I was recently asked to give a talk to a group of youth on how to assess one’s spiritual progress. The topic had the tongue-in-cheek subtitle: “KPI’s of spiritual growth”. For those not immersed in contemporary corporate culture, a KPI is a Key Performance Indicator: basically, a well defined and objectively measurable standard by which the performance of an employee can be measured.
This subheading didn’t grab me. The more I thought about it, the more I felt it was in fact the wrong way to go about things. You see, KPI’s are all about achievement. Meeting a KPI means you can point to your work and say, ‘I succeeded!’
What’s wrong with applying that approach to the spiritual life? The problem is that the spiritual life is not a job, nor a project to be completed. It is a relationship. Just imagine going up to your wife and saying, ‘Now dear, here are your KPI’s for this month.’ You’d be lucky to finish the day alive.
In a relationship, achievement counts for nothing; authenticity is everything. It’s not about what you can do so much as it is about who you are. So it is in spirituality. God is not impressed with our achievements. No matter how good they are, He’s seen better. The number of hours per day I pray, or the number of Bible chapters I read, or how long I fast are not going to convince God that I am a good person (though they might convince me). No amount of spiritual ‘achievement’ in the quantitative sense can cover up a hypocritical or a selfish heart.
Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. Matthew 23:26
Sometimes, we get things mixed up. We think that by doing things like this on the outside we are justified, made ‘good’ in God’s eyes. In fact, the reality is the reverse. It is only by being ‘good’ on the inside that we can genuinely and sincerely do good things on the outside.
For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say? Luke 6:45-46.
True spirituality is not something that can be quarantined to one corner of my life. It is not something where I can just tick certain boxes and then forget about it. It is not something of which I can one day say, ‘Phew, I’ve finished!’ No, it is a way of life, it is something that imbues the very fibre of our being, saturates every thought and word and deed. True spirituality is not something we do as much as it is something we become.
True spirituality cares nothing for achievements. In fact, when practiced properly, one does not even think of assessing one’s ‘spiritual achievements’. I do not read the Bible regularly so that I can say, ‘I read the Bible regularly’. I do it because the Bible attracts me. In it I find comfort and wisdom, guidance and sustenance and strength. Through it, I somehow touch the ineffable nature of God. So why should I count the minutes and the hours I spend reading it? Why measure so intimate and beautiful an experience shared with my God?
The ‘achievement’ approach is not only of limited use, it can be downright dangerous. It can lead to a false sense of security for one thing. Having ticked the boxes and achieved my targets, I might feel quite secure about my own righteousness. After all was I not at Church nice and early every Sunday? Did I not pray for fifteen minutes every morning and every night? But God might see things differently…
Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ Luke 13:26-27.
And then there’s the whole issue of false pride. When all those KPIs have been achieved, how easy it is to look down on others who are not ‘performing’ so well as I! How easy to judge, for I have a ‘tape measure’ to measure myself and others and compare our dimensions. “I pray 65% more than she does” may sound stupid when you read it here, but it is not far from the thoughts we have when we feel good about our spiritual achievements. What a way to lose every blessing that comes from our spiritual practices!
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that one should not constantly self-assess one’s spirituality, or that one has no right to feel joy in their spiritual life. I am simply making the distinction between assessing one’s spirituality with a tape measure, and assessing oneself as a friend or child of God. As a child of my parents, it is fitting that I ask myself if I am being a good son. Do I talk to them, listen to them, ask about their needs? But to think that if I spend two hours a week with my parents, regardless of the quality of that time and regardless of their actual needs is a very selfish relationship. Love does not watch the clock.
Similarly, there is a great deal of joy to be found in our spirituality. But it comes from the very experience of God itself. Or rather, from God Himself. Simply being in His presence, surrendering oneself to that reality, losing oneself in the glory and the light that is God – what could be more beautiful or joyful than that? The joy of meeting targets and patting yourself on the back for it pales to limpid insignificance by comparison.
Achievement is a wrong turn in our spiritual journey.
Authenticity is the signpost that tells you you’re on the right track.
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“People sometimes say they don’t know how to pray. This is a simple matter. Pray any way you like, so long as you do pray. You can pray the way your mother taught you, you can kneel with a rosary, or you can use a prayer book. Whether from memory or a book or just in thought, it is all the same”
HH Pope John Paul II