Performance: The subtle Buddhist influences on the Christian faith
The world chases after “bigger, better, faster, stronger” in the name of progress. We are told we can achieve anything as long as we try hard enough. Sadly, we can bring this same performance-based mentality into our relationship with God. We believe we can achieve spiritual “enlightenment” through our own efforts, unaware that our thinking has been unduly influenced by Buddhism and the world.
Christians with a performance-based faith are genuine believers who have the best intentions, but who will often struggle with feeling like they haven’t done enough.
1. “I need to work hard at being a good Christian.”
A performance-based faith may believe that, “After receiving salvation from our sins through Jesus Christ, I have to work hard at being a good Christian.” This, in essence, is a form of Christianity that resembles Buddhist thinking which teaches eight practices; “right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right union (samadhi).”
Luke 13:24 ESV “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.
It is true that we have to be deliberate and “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”, but we also need to remember that “it is God who works in us”. He is the One who changes our hearts and desires, so that we joyfully bring Him glory and point people to Him.
Philippians 2:12-13 ESV Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
When we “work hard at being a good Christian,” people will only see our efforts and self-discipline, not God’s transformative power. We can do many things that look good to other people. We may even feel quite satisfied with our performance – but forget that God is more interested in our hearts than our works. When we neglect to humbly submit our hearts to God first and foremost, there is a danger we become spiritually proud, religious, superstitious or dogmatic.
Instead, we should rest in the knowledge that after receiving salvation from our sins through Jesus Christ, it is God’s Spirit who transforms us day by day, as we rely on Him to speak to us and guide us in all our ways.
John 16:13-14 ESV When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
As Jesus’ disciples, let us therefore pray, “Heavenly Father, I confess that I did not fully understand Your free gift of salvation, and felt that I needed to work hard to complete the good work that You have started in me. I submit all my thoughts and desires to You and invite the Holy Spirit to lead me into a new life with Jesus Christ. I pray that people will see Your work in me, rather than my works for You.”
Philippians 1:6 ESV And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
2. “I need to do more to show I’m worthy of God’s love.”
A performance-based faith believes that, “I need to do more to feel worthy of God’s attention, love and forgiveness.”
It is true that we have done nothing to deserve God’s love and forgiveness – but by the same token, we can never do enough to deserve it either. This is a testament to the immense greatness of God’s grace. We are freely given what we don’t deserve through Jesus Christ – escape from punishment for our sins and an eternal, unobstructed Father-child relationship with God – even before we knew to ask for His salvation. Jesus died to pay for our sins even before we were born, knowing that we won’t get everything right all the time.
Romans 3:22-24 ESV … For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
Romans 5:7-8 ESV For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
This world, however, teaches us that we need to work hard to get what we want. The more we perform, the more we will win acceptance, praise, and respect. We may have learnt this because our own earthly parents’ love felt demanding, withheld and conditional. As a result, we come to God with an inbuilt insecurity. We feel uncomfortable with His free gift of grace. Our souls are enslaved to the idea that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” The less compassion and fewer “second chances” we have experienced in life, the harder it is for us to simply receive God’s immense compassion and love.
Like the Buddhist spiritual principle of karma, we feel like we need to do more, pray more, believe harder and try harder to gain favour and blessing from God.
God knows we are incapable of doing what He is able to do in our lives. The only way we can be made right again with God is by humbly repenting for our wrongdoings and inviting His Holy Spirit to take charge and lead us. Trying to do more on our own strength is a subtle form of rejecting the Holy Spirit, by relying on our own flesh.
Psalm 103:8-14 ESV The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.
As Jesus’ disciples, let us therefore rejoice and pray, “Thank you, Father, for Your incredible love that is beyond human understanding. Thank you that You never turn me away whenever I seek You with a humble heart. I confess my fears, flaws and weaknesses (please name them) and ask that You please forgive me. I cannot make myself right, only You can. Holy Spirit, please come and take Your rightful place in my heart and make me new again.”
3. “I need to work hard at being a showcase of God’s material blessings.”
A performance-based faith may believe that, “God wants me to be successful so I am a good testimony for Him. He doesn’t want me to suffer or look like a loser.”
Indeed, it appears that the Bible seems to support this concept. It is not uncommon to hear hints of this idea in sermons too. Take for instance, Jeremiah 29:11, which is often quoted as a promise from God to give us a good future filled with hope.
