High-Performance Christians

Mar 3, 2018

We had just finished singing one of our favorites, “Eternal Weight of Glory.” The folks gathered knew the song well because it has entered the rotation of favorites at our church. Singing it this evening was different, though, not just because we were crowded into my living room but because the song’s composer, Wendell Kimbrough, was right there with us, performing a “house concert” that two dozen eager fans immediately turned into a house sing-along.

“So what led you to write this song?” someone asked. A good question, because the song begins with these lines:

Now the days and hours and moments
Of our suff’ring seem so long.

Then the refrain offers an emphatic declaration of assurance, not glossing over pain but witnessing to the way Christ transforms it. It ends with these words:

Every year we thought was wasted
Every night we cried ‘How long?’
All will be a passing moment
In our Savior’s vic’try song.

In reply to the query, Wendell told us a little bit about a dark passage of his life that drove him to face painful truths. He had been living as a “high-performance Christian,” he explained, and suddenly came crashing into his own limitations.

At the phrase “high-performance Christian,” a grim laughter of recognition rippled through the group. Yeah. We were a bunch of pastors and worship leaders and Christian day school teachers and Christian college professors. We know what it’s like to be on display all the time, to be ever the responsible example, to be always leading and mentoring and discipling, striving never to fail anyone in the quest to model spiritual excellence. It’s a blessed life, of course—a privilege for sure—but our laughter was an admission: sometimes it just feels exhausting.

Reflecting on Wendell’s phrase all week has led me back to that classic biblical example of the high-performance religionist: the rich young ruler.

Poor guy is almost always presented as a hypocritical prick. We imagine him filled with self-righteous pride, strutting up to Jesus hoping to show off how perfect he is, maybe catch Jesus off guard and win a point on a legal technicality. And then—well, Jesus has his number! In a thirty-second jujitsu move, Jesus exposes the sad truth: all this dude cares about is money. Ha!

Matthew, Luke, and Mark all tell the story of the rich young ruler, and in each case the details of the story are remarkably similar. However—have you ever noticed this?—Mark’s account contains one tiny but significant difference. When the young man assures Jesus that, in his efforts to “inherit eternal life,” he has kept the commandments since his youth, Mark adds this statement: “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

Jesus loved him.

What if, instead of imagining Jesus standing there with a sly smile, triumphantly unmasking a guy who loves wealth too much to be a follower—what if instead we imagine Jesus seeing through to his deep pain? In fact, what if this guy isn’t a proud jerk after all? Maybe Jesus perceives that the young man is simply very earnest. Raised in a wealthy, devout family, he’s always been the good son, the one who wants to please, work hard, do what is right. As long as he can remember, he’s been a high-performance Jew. And frankly, it’s exhausting.

Let’s say he comes to Jesus—Mark says that he runs up, falls on his knees—not out of arrogance but out of desperation, because eventually the successful achiever gets tired of the treadmill. He wants to know: how do I get off this thing? He longs for something deeper and more enduring than wealth and status and being a good boy all the time.

Jesus sees all of this and loves him. Jesus honors his efforts to please God. But Jesus also has compassion on him, because being good is not enough. Real freedom requires a terrible letting go—a letting go of all the worldly markers that define us, give us identity, status, security. Jesus understands that it’s hard, and the more you start with the harder it is.

As all three gospels tell us, the man goes away unable to follow through with Jesus’ recommendation. At this point, we have to be careful not to feel superior to him. Because he is the place inside each of us that clings to our own merits, to whatever gives us security and identity, to our particular riches. He is the part of us who resists surrendering and following, because all our instincts rebel. “It’s impossible,” Jesus later assures the disciples.

If it’s impossible for the rich, it must be impossible for everybody, the amazed disciples immediately perceive. They’re right. There are many kinds of riches, and we cling to all of them hard. To let go, to empty ourselves, to step off the treadmill of high performance—it feels like stepping into an abyss. It’s too much to ask.

Yet this is what Jesus demands. So what will we do? We cannot possibly follow a Jesus who merely demands everything from us—or else.

But we can follow a Jesus who looks at us and loves us first. This Jesus invites us to let go of all the flimsy things that seem to prop us up—including high performance—so that we can hold on to him. In the words of Wendell’s song, “our hope is set on Jesus;/ And we cling to him, our strength.”

Following Jesus is not a treadmill. It’s a perpetual falling into his love and strength.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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