Do you suffer from religious performance anxiety?
My seminary professors didn’t teach me about it, but I’ve become well acquainted with the syndrome.
I suffer from the idea that I am not enough. That I haven’t done enough. Or maybe even that I might have some things wrong when it comes to God.
My religious performance anxiety comes when I think of God as the Cosmic Santa Claus.
You know, God knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been good or bad so be good for goodness sake!
Otherwise, you won’t just get coal in your stocking. You will get burning coals in the afterlife.
This Santa Clause image of God is one of the most dangerous religious ideas alive today.
That’s because it creates overwhelming religious performance anxiety in so many of us.
We start asking questions like: Have I been good enough? Have I said the right prayers? Have I sufficiently acknowledged to God that I am a worthless sinner who doesn’t deserve to be loved? Maybe then God will love me and be on my side…
The Good News is better than that.
God is Generous To All
The first passage is Matthew 5:43-45, where Jesus states,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Jesus reveals that God is generous to all. God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good. God sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. When Luke gives his version of this teaching, Jesus states that God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
Jesus reveals that God’s love for you does not depend on your religious performance. In fact, God’s love for you doesn’t depend on you at all. It depends on God’s identity. It depends on who God is. God is the one who is love. This means that God doesn’t make distinctions about who is worthy and who is unworthy. We are all worthy of God’s warm sun and refreshing rain that nourish our souls.
The other passage is from 2 Corinthians 5:18-19. Paul’s letter was for a church in Corinth that was in turmoil. Different factions threatened to tear the church apart. Paul wanted to guide them in a different direction – one of grace. He wrote:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
Paul learned from Jesus that God does not count our trespasses against us. Instead, God is reconciling the world back to God not through punishment, but through Christ who refused to respond to violence with more violence. Rather, Christ stopped the cycle of violence and responded to violence by offering forgiveness in return. That is how God is reconciling the world and how God invites us to be ministers of that reconciliation.
This helps me to relax and know that God loves me.
What About Punishment?
You may be wondering, what about justice? What about punishment?
Throughout the Bible, we discover an important truth about punishment. God doesn’t need to punish us. We do a good enough job of punishing ourselves.
(For more on this, see my extended article “Exodus from Hell: Unlearning What You’ve Been Taught about Salvation.”)
Psalm 7 is a good example of how this works. The Psalmist states that our sins and violence will come back to haunt us,
See how they conceive evil,
and are pregnant with mischief,
and bring forth lies.
They make a pit, digging it out,
and fall into the hole that they have made.
Their mischief returns upon their own heads,
and on their own heads their violence descends.
Jesus affirms this psalm when some of his opponents confront him. He tells his disciples, “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”
But here is the point: At some point, we have all dug pits for others. And others have dug pits for us. And some pits just appear. Sometimes we fall into pits. Unfortunately, in this life, falling into a pit is inevitable. God did not create the pit, but God is with us in the pit, holding our hand, and gently walking us out of the pit and into the light and love of God.
So, if you suffer from religious performance anxiety, I’d like to invite you to relax. God is love and God is there with you. For no matter what you have done, and no matter what you have left undone, God is kind to you, and to us all.