I don’t know if it’s like this for everyone, but I’ve noticed that my birthday exposes a lot of how I idolize my human relationships. In our culture at least, your birthday is an entire day dedicated to celebrating you. On your birthday, you receive a flood of texts and an even bigger avalanche of Facebook comments from your friends (and a bunch of other random people). Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll get some free food or a birthday party. Your birthday is the day where your friends pat you on the back and tell you that they’re thankful for you and appreciate all the things you do for others. My heart eagerly eats all of this up. “Finally,” it says, “some acknowledgment so I know all those times I served and sacrificed in the background weren’t in vain. Finally, some security to know that I really am cared for and some affirmation to know that I am good enough.”
What my birthday reveals about me, I think, is that deep longing that runs through all of our hearts, a desire to be seen, understood, and appreciated by those we value most. In this case, I value the approval of my friends and the people I want to impress. My birthday brings me joy because the people I care about most give evidence, through a message, or a letter, or a gift, that they see, understand, and appreciate me.
Of course, the kind of appreciation we receive on our birthday is always short lived. It’s true our friends sincerely appreciate and love us, but, no matter how caring and thoughtful they are, they can’t always tell us or express that concretely to us everyday. And thus, if we have this mindset of always looking for and needing direct affirmation for what we do, the other 364 days of the year will inevitably be a painful cycle of insecurity and lack of purpose. Which brings me to my question today: How can we find joy and fight off loneliness when so often the work we do and the struggles we experience go unseen? And what should we do in those all-to-common moments when the limitations of our human relationships leave us feeling unappreciated, insecure, and inadequate?
In short, here’s my answer: a true understanding of the love of God frees us from always needing to have the approval of others in order to be happy. In those moments when we feel unseen, misunderstood, and unappreciated by others, we can find true and lasting comfort in the fact that God sees, God understands, and God loves and because of Christ, he always will. And even if everyone in the world forsakes us, we can cheerfully press on through life because God matters most and He is enough for us. Joy, then, is found through learning to daily live Coram Deo, “before the face of God”, and to ground our identity and worth in the fact that God loves us and, because of Christ, his love will never change.
Now, that’s the short version. But for you brave folks, who are willing and able to bear with my long-windedness, let me try and flesh this out. Throughout the years, Matthew 6 has been helpful in teaching me how to lay aside my idolatrous need for the approval of others, and to find joy in doing things in secret for God.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you…
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
(Matthew 6:1-21 ESV)
If you followed along with the italicized and bolded phrases, you probably noticed how Jesus repeatedly contrasts the reward of being seen by others in public with the reward of being seen by God in private. Three times Jesus reiterates that those who give, pray, and fast “to be seen by others” already “have received their reward”. Those, in contrast, who practice righteousness for their “Father who is in secret” are rewarded by the “Father who sees in secret” Now, I think something profound is going on here. Jesus here is going beyond a simple command here to live for the approval of God and to stop living for the approval of man. Jesus’ contrast shows not only what the command is but also the wisdom of why the command is given. Jesus wants to show us that living for God is not only the right thing to do, but also that the reward for living for the secret approval of God is infinitely better than the public praise of men.
I’ve found it helpful to think of it this way. To live your life for the approval of people–to make that the foundation of your self-worth and identity–is to enslave yourself to a merit-based salvation, a kind of justification by works. That may sound extreme, but that’s exactly what our idolatry does: it exchanges joy in God’s salvation for joy in something else. What’s more is that to live for the approval of people is to enslave yourself to a salvation which can never give you the thing that you’re looking for. Our longings to be seen, understood, and appreciated can never be fulfilled completely or securely in our human relationships. We are all finite beings. Our loved ones cannot witness every sacrifice you make or observe every struggle you deal with. They cannot perfectly understand our motivations, our flaws, and our deepest hurts. And, because of their sin and ours, they cannot fully appreciate us in the way we long to be appreciated. Instead, our relationships will, at times, have conflicts, misunderstandings, and fluctuate with the ups and downs of our circumstances. These limitations mean that our human relationships are never fully secure. We can never have full confidence that we are loved. In fact, most of the time, even in our close relationships, we feel the exact opposite. We wonder if we are valued. We wonder if our cherished relationships will survive or will fade in time. We wonder if we are good enough: if we measure up socially, spiritually, and in our competencies. We wonder if anyone sees the good things we do or sympathizes with the struggles we face, and what’s the point of it all if they don’t.
