I have an executive-level day job at small but successful non-profit organization. As the Director of Outreach and Fundraising for the organization, my job is to make sure we’re bringing in enough money—both in terms of earned revenue from the services we provide to the community and grant dollars and donations.
It’s rewarding work because I believe in the organization’s mission, but I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that I’ve spent many days worried about metrics. Is my Outreach staff making enough phone calls to sell our services? Is our marketing driving enough inbound inquiries? Are we receiving enough press coverage, Facebook likes, Twitter mentions, website views? It’s so easy to get caught up in the performance-driven culture of the American workplace that you almost start to believe your own worth is tied up in those metrics, too.
I recently read Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. In it, they say that when we’re caught in a conflict or painful situation with another human being, it usually feels as though our identity is at stake. Such situations trigger shame and fear around three core questions:
- Am I competent?
- Am I a good person?
- Am I worthy of love?
According to Stone, Patton, and Heen, one of the keys to having difficult conversations productively is being rooted in an identity that goes beyond these questions—in recognizing that mistakes and lapses of judgement do not define us, that our core identity is not at stake when we are confronted with hard truths, that our worth is not determined by external circumstances and metrics.
It can be a difficult concept to wrap our minds and hearts around because we receive so many messages to the contrary, but as Christians, we have a powerful theological resource that speaks directly to this: justification by faith alone.
The Late Middle Ages were a time when spiritual worth was determined by external performance. It was up to each person to do their absolute best to attain a level of righteousness that kept them justified before God. Failure to do so would result in the most serious identity threat of them all–eternal damnation.
(Makes the weekly sales report seem downright trivial in comparison, doesn’t it?)
It was in this high-stakes environment that Martin Luther had the breakthrough that sparked the Protestant Reformation and changed western history: what if salvation doesn’t come from external performance? What if we are made whole before God because of who God is, not because of what we do? What if we can rest safe in the promise that we are eternally, unconditionally, perfectly loved—just the way we are?
The funny thing is, this idea is still as radical today as it was 500 years ago. We might live in a secular, post-Christian world, so maybe we don’t spend a lot of time with the threat of hell looming over us. But if you’re anything like me, you probably don’t have to think too hard to come up with examples in just the last week of behavior driven from shame and fear: fear that, deep down, we just don’t measure up. Shame that, somehow, someway, we should be something other than who we are. Fear that the answer to all three questions—am I competent? am I a good person? am I worthy of love?—is a resounding no. After all, our culture makes it pretty clear that the only way to belong, to matter, is to measure up.
But the gospel flips that all on its head. The revolution of the gospel that first we matter; first we belong. Period. End of story. Full stop.
The gospel is the promise that Christ’s infinite righteousness has become our righteousness. Christ’s triumph over sin and death has become our triumph. We are healed with Christ’s wounds; we are redeemed by God’s grace. We are forgiven, we are whole, we are free.
And in the end, that’s the only metric that matters.