My Valentine’s Day Performance Massacre

It was six years ago today. I’m sure I’ll never forget it. I was out of town taking care of my dad. Susan drove up to meet me so we could have a nice dinner together on Valentine’s Day. Our conversation began over a nice meal and continued for the next five hours. We didn’t know what to call it then, but we couldn’t stop talking about it. It was crushing and liberating all at the same time. It simultaneously brought us low and raised our spirits. It made Jesus big and us small. It right-sized a sinking boat and rescued both of us from what we had slowly become. We had started to recognize it as something significant months prior, but this was the first chance we’d had to talk about it face to face in all of our busyness.

It Was Our Crash and Burn

Our rescue from performance had officially begun and Valentine’s Day 2009 marked its first real milepost. We talked for the first time about what had been going on in our hearts individually over the previous months and years. It was healing and it was hard. The Holy Spirit had led us individually to the same realization and conclusion. We didn’t know what to call it then, but we know now. In fact, we knew shortly afterward. It was our crash and burn. We were exhausted people who didn’t know we were exhausted until we hit a wall of performance where we couldn’t fake it any more so we crashed and burned. We crashed and burned together. That Valentine’s Day dinner six years ago was like sitting in the ashes of what our lives had slowly become, while we confessed our sin and brokenness to each other.

Burdens began to be lifted from our shoulders and our hearts started to find hope as we began for the first time to recognize, openly talk about, and start to remove the plethora of masks we realized we had been wearing for years. It was all the Holy Spirit’s doing as the more we talked, he gently showed us more and more of our true selves and Jesus’ gentle forgiveness. He was opening our hearts wider to his gentle love and through it all, there was not a whisper of condemnation. The more we talked, the more we recognized how bound we had been for so many years. We had been stuck in performance-based Christianity. The years we had spent in performancism had taken their toll and it came to a head on that Valentine’s Day night. While we both felt relieved to finally be talking about it, our responses were completely different. Susan had been flattened by the years of performance to the point of walking away from the faith. Beyond what I’m about to mention below, I’ll let her tell you her story when and if she is ready.

The months and years following have been both rewarding and hard to get through. Everything was stripped away from us initially. People got mad at us and long-standing friendships came to an abrupt end. Instead of receiving help, we received criticism and were told we were dragging the name of Jesus through the mud. As the drama unfolded and the criticism continued, Susan fell into a severe clinical depression, ended up in the ER more than once with severe chest pains caused by extreme anxiety, and wanted nothing more to do with Christianity, Christians, or church.

As she was moving away from the faith, I found myself alone, wondering how this was going to end after 36 years together doing life and ministry. I had never dealt with depression like Susan’s before. It wasn’t theoretical anymore. It came home with me and lived under my own roof. Prior to that, I had a black and white view of depression but when it took up residency, everything changed for me. I didn’t know what to do with it, but somehow I knew what not to do with it. I kept harsh people away from Susan (and those with to-do lists) and only allowed near her the few she trusted, who talked to her about a Jesus who loves her apart from her ability to do anything for him. A Jesus who came to rescue the broken, not the self-sufficient. This was a message we had slowly forgotten over the years. Hearing the good news of a Jesus who loves us in our weakness was the beginning of her healing that continues to the present time.

While I was being repeatedly accused of being edgy and it looked like Susan was walking away from the faith and no help was on the horizon, I decided to leave that church I had helped plant. That was hard for me. That was real hard and it tore me up inside. Following my decision, things were said about us that weren’t true and our reputations were trashed. Unfortunately, that is still going on, but less frequently. We lost relationships and long shadows were cast over our reputations that are still there today. I once heard Steve Brown say that sometimes God does things in your life where all you can do is watch and say “Wow!” That describes us. We didn’t ask for this and we weren’t seeking it. And there were times we didn’t handle things well. But we’re so glad it happened. God was at work, bringing us back to gospel centeredness and our first love. Not because we deserved it, but because he is a beautiful Savior. He was starting to show us that the gospel isn’t something we needed only at the beginning of our Christian life, but it’s the hub of the Christian life and we never outgrow our need for it.

For the first time that Valentine’s Day night, I was able to say I was tired. We were both tired. Tired of faking it and tired of being fake. I was tired of being a pretending pastor and Susan was tired of being a pretending pastor’s pretending wife. That’s what Performancism does. It’s exhausting and it turns you into a fake person and puts you in a fake reality with other fake people where only those who pretend to be strong can survive. And I was quite the pretender. We were both quite the pretenders. But now we were exhausted and there were no quick solutions or pat answers to be found. It was time to face the music because we were at the end of ourselves and both of us had hit a wall. There was nowhere to go but to Jesus. It was time to be real.

I thought I had to be strong for Jesus’ sake. If I wasn’t strong and competent, I wouldn’t get the goodies Jesus promised. Christians are supposed to be strong and competent, right? Wrong! We’re called to be real, which means we embrace our true selves and Jesus’ competency for us. As a pastor, pretending to be strong and competent makes you ugly and darkens your heart over time. It hurts the people you’ve been trying to shepherd. You become judge and jury of who is and who isn’t a Christian based solely on how they are performing or pretending to perform. Somehow, you become content with pretending. Your view of the Christian life propagates hypocrisy in the church as you become obsessed with cleaning the outside of the cup because the outside of the cup is your barometer for true spirituality. If you don’t “look like” a believer, you probably aren’t one. So you become the sin police and a spiritual bully. You become a modern day Pharisee. You insist that people fight sin but with no mention of the gospel, all you’re really doing is driving them and yourself, deeper into despair. With no mention of “it is finished”, nothing is finished, hope vanishes, and it’s left up to you get ‘er done.

Your performancism also makes you have to be right all the time, even over stupid and insignificant things. You’re always looking for a fight – a theological smackdown where you come away the victor and your pride is momentarily satisfied. The wall you hit when you crash and burn, is a wall of pride and when you hit it, God begins a work of gentle restoration and rebuilding but with no condemnation. Even in my failure, he is full of grace and mercy.

There is so much more I could say, and I probably will at some point, but I’ll stop here for now. After six long years, I’m only recently getting to the point where I can write about it and now, I could write a book! Thank you Jesus for rescuing me from my own blindness and foolish performancism.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash