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Escaping the Performance Trap

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Excerpted from “Fresh Air: Trading Spiritual Obligation for a Life-Altering, Energizing, Experience-It-Everyday Relationship With God” (Tyndale)


God loves us the way we are, but too much to leave us that way.
Leighton Ford

Like a lot of people in the Deep South, I grew up going to church every time the doors were open. I don’t think I ever missed a Sunday in church in my life—ever. In addition to the two services on Sunday, we attended Wednesday night prayer meeting. But the Sunday morning services are what I remember best. My dad, the church organist, played the three-keyboard Wurlitzer on the right-hand side of the platform across from the pianist, Mr. McCutcheon, who was seated to the left of the pulpit. In her burgundy choir robe, Mom sang soprano in the church choir, which consisted of a couple dozen members.

From these vantage points, both my parents could keep their eyes on my siblings and me during the service. Sure, we whispered and giggled and pinched each other and chewed the gum that my grandmother would give us (even though Dad didn’t like it), but we were always aware that if we got too loud (signaled by Dad looking over his shoulder in our direction), there was going to be some serious discussion when we got home.

Just because I spent all that time in church didn’t mean I necessarily liked it. I knew it was probably good for me, like running wind sprints in gym class or eating Brussels sprouts, but I assumed that meant I wasn’t supposed to enjoy it. It was just what you did if you were a good family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the seventies.


I never doubted God’s existence or the need to trust Jesus to save me. As I got older, I prayed and read my Bible, and I often responded to the altar call at the end of the service. But even though I tried to learn more about God and the Bible and what Christians were supposed to do, I always felt that no matter how much time I put in, it was never going to be enough. Every time I went to church, I either heard about the things I shouldn’t be doing that I was doing or I heard about the things I wasn’t doing and needed to do.

This was the only approach I knew to having a relationship with God. I tried to please him by doing the right things and by not doing the wrong things. Sometimes I wondered if it was even worth it.

The truth is, I really didn’t like church—and I didn’t enjoy too many Christians. While they smiled, nodded, prayed, and said, “God bless you, brother,” they seemed just as frustrated as I was underneath their good church faces. It was probably because they didn’t want to be there either. Or at least that was my theory. I had so many questions. Why was it such a struggle to do everything right? How could I actually enjoy this so-called wonderful, joy-filled Christian life? And why, despite all my efforts to do everything right on the outside, did I still feel so empty, numb, and lifeless on the inside?

Since then I’ve discovered that when the focus is on doing spiritual things and avoiding sinful things, the motivation is all wrong.

That realization happened in my sophomore year of high school. By the time I turned fifteen, I had secretly checked out on God but still attended church every Sunday and went through the motions. Then a friend of mine invited me to a youth service at his church. The worship there was like nothing I had ever seen before. In some strange way, I was both attracted to it and scared to death at the same time. People seemed genuinely happy and excited, and they passionately praised God and worshiped. Not only that, but the youth pastor taught in a way that I understood and that seemed relevant to my everyday life.

I had never seen young people so in love with God. I couldn’t believe it! This was so different than anything I’d ever experienced. I asked myself, Is this real? Or is this some kind of cult? If this is who God really is, then I want to know him, love him, and follow him for the rest of my life. When I got home I opened my Bible, determined to discover for myself what it really meant to be a Christian. I’m thankful the church I was raised in taught me enough about the Bible that I could search the Scriptures for myself.

I started with the Gospels, opening to the book of Matthew, and began reading. My goal was simple: to find out what the Bible says about how a person gets to heaven. And then it happened. The verses in Matthew 7 jumped off the page and answered my question—and it was completely different from anything I had ever heard before!

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
Matthew 7:21-21, Emphasis Mine

For the first time I realized that God wasn’t keeping a checklist, marking down what I was doing and not doing. He just wanted to know me. My eternal destiny wasn’t about religion but relationship. And so that December night in 1978—Christmas break of my sophomore year of high school—I gave my life to Jesus and told him that if he would give me another chance, then he would never find another person who would follow him with more passion than I would. It may sound clichéd, but truly, that night my life changed forever.

