There are two common, yet confusing ideas that make it hard for would-be disciples of Jesus to feel that they can actually be successful at this Christianity thing.
The first one is the “my behavior saves me” idea. This thought (or belief) leads you to live with the burden of performing for God so that He will observe your behavior, find it acceptable and then be obligated to reward you with … (eternal life, short-term rewards, etc.). In other words, I did what He required so He will do what He promised.
The second one is usually the aftermath of trying to live by the first; I call it the “my behavior has nothing to do with what saves me” idea. This idea is often the aftermath of the first one, because after a good, hard time of trying to perform for God it becomes evident that bad things do happen to good people, the experience of the joy of God’s presence doesn’t seem to directly correspond to our diligence and discipline in religious things, etc.
It begins to feel like what I do in my daily life makes little or no difference —in fact, life gets harder, I perceive myself as less ‘holy’, less ‘redeemed’, less ‘spiritual’ the more I try to serve God and perform for Him. If and when God does bring good into my life, it seems to be totally capricious and without any correlation to what I do or how I live (this is really closer to the idea of ‘luck’ than anything else).
It would seem that this is what the Bible itself says. Consider, for example, Psalm 50:22,23 (in two different translations):
Repent, all of you who ignore me, or I will tear you apart, and no one will help you. But giving thanks is a sacrifice that truly honors me. If you keep to my path, I will reveal to you the salvation of God. Psalms 50:22, 23, NLT
Now consider this, you who forget God, Or I will tear you in pieces, and there will be none to deliver. “He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me; And to him who orders his way aright I shall show the salvation of God.” Psalms 50:22, 23, NAS95.
Read this passage from Psalm 50 (and many others like it) with the confused ideas noted above and you will either see a proof-text for your perceived obligation to perform well for God (to get the ‘good stuff’ from him), or you will see yet another reminder that this living for God-thing is actually be a cruel hoax offering false hope in hard times.
But there is a different way to read this passage, there is a different “idea” to have in your mind; one that spins everything in a different direction, in the direction of hope and optimism and renewed determination to follow God and expect good from your relationship with Him.
That is, we need to keep in mind the overarching idea of The Way of the Lord that threads its way through the scriptures. In summary, there is a path that God has prepared and revealed to His people that leads back home, back to the True Life we were created to live. Those who walk this path make the journey; those who reject the path end up somewhere else.
In other words, ‘what we do, does matter,’ just not quite in the confused way of thinking that we started this post talking about.