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What is Performance Spirituality?

For the next several weeks, please join us on Wednesdays as Pastor David Orrison from Grace for the Heart Ministries shares about performance spirituality, legalism, and grace.

by David Orrison

We all battle with the performance system in our lives. We were taught from the earliest ages that success and failure are based on our performance. If you do your work well, you will be rewarded. If you perform poorly, you will find no reward and perhaps even punishment. Performance appears to be the key.
     Since reward is positive and punishment is negative, it became very easy to interpret relationships in the same way. Positive relationships come from good performance; negative from bad performance. I am accepted if I do well; rejected if I do poorly. I am loved if I do well; “unloved” if I don’t do well. You see how the process works. We could refer to this as “performance-based relationship.” Many people understand that from their families.
     Add to this the fact that I can never really know the thinking of another person and I am forced to try to keep these relationships while never knowing whether my performance will be good enough. Every time I think I have something figured out, something new comes along. Eventually this leads to depression and anger.
     When we were introduced to God, the performance system was already in place in our lives and in the lives of those who told us about Him. The most natural thing was to infer that the same performance system was in the mind and heart of God. Almost everyone else in our lives was part of that system and they assumed God was also. In fact, they could see it everywhere in the Scriptures and decided that it must be right. That led them to believe some gross inconsistencies and to mistrust the heart of God. After all, we learned that the performance system in life is full of unexplained expectations, arbitrary pronouncements of success and failure, and manipulation for the personal desires of others. If God is part of that system, why wouldn’t we mistrust Him?
     But the most damaging part of the whole system is what it does in us. If I believe in the system, I am doomed to failure, discouragement, and depression. I must measure up, but I cannot measure up. I must succeed, but success is always just out of my grasp. I must live by the highest standards, but my highest are never high enough. Eventually this leads to serious depression, even “self-loathing.” In this system there is no hope and there can never be. We know it in the depths of our hearts.

Performance Yoke

     This is what I call “performance spirituality.” Your acceptance is based on the quality and quantity of your performance. In my experience, most Christians don’t know any other way.
     Then, along comes Jesus. He knows that His people have been under a spiritual yoke, a bondage of expectations and failure. He loves us without expectations and woos us to Himself.
I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love, and I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck. I stooped and fed them. Hosea 11:4 (NKJV)
It was never His desire that we should place our hope in our own performance. The message of the gospel is for us to place our hope in His performance! He is the One who called us. He is the One who was offered for us. He is the One who died for us. He is the One who sets us free.
It shall come to pass in that day that his burden will be taken away from your shoulder, and his yoke from your neck, and the yoke will be destroyed because of the anointing oil. Isaiah 10:27 (NKJV)
Now, I can’t stop there. I know that many people think that Jesus set us free so that we have a new chance to “do it right”. They teach that we are saved by His grace, as a gift, but that we are sanctified by our effort/performance. If we want to keep what He has given and grow in what He has given, then we better get to work.
     Jesus knew that we would be susceptible to this. He knew that the performance lifestyle (or the flesh, if you will) would continue to pull us away from His love and His peace even after salvation. So He invites us to join Him in His yoke:
Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light Matthew 11:29-30 (NKJV)
The yoke of Jesus is easy and light, not quite what most Christians have found to be the case in their lives. They think they have to pull their side of the yoke. It is still performance to them. But the truth is that they have never really taken the yoke of Jesus. If they had, they would have learned that He does all the work.
     You see, the yoke Jesus invites us to share is a yoke of intimate relationship. We are allowed to participate in His work, with no burden of expectation. We are not responsible for results, just for walking with Him and even that is an easy and joyful part of relationship.
     Over the years I have been so amazed at how the Scripture shows all of this to be true. Once you believe that God honestly loves you, that His only motivation toward you is love, you can begin to see that love everywhere. Once you believe that we were made to depend on Him and His gifts of grace, you begin to see how active He has been. Once you believe that all He wants is for us to live in relationship with Him, enjoying the love He has for us, that’s when the whole thing opens up. Everything is different from that perspective. You can see that Adam and Eve’s sin was in trying to do for themselves what God wanted to do for them. You can see that the Law was given to show them that they could never be holy on their own and to pull them back to Him. You can see that He is never disappointed in His people, never surprised by their sin, and that He never stops loving them. 
     Well, that’s probably enough, more than most will read. Obviously, this is the passion of my heart and the motivation of my ministry. I have seen and experienced so much pain from that “performance yoke” and, if I can help a few to find the way out, it will be so good. I would be happy to communicate more on this. God bless you as you seek His rest!

David Orrison has been a pastor for over 30 years with a sincere desire to help people know the love and grace of the Lord Jesus.  He holds a PhD in Theology from Trinity Seminary.  He has worked with pastors and other church leaders who have been discouraged by the expectations and failures of ministry.  He has also helped parents, spouses, and young people who have been hurt by the legalistic teaching of what he calls, “performance spirituality.”  His website, www.gracefortheheart.org, and blog, http://graceformyheart.wordpress.com, have been sources of encouragement and teaching for many.  He is available for speaking engagements as well.  He and his wife, Alice, have eight sons and live in Colorado. 


  1. And I have seen this: Then those who have grown up with performance based thinking, do not know how to relate to people who are NOT relating from a performance based platform. In my case, sadly, it ruined the relationship due to my friend's projecting her own ideas and interpretations on to every thing I said or did or didn't say or do. It eventually cost the relationship completely . . . and I am still sad, and hurting for my (ex) friend.

