praying more, giving more, studying your Bible more, signing up to “serve” in your church, or going to church “every” Sunday? I discovered within us a nature that believes that what we do or do not do determines whether or not we get what we want. Unfortunately, I brought this mindset into my relationship with Jesus Christ. It was something I had to fight against every day. I had fallen into the performance trap. Love, acceptance, approval, recognition, joy, peace, and comfort were all desires of my heart. I went into each day determined to excel in the roles that received the most acclaim. I continued to reassess and readjust my efforts if I wasn’t reaping the rewards. This toxic self-deception cycle weighed heavily on me. Fear, anxiety, depression, and despair infiltrated my heart. God appeared to be cold, distant, and unapproachable. I found myself trapped in a vortex of sin and destructive behaviors such as food and sex addictions, pornography, overspending, workaholism, and so on.
God is disappointed with me.
God does not love me.
God may be gracious to you, but He is not gracious to me.
What am I doing wrong?
Why does God punish me?
What do I need to do to be on good terms with God?
While receiving biblical counseling God graciously showed me that if a person is repentant (Godly sorrow) no matter what they do or how many times they do it as long as they’re still alive His grace and mercy are still available for them even if it’s the same stupid thing over and over and over. The grace of God stays with that person and won’t leave them until the moment of their death that’s when the whole thing ceases.
To break free from the performance trap, I had to embrace the truth of God’s word, receive His grace, and obey Him. Self-righteousness is demonstrated when we obey God’s commands to avoid punishment, feel confident in His love, or justify our behavior. God desires obedience through faith in Christ, which is a sign of our love for him (John 14:23). Let us respond in obedience as a result of God’s favor rather than by attempting to earn His favor. I now understand that I am accepted. He (God) does not make me (us) work for His love; it already belongs to us. He will not force me to earn His grace; it is already mine. I am accepted!
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.