Performance Reviews

Kylo Ren, Gerharde Forde, Law and Gospel.

Jason Thompson / 6.30.21

Some time ago, I was called into the office (virtually) and informed that the low outcomes we were seeing in our department could potentially be solely my fault. The insinuation was that I hadn’t been doing my job. I could hardly believe it. I had worked diligently over the preceding weeks to improve my processes, oftentimes working far beyond the normal ‘clock out’ time. I averaged 10 hour days, working remotely in the midst of a pandemic, while also managing a household and engaging my family in a meaningful way (as meaningfully as you can under such circumstances). 

No matter how hard I work, it often feels like it isn’t enough. And it doesn’t help that protocols and expectations in our office confusingly fluctuate. So I never know what enough is. In short, the law is never satisfied. As Martin Luther commented in his Galatians lectures, “The law makes demands and its demands are impossible” — and furthermore, the law doesn’t care that what it demands is impossible. 

I was reminded of a scene in The Last Jedi in which Kylo Ren presents himself before Snoke after having literally given his all to fulfill the dark lord’s insatiable demands for allegiance. Ren had even gone to the extent of patricide to prove his loyalty. And yet it still wasn’t enough for the Supreme Leader, who dismissed and chided him for having failed to eliminate the “seed of Skywalker.” 

Instinctively, Ren’s response is to double down on the law to prove his worth, literally smashing his self-righteous façade of a mask. When we feel the sting of the law, our default reaction is to self-justify. When I hear, for example, Paul’s assessment in Galatians 3, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law,I immediately reason, “Well, I need to work harder then.” It doesn’t naturally occur to me that I can’t do it — that it can’t be done, that it’s impossible. 

When daily life reminds us we are not enough, we think more law and more effort will do the trick. While we know our renewed commitment is hopeless, we can’t help defaulting to it. We are incurably sick (Jer 17:9). When the law touches us in the vulnerable places of life, whether on the job, at home, or in relationships, our instinct is to work harder. When I find myself “in the red,” I instinctively feel I need to work to get myself back in the clear. 

But when the boss proves to be unyielding, incapable of being pleased, our attitudes pivot from appeasement to indifference. We stop caring, Or, in the words of Mockingbird’s book Law and Gospel, we hide from our accuser:

In facing the law, we are brought to a moment of internal crisis, where who we are stands in conflict with something we ought to be. In the face of this conflict, one response we tend toward is flight. Whether it is the Little League coach, or our spouse, or our super fit colleague, we run from what someone thinks we ought to be. We think about quitting the team, we disengage emotionally, we stop going to the gym. This reaction to the law is all about closing our eyes and ears to the sound of our own condemnation.

Hiding, though, only delays the inevitable. An accuser is rarely pacified by silence, and our apathy readily morphs into resentment. Snoke’s impossible demands and belligerent belittling do not engender Kylo Ren’s allegiance. They instead harden his heart and provoke rebellion. As the film unfolds, we see that Kylo succeeds in his end game of murdering Snoke and taking his place. This reveals another typical response to the law as documented in the  book:

Or perhaps, we assassinate the judge; it’s not flight, it’s fight. We put up our dukes and argue our case with the coach, even if we know it will relegate us to the bench. We rationalize our decisions and the mistakes we made — how they weren’t even mistakes at all. We bicker on our job surveys about unrealistic expectations, we condescend about the vanity of the kinds of people who go to the gym, and we blame our parents for what they’ve done to us. In one way or another, this is our approach: to turn the speakers up in rebellion against the unfairness of an overly harsh coach. 

While we may not resolve workplace tensions in as extreme a manner as Ren (at least I hope we wouldn’t), the law yet induces despair in us — we may shut down and reason, “If I can’t do enough, then who cares? What’s the point? Why am I doing all this work just for it not to be appreciated?” And while “Seek first the kingdom of God” and “Do all things to the glory of God” entail good advice, they provide no power to do what they command. As Paul says, “I agree with the law that it is good, but I don’t find in it the power to do what it says.”

While I should certainly “work heartily as unto the Lord,” I find myself searching for “likes” from the boss when I manage our social media content. I feel a great sense of relief (and shock) when an email reply reads “great job!” after an arduous task. As it concerns the employer-employee dynamic, I chase every polluted spring and broken font that (falsely) promises justification and approval. Why? 

Because for all intents and purposes, the supervisor is a proxy for “the law.” Try as we might, we can’t not see them that way. As far as we’re concerned, they hold our jobs in their hands. 

Feeling like our work doesn’t matter ultimately emanates from suspecting we don’t matter. In seeking to please our bosses (and keep our jobs), we are looking for a word that says we are enough — a word that only comes through the gospel.

This truth is the easiest thing to lose in the midst of daily experience. Luther again is helpful here, indicating, “The article of justification is fragile. Not in itself, of course, but in us. I know how quickly a person can forfeit the joy of the Gospel … In the midst of the conflict when we should be consoling ourselves with the Gospel, the Law rears up and begins to rage all over our conscience. I say the Gospel is frail because we are frail.” Furthermore, he exhorts, ”Train your conscience to believe that God approves of you.”

The demanding voice of the law is not satisfied by our finally doing what it says. It is fulfilled only be being silenced altogether by the work of another. As Gerhard Forde contends:

[W]hat the gospel does is to put an end to the voice of the law. And that means actually to put a stop to it, to “shut it up,” to make it no longer heard … the voice which for man as sinner never ends is stopped by God’s action in Christ … The gospel is the story of him who shattered the grammar of earth, who broke open the closed circle of the voice of the law and gave us hope.

While the futility of work is inescapable in this age, God has not left us without hope. There is One who has borne the curse of our cursed labor and incessant striving for justification. St. Paul follows up his diagnosis of the law’s impotence in Galatians 3, by asserting, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree …'” Jesus’ redemptive work sanctifies us and gives us an identity that our work can’t. I wish I could say that I always keep this at the forefront of my consciousness, but I don’t. I get caught up in metrics, outcomes, the anxiety of annual reviews, etc.

Our internal life is a messy battle of competing voices. On the one side, there is the law and all of its proxies, whispering with extended fingers of accusation. They demand, “More! More!” while we frantically scurry to silence them. When “more” is done, they applaud with praise, and we bow in gratitude. But just as our head begins to tilt, they resume their cursed chant. Like performers on a stage, we hang on their frowns and ovations. But there is Another voice — not in the audience, but on stage with us. He doesn’t whisper “More!” but with a comforting smile says, “Enough.”