“Mastery Goals” and the Sermon on the Mount


November 20, 2012 by jmar198013

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.




4 thoughts on ““Mastery Goals” and the Sermon on the Mount

  1. Thomas Hamlet says:

    I’ve written and presented research on achievement goals (mastery-approach and avoidance vs. performance-approach and avoidance) in educational settings. These things are incredibly messy, and the construct is definitely not like unto a personality trait (there is no globally mastery goal oriented person). They are task specific, and individuals can even hold simultaneous goals at once. Even more complicated, people can develop “mini” performance goals to meet a mastery goal.

    The only maladaptiveness of these goals are the avoidance goals (most of the time), but the main key difference between the two main types Wright missed is that performance goals are externally or comparatively driven. It doesn’t matter how kind of a person you are, just as long as you are the kindest guy in church, or wherever. The outcome of these goals is always evaluated by how other peers are performing in comparison to you. This is a very nasty, and widely present, thought in religion or moral living. Mastery goals are internally focused. Wright effectually picked up on that idea, but keep in mind, a goal of praying 20 minutes every morning can still very well be a mastery goal.

    The complete effect of these types of goals on one’s psychological well-being is completely incomplete at this time. But, in general, having a performance goal is not necessarily a bad thing; those people have the highest grades, etc. They are the ones who continually get what they want, and when they see they cannot attain what they want, they strive to attain something else (Elliot, Andrew, 2006). This last statement seems to describe an American/Western ethos, a nearly complete antithesis of the Sermon on the Mount. However, if one is striving to achieve a virtuous nature in an Aristotelian sense through performance goals, the end result would lead one to be either a budding sociopath or a Pharisee.

  2. jmar198013 says:

    “However, if one is striving to achieve a virtuous nature in an Aristotelian sense through performance goals, the end result would lead one to be either a budding sociopath or a Pharisee.” Thomas, I think that was my point.

    • Thomas Hamlet says:

      I was just iterating that it’s probably grossly more damaging than stated. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any research with these goals on moral development. I think that as a default, Western culture has a “performance” oriented approach to understanding morals; that is comparing our behavior to others. I think that we would have a hard time imagining a mastery approach to this; I know I do.

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