Five years later, at the age of twenty, I wound up on staff at the same church I had visited with my friend. After that night in December, I had fallen in love with God and had committed myself to him. I wanted to serve him, and it made sense to do it at the place where I first experienced such an alive, dynamic faith.

However, as I grew in my relationship with God and served in ministry, I discovered that I had a tendency to fall right back into the same spiritual numbness I felt before my conversion experience. When Tammy and I were still fairly new parents, I was serving as a youth pastor in Colorado Springs. Every morning I spent time in my little office in our basement, reading my Bible and praying. One morning after about a half hour down there, I heard Michael’s and Sarah’s footsteps as they ran squealing across the kitchen just above me. Their laughing voices made me want to run upstairs and join the fun.

Right then I got real honest with my heavenly Father. “God, I don’t want to be down here right now. This is work, and I’d rather be upstairs playing with my kids. Why is that?”

I sensed God’s voice telling me, “Because your relationship with them is different from the one you have with me.”

“Lord, what do you mean?” I asked.

“You treat me so formal … everything is timed … everything is out of obligation. You don’t even talk to me the same way you talk to them. What would it look like if you talked to me like you talk to them? What would it be like if you were just in love with me?”

It’s difficult to describe the weight that was lifted off me once again. God was reminding me that I could either try to get closer to him by doing the right things and hoping it would “take” on the inside, or I could fall in love with him on the inside, knowing that everything would then happen naturally on the outside.

There seems to be something in our human nature that draws us away from a life-giving relationship with Jesus because it feels more comfortable to focus on what to do and not do. That tendency robs us of real joy and peace. As a young pastor trying to live up to people’s expectations, I had fallen back into the pattern of trying hard to do everything perfectly—which I couldn’t do, of course.


I’m not alone in this struggle. Many people are still trying to reach God through religion. They’re doing everything right on the outside and remain empty on the inside.

Maybe you’re in the same boat—caught in the doldrums of wanting more and not knowing how to move forward. Here are a couple of indicators that you need some fresh air in your life. Symptom number one is that you’re doing the right things but you don’t enjoy them. This feeling goes beyond simple fatigue or occasional boredom to indifference. A subtle, unspoken sense of “what difference does this make?” creeps in. You may even feel a little guilty for not having the peace and joy that you once experienced or that you’ve heard someone who’s in love with God should experience.

Another classic symptom is when you begin to envy others who seem to grow closer to God by doing what you’ve done. Doing the right thing seems to be working for everyone but you. As you look around at the people in your church or in your group of Christian friends, you notice that their efforts seem to be producing fruit where yours never have. You read the same books, go to the same small group, even do the same Bible studies, and yet your attempts remain dry, lifeless, uninteresting, and uninspiring.

This isn’t just a twenty-first-century, American phenomenon. In every nation of the world and in every period of time you’ll find people practicing liturgies, reciting prayers, and obeying traditions while their hearts are far from God. They desperately try to know God by doing the right things externally. Perhaps the problem is more prevalent in our world today, though. In our technologically advanced age, where every problem has a solution, every bad habit can be changed, and every flaw can be corrected, we still cannot reduce our relationship with God to a formula.

We get stuck in a mind-set that tells us that what we do on the outside is the end in itself. Don’t get me wrong—it’s good to do good things. We can’t rely on our feelings as the engine to fuel our actions, just like a musician can’t wait until she has inspiration to play, but must develop her talent by practicing every day. It’s the internal motivation, the passion that fuels our desire, that determines whether or not our endeavor has breath.

But how can we tap into this spiritual passion within us? How can we cultivate our relationship with God and not get caught up in the performance trap of religion?


Answering this question has been the struggle of mankind since the Garden of Eden. From the very beginning of creation, people have always been given a choice. With Adam and Eve in the Garden, it was the choice of whether to eat from the tree of life or the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Would they choose the fresh air of relationship with their Creator? Or the performance-only trap of external dead works?

We know what they chose and the chain reaction it set off for all humankind. But why did Adam and Eve make that choice? And why do we so often follow their example? I believe it’s because we think it’s easier to measure, to quantify, and to control our behavior when we have an external set of rules. When we have a checklist to work from, we can track our progress and know where we stand. Besides, relationships are messy.

