Performance Identity and God’s Favor
**What follows is an excerpt from Ashley Null’s new audiobook, Performance Identity: The Folly of Striving to Earn God’s Favor.
I wonder how many of y’all have ever made Christmas cookies, either as a child with your parent as you were growing up or as a parent with your children as they were growing up? Let’s think about Christmas cookies. Were your parents such people of leisure that they had nothing better to do with their time in the Christmas season than make Christmas cookies with you? Of course, not. It was one of the busiest times of the year. Yet it probably took three times as long to make the cookies with you, especially with all the clean up involved afterwards. Why would they spend so much unnecessary time making them with you? Well, if it was just about the Christmas cookies, it would be far more efficient to do it without the children involved. What’s their purpose? You may enjoy Christmas cookies for dessert in your home. You may give them as gifts to friends and neighbors. The Christmas cookies in and of themselves have a purpose. But if it was just to get the Christmas cookies, people wouldn’t make them with children. Why then do parents make Christmas cookies with their children?
Well, the obvious answer is they want to spend time with the children making a memory, building the relationship between them. Remember the cookies have a purpose in and of themselves, but they are actually part of a greater purpose, which is to draw the parents and children closer together. That is what God says about the things he asks us to do.
In Ephesians 2:4-10, Paul writes:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead in transgressions. It is by grace you have been saved and God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in heavenly realms in Christ Jesus in order that in the coming ages, he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us, in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.
First comes our relationship with God in Christ as a gift. And as an expression of that relationship, God gives us works to do with, through, and in Him. As a result, our works not only contribute to the growth of his kingdom, they draw us closer to Him. We strengthen our relationship with God as we lean on him to do the works that he has prepared for us to do before the foundation of the world.
I wonder how many of y’all are old enough to have watched Mission Impossible when it was a TV series. It always opened up the same way. You had a reel-to-reel tape recorder that explained the mission, and once the message had been played, the tape disintegrated. After listening to the description of the mission, the team then received their identity packets. Each member was given a resume which listed all the qualifications that were needed for that person’s particular assignment to complete the mission.
Ephesians 2:10 reminds us that because of his love for us, God has given us works to do. And even better, he has given us everything we need to accomplish those works. But notice, these works have nothing to do with why we are loved by God. That would be like saying parents only love their children because the kids make good Christmas cookies. That nonsense! After all, how many children make perfect cookies? Indeed, their imperfections are part of their charm. In the same way, our good works don’t prove our worth or earn God’s love. Our relationship with God is a free gift from him to us, just like Ephesians 2:8-9 says: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast.” In short, our identity, our worth and value is found in Christ alone and in his cross. The eternal worth which we now have doesn’t depend on the ups and downs of our faithfulness, how holy we are at this moment, or even how much intensity we show for Christ. Our worth comes solely from His promise to make us his children forever. When we realize this wonderful truth, how can we not find welling up in our hearts a powerful love toward the Giver of this incredible gift. And what does this powerful love deep inside us want to do? It seeks to pour out of us in gratitude to God by doing the works that he has set aside for us. In short, even as we glorify God, we are drawn closer to him.
Therefore, the heart of the Gospel is that we find our identity in not what we do for Christ but what Christ has done for us. And once he has restored us to a relationship with God, he then says, “Let’s make some Christmas cookies together. Let me show you the good things I’ve set aside for you and you alone. I’m going to companion you. I’m going to clean up your mess. I’m going to make something special out of your life. As you lean on me and walk in what I have called you to, you will receive what I have set aside for you, and you alone, for all eternity.”
Getting the cart and the horse in the right order is at the heart of the Gospel. Our loving works for God are the cart. His loving gift of salvation is the horse. Our grateful love for him follows from his unconditional love for us. We do not earn God’s love. We receive it. And when we receive it, it has a transforming power in our heart. The gratitude for a relationship with God fuels our desire to express that love in service to him and others. Then, like little children, we can make Christmas cookies with God. We can enjoy his companionship in the process and watch him use our results, imperfections and all, to make a real difference in this world.
Surely all of this is so obvious! No, not if you live and breathe the world of sport. Everything in the world of sport shouts out in countless ways every day, “You only get what you earn!”
Medals have to be earned—that’s right and good. But love can’t be earned. If it’s earned, it’s not love! So many athletes get trapped into thinking that the Christian faith is just like everything in the world of Sport—that God’s blessings have to be earned. The force of destruction at work in the world whispers in their ears, “Look what all Christ did for you. You better prove you are worthy of his sacrifice.” The serpent slithers into sport, seducing Christians into thinking that if they read their Bible enough, if they do enough Christian activities, and, above all, if they remain spiritually pure enough, then God will give them the desires of their heart—victory in the next competition. The Devil deceives Christian people of sport by telling the lie that if they just prove how much they love God by being good enough, God will love them enough to make them winners. But God’s love can’t be bought, and, thank you, Jesus, it doesn’t need to be.
Christian athletes don’t need to seek achievement because they lack something that they think winning will satisfy. The unconditional love they have found in Christ already meets their deepest needs and desires. They seek achievement because it is the goal that God has called them to, to work with him in the pursuit of it, to be drawn closer to him in the process, and to watch him make something special of their results.
I know it is common in sports ministry circles to talk about “competing for an audience of one.” That motto is so helpful in getting athletes to stop thinking about using sport to earn the approval of parents, coaches, fans, countries and even of themselves. However, it still suggests that athletes are doing something for God instead of with him. After all, if God is your audience, where is he? In the stands! And if he is in the stands, where is he not? He is not inside of you. He is not companioning you during your competition. He is not giving you the gift of his presence, peace, power and promise to work your results to his purpose.
Let’s keep the horse before the cart. Let’s ask God to get out of the stands and come into the competition with us. Let’s make Christmas cookies with the author and finisher of our faith.
The Devil deceives Christian people of sport by telling the lie that if they just prove how much they love God by being good enough, God will love them enough to make them winners. But God’s love can’t be bought, and, thank you, Jesus, it doesn’t need to be.
— JOHN ASHLEY NULL
The Thomas Cranmer scholar and chaplain to elite athletes, Reverend Dr. John Ashley Null, deep in thought.
Listen to the companion podcast.
Ashley’s audiobook, Performance Identity, can be downloaded from the publisher’s website: https://anglicanhousepublishers.org/shop/performance-identity/