Performance Anxiety

Friday, September 9, 2011 — Week of Proper 18, Year One

Constance, Nun, and Her Companions, Commonly called “The Martyrs of Memphis,” 1878

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 982)

Psalms 40, 54 (morning) 51 (evening)

1 Kings 18:20-40

Philippians 3:1-16

Matthew 3:1-12

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more… I regard everything as loss, because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Philippians 3:4b, 7b-8a

Paul had an outstanding resume. He had done as well as you can do. He was disciplined, accomplished, prayerful, observant. He knew the religious expectations for a moral and pious life, and he had lived up to those expectations. He obeyed the law. He was zealous and obedient. He had done life right. But he was miserable. Perpetually anxious.

Performance anxiety. He asked himself constantly: Am I doing everything right? Am I forgetting anything? Is my heart pure? Have I treated all with proper respect? Have I neglected anything? His vigilance was so constant, that he could always acquit himself. Yes, he was following the straight and narrow. No one could fault him. He obeyed every law of God, he observed the statutes and commandments, he crossed every “t” and dotted every “i.” No one could touch him for his conscientiousness and scrupulosity.

So why was he miserable? Why perpetually anxious? He did his best. He followed every moral and religious expectation of uprightness. But he was miserable. Perpetually anxious.

He wanted to feel that he was okay. He wanted to know that he was okay with God. He wanted the comfort of knowing that he was accepted and acceptable before God. The old words were “justified” and “righteous.” He wanted the comfort of knowing that he was justified and righteous before God — that God accepted him.

But Paul was trapped in a condition of anxiety. Performance anxiety. He did his best, but was it good enough? And maybe he had done everything right yesterday, what about today? …and tomorrow? What if he missed something? What if he let his guard down for even a moment? What if he failed? If he ever failed, would that ruin everything? Forever? The “what-ifs” haunted him. Deep within he wanted to escape them. What if it wasn’t so hard? What if God wasn’t a perfection demanding judge? What if God really loved him, really accepted him?

Don’t think about that. Just stay vigilant and never let down your guard.

Like so many of us, Paul projected his misery on to others. It disperses your anxiety and self-questioning if you can find someone whom you know has failed and correct them. Take out your misery and anxiety on someone who really deserves it, someone you know is worse than you, someone you know is living in the wrong.

So Paul persecuted a sect who followed the false Messiah Jesus. But as he persecuted them, he saw in them a joy and freedom that eluded him.

On the road to Damascus, armed with arrest warrants to purge the wrongdoers from the earth, it all became too much for him. The righteous indignation and internal anxiety was too much to hold together. His whole world imploded. He was struck blind. He realized he was wrong. You can’t earn your place before God. Paul couldn’t. Nobody can. He had been wrong about that for his whole life. It’s not all about performance. Nobody can perform perfectly enough to stand before God. But, it struck him, it doesn’t matter. That’s what the Jesus followers were saying. God loves us anyway. It’s all about love. Paul was blinded by love.

It’s all a gift. God’s gift. God chooses us before we can earn it. Even while we are failing, God loves and forgives us with infinite grace. Just because that’s the way God is. That’s the God Jesus points to. It’s all in the cross. The cross is the ultimate human failure, human evil. In Christ, God soaks up our failure and evil, and gives back nothing but love — love that overcomes evil; love that overcomes even the last evil — death. God swallows up death with resurrection.

And Paul’s eyes were opened to the light. He knew that he was accepted by God — justified, made righteous, in a right relationship with God. His justification was pure gift. Grace. It was God’s pleasure to love Paul and to declare him beloved. All Paul had to do was accept the gift. That’s faith. Trust that God loves us and accept the gift of unqualified love that frees us. Justification by grace, through faith.

Anxiety goes away. It’s not about performance anymore. It’s about love. We are loved. We are accepted. It’s a gift. We are free.

Out of the energy of that loving acceptance, Paul found he was free to love as he had never loved before. As God as loved us, so we can walk in love. It’s the most natural thing in the world. No more anxiety. Just love. And when you are loved so fully, you are free. Free to respond in a spirit of love. That’s life in Christ. Everything else is just rubbish. Paul’s only desire was to live “in Christ,” and “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead.” (Philippians 3:9-11)

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