And yet relationships are what we’re made for, what we all crave on the inside. Most religious people are banking their salvation on what they do right and avoid doing wrong. As long as their behavior conforms to this standard, then they figure they’re in the clear. They deserve to know God’s favor, to live a prosperous and joyful life, and to go to heaven when they die. After all, they’ve done everything right, haven’t they?

Probably one of the most surprising discoveries I’ve made while studying the Bible is that God does not condone religion. It’s a consistent theme throughout Scripture. Religion is man’s external effort to please God. But God doesn’t care about all my efforts to get it right. He wants more, something far greater.

In fact, this is one of the main issues Jesus confronted while on earth. He ignited a huge explosion within the religious establishment because he came and said, “I’m the Messiah, the Son of God. And you know what? Religion isn’t the way to God.”


Most people think that Jesus came to bring about a religious order. Throughout history, people of all faiths have called Jesus a religious leader. I think he would have considered that description an insult.

Some of the strongest, harshest language Jesus ever used was aimed at the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Jewish religious leaders of his day. As we look at one of their confrontations, I think you’ll see clearly that what God wants from them—and from us—is something much more than just obedience.

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?… You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”
Matthew 15:1-3, 6-9

Here it’s clear that clean and unclean have nothing to do with germs and aloe-enriched hand sanitizer! The fundamental conflict was about what qualified a person to approach God. For the Pharisees, it was a matter of keeping their own external tradition of washing hands before they ate a meal. But Jesus quickly jumped to the heart of the matter—literally.

He responded to their superficial question about conformity with a profoundly unsettling question about their heart motives. And for reinforcement he referenced one of their own sources—Isaiah, a prophet they honored. Long before Jesus was born and began his ministry, it seems, people had decided they could give God lip service and remain just as self-centered and rebellious as they wanted on the inside.

Instead of focusing on knowing and loving God, their method became a matter of making and conforming to rules. They set themselves up to determine what was and wasn’t holy and pleasing to God, often based on their own prejudices and self-righteous judgments. They could feel superior about keeping all the rules they had made while condemning people who weren’t doing the same. Their reliance on external regulations and obligations defined religion. God was kept at arm’s length, or rather at heart’s length, because they created their own rules.

When Jesus came along and clashed with the religious establishment, he was engaging in a battle that continues today. And as I see it, the crucial question comes down to this: how can we get to God? Or to back up a bit, how can we really know God? The way we know him is through worship—opening our hearts to him with honesty, sincerity, and humility. Jesus makes it clear that worship is relational, an internal posture of the heart, not a mechanical pose we can strike just for the sake of appearances. Others may not see the difference, but God knows our hearts and clearly knows the difference.


Not only was Jesus direct in his confrontation with the religious establishment, he also reinforced the religion-relationship distinction in his teachings. He knew many people approached God through rules rather than relationship, banking their salvation on what they did rather than on who they knew. Understanding that sometimes the truth is more powerful when it sneaks up on us, Jesus often shared in parables, simple stories of illustration, that continue to intrigue us today.

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”  Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”

“No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.”

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

Later the others also came. “Sir! Sir!” they said. “Open the door for us!” But he replied, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.”
Matthew 25:1-12

Notice that all the young women were virgins, which symbolizes their religious purity. Also notice that the foolish ones thought that the condition for eternal life was making sure they had done enough—that they had saved enough oil to light their path to go out and meet the bridegroom, a common wedding custom at the time. However, by relying on the issue of how much oil they had in their lamps, they missed the party!

The reason the bridegroom, representing Jesus himself, says that the foolish virgins can’t come in has nothing to do with being a virgin or with having enough oil. He doesn’t say, “Sorry, your lamps aren’t lit so you can’t come in.” Nor does he say, “Whoops, I can only admit virgins to this celebration and, well, you don’t qualify.” No, the reason he cites for not allowing the foolish virgins to enter is simple: “I don’t know you.” It’s a matter of intimacy, an internal matter of what is going on inside their hearts. All of heaven will be about our relationship with God, not our religion—those things we do on our own to try to gain his favor.


