The Endless Cycle of Religious Achievement

A few weeks back I wrote a post titled The Endless Cycle of Religious Enslavement. The basic premise of the model in that post is that our religious activity, at times, is motivated by the desire to earn approval from God. The belief being the more we do for God, the more God will love us.

As I have been reflecting on that post, I've come to realize that there are other motivating forces for why people engage in religious activity, namely the approval of others and a feeling of pride.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the reason it's called the endless cycle of religious enslavement is that there is no amount of spiritual activity that we can do to earn God's approval and love. His love isn't given out based on our religious performance.

However, with religious achievement, it is possible to receive accolades from others based on our performance and appearance. In the gospels, Jesus indicates this is true of the Pharisees. He says in Matthew 23,

Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. (v5-7)

Essentially, these men have reached a level of religious achievement and performance to the point that others are viewing them in high regard. This means that while in the religious enslavement model you can never reach your intended goal (earning God's love), in the religious achievement model you can earn other people's approval.

The endless cycle of religious achievement looks something like this.

Endless Cycle of Religious Achievement.jpg

The danger of this cycle is two-fold. One, you are in danger of growing arrogant and proud. To say it another way, you are in danger of believing your own press. It appears in what Jesus says about the Pharisees, that they agree with people's perception of them. They have grown to expect, and feel entitled to special treatment. Proverbs says that when this is true, you're only a few steps away from major spiritual disaster.  "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall." (16:18)

Over the last five years, I can count at least six big-name mega-church pastors who have stepped down from ministry due to moral failure. While I'm not intimately acquainted with what happened, I have to wonder if their success and achievement was part of their downfall.

The second danger in religious achievement is that you're more susceptible to fear and insecurity. If you base your identity on your spiritual performance and what others think of you, you always have to be working to maintain that status. Therefore, if you see other people outperforming you, you naturally grow scared and insecure. You will, then, find yourself buckling down and working harder and harder to achieve more and more. And perhaps the scariest thing would be if you would actually reach another level of status, only cementing further the belief that you are what you achieve.

In Matthew 23, Jesus says the way to break this cycle is to go down instead of up. Rather than seeking to achieve, serve and embrace anonymity.

But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (v8-12)

Ultimately, breaking the cycle is a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking. It's leaving behind the metrics of the world to take hold of the metrics of the kingdom. In the end, the least will be the greatest. So, why spend your life trying to impress others (or God for that matter), when He wants to give His love away?

Reflection Questions:

1. Do you think you might be stuck in the cycle of religious achievement?

2. In what spiritual or religious activity have you had success that might have put you in the cycle?