Jeremiah 29:11 ESV For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
We must be careful, however, not to take one-line promises out of their true context. The entire chapter of Jeremiah 29 relates how God calls His people who have been captured by foreigners to withstand the loss of their freedom, riches, and dignity for 70 years before He will restore them. In the meantime, they are to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). He did not promise them comfort and riches, He called them to bless their captors’ welfare in the midst of their subjugation.
Jeremiah 29:11-14 ESV “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Other popular ideas include; God will grant us all our desires, and that He will work all things for our good. Again, it may be easy to miss the context of such promises. These are conditional on God being glorified (not us) and His purpose being fulfilled (not ours). As we can see from Jeremiah 29, God allowed His people to live in captivity in Babylon for His higher purpose.
John 14:13-14 ESV Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.
Romans 8:28 ESV And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
It is true that God wants us to prosper, but not necessarily materially or physically. What He promises us with certainty is the Fruit of the Holy Spirit, regardless of our circumstances; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Galatians 5:22-23 ESV But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Like the apostle Paul said, we are to learn to be content in poverty or in abundance. God does not promise us worldly success. In fact, God’s Word says that just as Jesus suffered, so will His followers.
Philippians 4:11-13 ESV … I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Romans 8:15-17 ESV For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
As Jesus’ disciples, let us therefore submit our hearts to God and confess, “Heavenly Father, please forgive when I make my material, financial, emotional and physical desires more important than following You. I fear being compared with other people and being left behind my peers. I am chained to shame. I struggle with the belief that the things of this world are so important, that I have made them even more important than a pure relationship with You. Holy Spirit, please show me what fears I have trapped inside me so I can repent of them. I desire to be free to follow Jesus with my whole heart.”
4. “I must work hard at saving more souls.”
A performance-based faith may believe that, “I need to help as many people as possible to become Christians.”
It is true that we are “do good to everyone.” This, however, is different from trying to save everyone, including our loved ones. We don’t want anyone to end up in hell, and this can often be the reason why we want to share the gospel. However, we may fail to see that people are drawn to love, not to fear.
Galatians 6:9-10 ESV And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
We need to remember that God loves those who have yet to know Him more than we can. We have the incredible privilege to welcome the Holy Spirit to fill us with His perfect love, peace, and wisdom, so that we can testify to them in a way that is filled with joy, hope, and confidence, rather than fear.
On a corporate level, we can be tempted to focus our ministry work on reaching “more and more” people with the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. We use worldly measurements of “success”; growth and numbers. Such a mindset breeds unhealthy comparisons, pride, and anxiety.
A performance-based faith may be tempted to rejoice at large crowds and high attendance, without truly knowing the condition of people’s hearts. We need to honour those that God has brought into our lives, by keeping ministry to a size where we can get to personally know how people are truly doing on the inside, to ensure they do not fall away from Jesus when things become tough. God’s Word warns us that all our efforts will not last beyond one generation otherwise.
Proverbs 27:23-24 ESV Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds, for riches do not last forever; and does a crown endure to all generations?
Matthew 24:12-13 ESV And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Perhaps this is why Jesus calls us to focus on making disciples, baptising them, and teaching them God’s commandments. Jesus Himself enlisted only 12 disciples, not 120 or 1,200. This small number seems to go against human logic but the gospel has survived numerous generations. Too often, we are tempted to follow worldly standards of success.
Matthew 28:19-20 ESV Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
As Jesus’ disciples, let us therefore turn to God and seek His plans, “Heavenly Father, I repent where I have made sharing your good news about my human logic, personal ambitions or fears. I may have missed following Your Spirit, whether it was to share the gospel with just one person or thousands. It is so easy to fall into this trap, please help search my heart and teach me to guard my heart. I want to follow You alone, and not worldly standards of success.”
When we understand God’s love, we can resist the temptation to perform
Many of us have been conditioned to focus on what we have achieved or done as Christians, rather than on how much we have submitted our hearts to God. We may spin our wheels and end up with little that has eternal worth. God will not reject us but He will not be able to reward us as richly as He had intended. Let us reconsider our ways while we can.
May we no longer follow the patterns of this world to perform. Instead, let us rejoice in the love we have from God through the infilling of His Holy Spirit. It is God, not our fleshly desires, who will lead us into greater works that we cannot imagine.
John 15:4-5 ESV Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
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