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Beware the Performance Trap

When I was a kid, my family was camping in northern California when lightning struck 50 feet from our tent. The crack of the lightning was unbelievably loud, but it was nothing compared to the weight of the thunder. It felt like our campsite was pressed into the ground.

In that moment, the thunder was terrifying, and it felt heavy, but it didn’t crush us under its weight. It only left us quietly lying—shaking—in awe of the power we experienced. In the presence of that wave of thunder, as we were hidden from the public eye, our responses had nothing to do with who we felt we should be and everything to do with who we truly were.

John Starke challenges the cultural ideal that the most important things about us are what can be performed in public. In The Secret Place of Thunder: Trading Our Need to Be Noticed for a Hidden Life with Christ, he argues that Jesus “teaches us that the most important things about us are practiced in secret” (7). Starke exposes our desire to perform for others, showing that maturity is found through a life lived in God’s presence: “Hiddenness is not hiding; it is living fundamentally before the Father, who ‘sees in secret’ and gives more satisfying rewards than those offered by the world” (10).

Performative Individualism

The Christian life is lived. It’s performed. Christianity isn’t simply a set of propositions to which we intellectually assent. It has a bearing on our day-to-day lives. Jesus said a good tree will bear good fruit (Matt. 7:17). So the question for the Christian isn’t whether we’re performing our Christianity but for whom and why.

According to Starke, lead pastor at Apostles Church Uptown in New York City, our culture demands “performative individualism.” This entails an inward-focused, public self-expression. Starke writes, “Our culture supports individual expressions of a self-curated identity.” At first, this sounds like Robert Bellah’sexpressive individualism.” But Starke argues it goes a step further: “If our self-expression doesn’t meet certain socially constructed expectations, we will be ignored, isolated, dismissed, or canceled” (5). Although most Christians aren’t social media influencers, readers who have felt the pressure to present a shiny spiritual life via Instagram or Facebook will benefit from the freedom Starke offers.

The question for the Christian isn’t whether we’re performing our Christianity but for whom and why.

In our particular cultural moment, Starke argues, “the performance of self is more important than the reality of self” (16). It’s more important to appear a certain way than to be truly good if we’re going to be accepted by the world. Our world clamors for authentic performances, but only if our authenticity meets approved cultural guidelines. For example, Christians can feel pressure to speak out on every hot topic that hits the news, but we are also expected to agree with the right people, even when the issue is not doctrinal in nature. Living like this is vain, destructive, hollow, and downright exhausting.

This isn’t just a modern problem. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against giving, praying, and fasting in ways that are primarily for the onlooking eyes of contemporaries (Matt. 6:1–18). That sort of performance is ultimately for the glory of self. “He is warning us that the human heart has an impulse to trumpet itself,” Starke explains. “We want to be seen and admired” (19). We may appear vulnerable at times, but only on our terms and if it serves our purposes.

Christian Maturity

When our eyes are opened to see the plague of our perpetual performances, our natural inclination is to suppress these actions. However, Starke asserts, “Simply removing or curbing troubling behavior does not do justice to what Christ wants to do within us” (40).

God isn’t interested in mere change but in maturity. He doesn’t want us just to die to self but to be raised to life with him. We don’t offer him a transformed life—we offer our life, and he’s the One who transforms it.

Our world clamors for authentic performances, but only if our authenticity meets approved cultural guidelines.

To mature in Christ is to become more like him. It means seeking God’s approval more than any public applause. Salvation for humanity came through Jesus’s “dying to fame, dying to power, and dying to life itself” (59). In his moments of greatest distress, Jesus was able to withstand the agony of his people’s betrayal and calls for his crucifixion because he had the affirmation of his Father who is in heaven. He overcame temptation in the wilderness because he heard and believed the voice of his Father (Matt. 4:1–11).

This is the way of transformative maturity in the Christian life. This is the authentic life available to all Christians through a hidden life with Christ. We can throw off the weight of the world’s requirements. We can feel the weight of the glory of God, who through Christ fulfills all the requirements for eternal life on our behalf.

Christ’s Comfort

The book’s title comes from Psalm 81, where the psalmist describes how the Israelites were delivered out of Egypt when they called out to God in their distress. God declares through the psalmist, “I answered you in the secret place of thunder” (v. 7). The people had looked for their salvation in strange gods. But God makes it clear those gods must be purged from among them and that true satisfaction must come from God alone (vv. 9–10).

The Christian life is founded on penitence, not performance. This isn’t a one-time action at the beginning of the Christian life; it is the Christian life. As we remember our inability and cry out to God, he’s faithful to remind us we’re his beloved children.

Starke describes his own time of distress:

Somewhere in the secret place of thunder, God heard me and answered. I saw no visions and heard no voices, but I deeply sensed his presence like a warm, heavy weight. I felt like I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to. I desperately did not want whatever was happening to me to stop. (30)

A hidden life with Christ is like a weighted blanket. It’s warm and enveloping; it encourages rest even in the most restless situations.

The Secret Place of Thunder is Starke’s invitation to seek God and pursue Christlike maturity, not for the eyes of the world but for our Father who sees in secret. May we do so satisfied by the great reward we have in Christ.


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