Escaping the Performance Trap


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?”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here