Maybe you already know the Lord, but the way you know him isn’t working for you. You’re not enjoying your relationship with him. Here’s the real secret: you can fulfill the commands of the Bible better by falling in love with God than by trying to obey him. It’s not that your obedience isn’t significant or relevant; it’s simply not the center of the wheel. No, the hub of your life is your relationship with God. Your behavior and obedience radiate like spokes from the center of your life and allow you to roll forward. When you try to make your external behavior the hub on which you turn, you get stuck. Forward motion must be fueled by love.

Some people try to be good by doing godly things—reading their Bibles, praying, and serving those in need. But they’re doing these things out of a sense of religious duty and obligation, not because they’re in love with God and want to know him and offer up their lives to him. Then they wonder why their spiritual lives are so dry. Aren’t they doing everything a good Christian should do? Well, then, why isn’t God coming through with his end of the deal? Why isn’t he answering their prayers and giving them the abundant life of peace and joy that Jesus said he brought to us?

The Christian faith is not a business transaction. It’s not an arranged marriage where you receive a dowry of riches for compliance. Christianity only works if you’re in love. All relationships are enjoyable when you’re in love.

If you are trying to fight temptations by working on self-control, you’re working on the wrong thing. I’m all for living a disciplined life, but there’s a better way. Temptation is a test of your relationship, not your self-control. Whether or not you pray does not depend on your self-control. It does, however, reveal your relationship with God. Do you really want to talk to God? And better still, do you want to listen and hear what he wants to say to you?

It’s time to stop trying to please him and simply love him. Stop doing things out of obligation. Only do the things that enhance your relationship with him, the things that please you because they delight him.

It’s funny, the things we do for love. I hate cleaning out the garage—the time, the effort, the trouble. Sure, the outcome is nice, but is that really how I want to spend a weekend? However, my wife feels like the most loved woman in the world when I help her clean out the garage or tackle a big project that needs to be done. It’s better than sending her a dozen roses—well, almost. The point is, I do it because I love her so much that it brings me joy to do something I know she really appreciates.

What we do for God also reveals the extent of our love. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15, emphasis mine). For years I read that verse this way—“If you love me, you will obey me and prove how much you love me.” But that’s not what he says. He simply says that when we love him, our obedience to him will flow out of our relationship. I’m afraid that most of us don’t grasp the enormous extravagance of our Father’s love and the lengths to which he’s willing to go to show it. That’s why the apostle Paul prayed that we might know and understand God’s love (see Ephesians 3:14-21).

One of my greatest revelations of God’s love came when my firstborn son, Michael, was about two years old. My wife was attending a friend’s baby shower and had taken Michael with her. She was sitting in a metal folding chair and didn’t realize that Michael was hanging on the back of it. When she got up, Michael fell backward and pulled the chair right on top of him. The metal chair hit him on the bridge of his nose and cut it wide open. Minutes later, I got the call that my wife and son were on the way to the emergency room.

As the plastic surgeon began to sew up his nose, Michael screamed, “Daddy, please—help me, Daddy.” All I could do was watch as the surgeon finished his work. I would have done anything to take my son’s place on that table. On the way home from the hospital, while Michael slept in the car seat, I cried uncontrollably. And in that moment, God spoke to me: “That’s the way it felt for me when my Son was on the cross—but I let it happen because I love you, Chris.” I realized then how great the Father’s love is for me. The fact that he allowed his Son to go through such pain for me—and for you—is overwhelming.


Recently, I was struck by what it means to have love—rather than tradition, obligation, or manipulation—at the center of your relationship with someone. Channel surfing one night, I caught an old favorite, the musical Fiddler on the Roof. I remember seeing it in high school and enjoying the insight into Jewish life and customs and the way the story depicted the clash between tradition and change.

You might recall that Tevye, a traditional Jewish patriarch, and his wife, Golde, have five daughters. Set in Russia at the dawn of the twentieth century, the story explains the custom of allowing a matchmaker to pair a single young Jewish woman with a desirable husband. As Tevye’s daughters rebel against this practice and insist on marrying for love, Tevye must wrestle not only with tradition, but also with a far more personal crisis.