  2. I've got shoesOctober 6, 2010 at 3:37 PM

    "We are not responsible for results, only for walking with Him..."

    I like this.

    I was growing alarmed as I read, especially when Dr. Orrison linked depression and anger to performance spirituality, including the phrase "self-loathing." All these have come to characterize more and more of my inner life over the past few years.

    I need to hear this more often. Thanks!

  3. Well said. I'm still learning this.

  4. "If God is part of that system, why wouldn’t we mistrust Him?"

    For those of us who grew up in performance-based religion and didn't come to it later as suggested in the post... well, we were taught that God INVENTED the system. You bet I didn't trust him.

  5. WOW.

    THIS helps me understand myself SO much. I have struggled with this for so long.

    I am coming out of this way of thinking but at times it seems like a very long and intentional process.

    Beautiful article.

  6. I did not grow up in a performance based home, but married into one. In the home of my in-laws it isn't my father-in-law who rules with a heavy hand, but my mother-in-law. She had/has ideals in her mind of who I should/should not be. What I should/should not wear. Where I should/should not go etc. She has the same standard for everyone. If one fails to meet her standard you are not accepted and shunned for a period of time.
    For 15 yrs. I buckled under her heavy hand. I tried desperately to be who she told me God wanted me to be. For in her eyes her standards are God's standards. You break her rules, you are rebellious towards God.
    She gets most if not all her ideas from the fundamentalist church she attends. Her husband goes along with her behavior, I feel, out of self preservation. Her 6 others children and their families do as well. They, like we were for 15 long years, are manipulated and held in "line" out of fear of rejection. In our case, not only were we rejected by my husbands whole family, but from the churches we attended as well when we left the "family faith" as my MIL puts it.
    It is an incredibly painful journey we are now on. I don't want to have distance between my in laws and my family. It is heart wrenching to see people we love be caught up in the web of legalism and extreme fundamentalism. My heart aches for our relationships to be built on the foundation of Christ.
    I am so happy that I came across this site. For I feel this site will help me heal from the wounds of emotional and spiritual abuse. In turn I hope I can help others heal as well. I have seen the Lord work mightly in my life the past 5 yrs. since He set us free from the bondage of man's heavy yoke and I still have scars that need healing.

  7. Yes, I think we need to hear more of this, more often, until it has a chance to sink in that walking with God is about a love relationship with Him, not about doing stuff, not doing other stuff, pressure to perform, or false guilt.

  8. Once again, thanks to everyone for the great and encouraging comments. You help me to think! I have tried to post these responses as one comment, but it appears to be too long.

    @Anonymous – These poor folks must categorize everyone. But when you are neither a liberal sinner nor a legalistic believer, they don’t seem to know what to do. You must be a sinner, yet you are saved; you don’t live by the rules, yet you don’t feel condemned; you don’t place obedience at the front of your list, yet you don’t feel guilty for not feeling guilty; you do things they can’t do – and on and on. Eventually, you become too much a problem for them and you are left behind. Either that or you are simply lumped in with the sinners, based on your choices, and rejected as inferior. The law/grace people find rejecting a friend much easier than trying to work through the conflict.

    @I’ve got shoes – We saw so much depression, real clinical depression. Then, of course, the system even considered the depression a sign of inferior spirituality. (It isn’t, btw. When it isn’t simply a chemical imbalance, it is primarily a sign of inner conflict, an anger that should/could be expressed outward but has been turned inward. But we were also told that anger was bad.) No one really wins in the performance system. You’re not supposed to win. You are controlled and manipulated by the constant message of inferiority and condemnation. Freedom comes when you are able to accept the fact that you are accepted. I have an article in the works on failure. Here’s a couple of points: First, it is not failure when you decide not to live by someone else’s rules. Second, when you can look a rightful accuser in the eye and agree that you have failed and then rejoice in the love and acceptance of Jesus—then you are free.

  9. @Sandra – I am so sorry! You are right. This is the ultimate message of performance spirituality: “God set it up this way.” Then people are given only two choices—conform or reject God. But there is a third choice, to recognize the lie. From the very beginning, Satan presented the lie of performance, that acceptance would be based on obedience. Over and over we see that the plan of God was to use the law to bring people to Him; not for condemnation, but for salvation. We were never meant to live under the law. From the beginning we were meant to live under grace. You can see it throughout the Old Testament, if you can get the performance glasses off. My whole ministry today is helping people see that grace has been the only message of God for His people and that grace is found in the person of Jesus Christ.

    @Heidi – It does take a long time to get out of performance spirituality, just like it takes a long time to get a song out of your head. It seems like it makes so much sense; and the tune is so familiar. Besides that, we continue to hear it all the time. At church, at Bible Study, among friends and family – over and over. We know that it is wrong, but it is still so prevalent. Some have had to change churches. Some have even stopped reading the Bible for a while and just focused on prayer, because their training forced them to see performance on every page. It may take time, but it is worthwhile!

    @Sandra & MamaK – Right temporal relationships come out of a right relationship with the Lord. The more secure you are in His acceptance, the less you need the acceptance and approval of others and the more you will be able to be a help and support to them. Performance spirituality forces people to focus on themselves and on protecting themselves from pain. No love flows among narcissists.

    Thanks again for all the comments! Please don't hesitate to contact me directly for encouragement or with questions. dave@gracefortheheart.org


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