The other day over at the Black, White, and Gray blog, Bradley Wright wrote about some implications of discerning mastery goals from performance goals for spiritual matters:
[Heidi] Grant Halvorson distinguishes between “performance” goals and “mastery” goals. Performance goals are goals in which we prove our abilities in an area, for example getting an “A” in class or running a marathon in a given time. These goals tend to be tied to our sense of self-worth and they have an all-or-nothing quality, for either you accomplish them or you don’t.
It turns out that this type of goal—which up until now has characterized the most of my own personal goals—works well with activities that aren’t too difficult or complex, but when things get difficult, people may conclude that they don’t have the ability to meet the goal and give up. Presumably most New Year’s resolutions are cast as performance goals, which might explain their common futility.
In contrast are mastery goals. Here the goal is stated in terms of developing skills or ability. For example, a student might set a goal of constantly improving in their courses or a runner might aim to always run faster. This type of goal puts the focus on cultivating progress, rather than expressing existing competence, and this offers a distinctive advantage in tough times. Namely, with these types of goals, people explain difficulties in obtaining goals more as a lack of effort, rather than innate inability, and so they are more included to work hard when they meet obstacles. So, mastery goals provide resilience, and, in addition, they have been found to lessen depression.
So, in Grant Halvorson’s terms, “the bottom line is, whenever possible, turn your goals from being good to getting better”… focus on expanding your skills and taking on new challenges.”
It’s interesting the ways that this distinction plays upon spiritual matters. For example, “progress not perfection” is a cornerstone belief of twelve-step programs, a mindset that might help explain their effectiveness, for the person in recovery faces no end of difficulties.
Also, there is “mastery” language in the Bible. Philippians 2:12 writes “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” a verse that speaks of the progress and development nature of salvation.
I find that this distinction between “performance goals” (being good) and mastery goals (getting better) is key for living faithful to the imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount. Glen Stassen has done the church a great service in showing how the Sermon is made up of gracious, transforming initiatives, rather than a list of thou-shalt-nots. Yet, I find it still a temptation–even knowing the graciousness of the commands–to reduce the Sermon into a checklist for the virtuous, and when I find that I have failed to be loving toward enemies (or friends!) or to chasten my lustful eye, I fall into the depression which Wright observes. It’s all-or-nothing thinking. This is especially true for someone like myself who believes that we cannot divorce who we are from what we do. The way of life Jesus preaches in the Sermon constitutes salvation. It is what “being saved” looks like in real time.
I find that I tend to reduce the teachings of the Sermon to propositions. “If A, then B.” Of course, by placing the imperatives in very real, flesh-and-blood sorts of circumstances–when your eye offends or when you are struck on the right cheek–he is actually calling us away from propositions into a very concrete and particular set of ethics. By reading the Sermon through a “performance goals” lens, I tend to picture myself in moments when I will need to be reconciled or love an enemy. And I view the task like running a marathon, something gargantuan. Problem is, we are not every day placed in the spot of reconciling a conflict or loving an enemy as an event. Rather, we are being habituated toward or away from peaceful resolutions or impartial hospitality.
And in this process of habituation, we can never understate the role of a faithful community. One thing that troubles me about a lot of popular forms of the church, especially here in America, is that they tend to treat the church as incidental to discipleship and salvation, rather as the context and environment necessary for them. Bradley Wright mentioned Philippians 2.12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” In English, “your own” is read very individualistically. But in the Greek, the verb is second person plural. Salvation is not only a process, it is one that the church undertakes as a body. The same sort of idea obtains in the Sermon. In Matt. 5.48, where Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” is likewise addressed in the second person plural.
Living faithful to the Sermon is a process and it is a group effort requiring a willing community.