Tevye and Golde have been married for over twenty-five years, and like everyone else they know, their wedding was arranged by a matchmaker. In light of their daughters’ revolt in the name of love, Tevye asks his wife a crucial question in the song, “Do You Love Me?” At first, Golde dismisses his question as silly. After all, she points out, hasn’t she always done everything he’s ever asked of her? Hasn’t she been a good wife?

But Tevye explains that there’s a difference between loving someone for who he or she is and the bond you share on the one hand, and submission through traditional obligation on the other. Once he makes the distinction clear for her, Golde admits that she does indeed love him now, even if that was not what had first brought them together. Their relationship illustrates the contrast between religion and relationship with God in a beautiful way.

Falling in love with God is just like falling in love with another person. You think about him constantly and want to be with him all the time. You can throw away your checklists and just enjoy spending time together. Your only desire is to be with him, to enjoy him, to receive what he wants to give you, and to give him everything you have. Like Tevye’s song to Golde, I believe God continues to whisper to each one of us: “Do you love me?”


It’s no wonder so many people don’t enjoy their Christian faith when all they know is obligation and duty-motivated obedience. If you’re serious about catching the refreshing breeze of God and moving forward, then you have to keep your love for God alive. Don’t just try to keep it on life support by relying on your religion. That will keep you grounded in the doldrums. Jesus offers you something far better: he invites you to fall in love with him, to know who he really is and not just who others say he is. “You are the giver of life. Your light lets us enjoy life” (Psalm 36:9, NCV). That is the key to finding ultimate fulfillment in life. Foster your relationship in a way that deepens your intimacy. Fall more in love with him. Discover more of who he is. Enjoy the fullness of who he is as your Lord, your Father, your Creator. This is the fundamental message of the Bible, and yet I often fear that so many have missed it.

People end up viewing Christians as indentured servants to a divine tyrant who demands “good behavior” from his followers. Again, they get a negative impression of what it means to have faith in a loving God. They don’t see us enjoying a divine romance and instead often interpret what they see as something negative or even abusive. But God is the essence of love, the reason we can even attempt to love others. If we ever stop loving God, then it’s over “because no one can eat or enjoy life without him” (Ecclesiastes 2:25, NCV).

God invites us into the masterpiece of his love, his character, and his personality directly. It’s the key to our ultimate fulfillment in life. Rather than trying to obey a checklist, when we cultivate a relationship with God, then it’s no big deal to obey his commands. We want to please him, to know him, to trust him.

In chapter 1, we exposed the lifeless condition we all can find ourselves in from time to time. And in chapter 2, we explored what fresh air looks like. But before we can start the process of breathing again, it’s critical to realize that it all begins with a vibrant, intimate relationship with God.

Over the years, I’ve watched discouraged believers—myself included—finally experience the fresh wind that pushed them out of the doldrums when they addressed one or more of the eight areas we’ll look at in part 2. Each of these attitudes and actions has the potential either to draw us closer to God or move us away from him.

I hope you’re convinced by now that a breath of fresh air doesn’t come by changing anything on the outside. It doesn’t come from formulas, systems, or structures. It comes when something happens on the inside of us, when our love for God is so vibrant that it spills over into the way we see everything.

As we will explore in the chapters to come, discovering love at the heart of our relationship with him breathes new life into every area of our lives, beginning with our perspective and outlook.


The Christian faith is not an impersonal business transaction. And Christianity will breathe life into you only if you have an intimate, personal relationship with God. While there are steps you can take to grow closer to God (as you’ll see in coming chapters), your motivation has to be a desire for relationship, not a sense of duty. You can fulfill the commands of the Bible better by falling in love with God than by trying to obey a checklist of rules.

So the question is simple: Are you in love with God? Just like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, God is asking you, “Do you love me?” I encourage you to respond to his great love today.

Start by having an honest conversation with God. Tell him how you feel and where you’re frustrated or afraid of loving him. Spend at least a few minutes listening for his response, perhaps while reflecting on the passage below.

Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.
Ephesians 3:17-19, NLT

This excerpt is taken from Fresh Air by Chris Hodges. Copyright © 2012 by Chris Hodges. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

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