What does it look like to live for the praise of man? Endless labor to secure approval and endless struggle because that approval is impossible to secure. We feel the frailty of our relationships, and so we seek, by our own efforts, to make sure that our good deeds are seen. We try through our own self-glorification to ensure that we are understood, and through our own worthiness that we are appreciated. What is the reward for all our efforts? Fleeting joy, like the facebook messages and texts you receive on your birthday, that last for a moment. But the very next day you have to fight again to make sure you are worthy to be seen, understood, and appreciated. Justification by works is a cruel master. It drives us to labor endlessly, but never provides us with the rest and security that we seek.
In contrast, to live for God’s approval through the Gospel is to experience the freedom of salvation by grace, justification apart from our own efforts. God alone can give us what we truly long for—to be seen, understood, and appreciated, and he can do so in a way that’s eternally secure. Our relationship with him suffers none of the limitations of our human relationships. We long to be seen and understood; God sees everything we do both in public and in private. He sees beyond our actions to understand the intentions of our hearts, even better than we can do ourselves. Now, apart from the Gospel, this would be terrifying. In his omniscience, God would certainly see and understand us, but in his holiness, how could he possibly love us? He sees through the hypocrisy of every act of public righteousness and witnesses all of our private failures. He sees us how we really are in our heart of hearts: woeful sinners. However, by his grace, God not only gives us the one relationship we need most, he makes it indestructibly and unshakably secure by paying the ultimate price. In the Gospel, God sends his very own Son to give himself up for us, so that we might be made righteous in his eyes. He justifies us with the blood of Christ, so that He might see and understand our wretched sinfulness, but still love us with the very same love with which he loves his Son. And, he takes it a step further by adopting us and making us his children. He is now our Father who is eternally committed to loving us.
What is the reward of living for the private approval of God? It is to have the deepest desire of ours heart to be seen, understood, and loved fulfilled and it is to have it fulfilled securely—the love we need, we forever have in Christ. It will never change or fail. We need not fear that he will see something in us that will make him change his mind. The Gospel says that God has seen us at our lowest, while we were yet sinners, and saved us anyway. As the popular phrase goes: “though we are more sinful than we could have ever imagined, we are more loved than we could have ever dared hope.” This love is more than an abstract theological idea. It extends to meet our needs in the nitty-gritty messy details of everyday life. Remember the question we set out to answer? How can we find joy and fight off loneliness when so often the work we do and the struggles we experience go unseen? And what should we do in those all-to-common moments when the limitations of our human relationships leave us feeling unappreciated, insecure, and inadequate? If we live for the approval of God—if that is the foundation of our self-worth and identity, we can find comfort and lasting joy. Our acts of righteousness might go unnoticed by others, but our efforts to please him will never be wasted. As Jesus said, our Father who is in secret sees in secret and rewards the private obedience that nobody else knows about. We need not feel any insecurity either. Unlike our human relationships, we don’t have to measure up. We don’t have to earn God’s approval by the righteous things we do. Because of Christ, we can be absolutely confident that our Father appreciates our devotion to him and will guide and discipline us until we become like Christ.
Living for the approval man is a life of slavery and leads ultimately to empty religion and personal hypocrisy. But what freedom there is in living Coram Deo! In living before the face of God instead of for the praise of men! We are free to love others, not as an end to our loneliness, but out of the overflow of the love that has been given to us. We are free to be humble and to have our good deeds go unseen by men, for we know our Father sees. We can even be misunderstood, hated, and persecuted for our faith. In short, we can cherish our human relationships without depending on them, and, if need be, we can let them go because we already have the most important one.
It’s not my birthday anymore, and it won’t be for a long time, but praise the Lord, that everyday I am upheld by the greatest gift of all. Thanks to Christ I know that God sees, He understands, and, despite all of my weaknesses and failures, He loves me.
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10 ESV)
In case anyone was interested, this post is a long overdue (3 years overdue, to be exact) follow-up to a post I wrote called An End to Loneliness.