I’m Dave Jensen and I’m so excited to be here today, especially as we’re digging into a topic that is close to my heart, the topic of relationships. I don’t know what your experience of relationships have been, in my time I’ve seen some great ones and some bad ones.
Probably the most significant relationship in my childhood was that of my parents. My parent’s marriage was and is incredible, they’ve been married for 51 years. They met when they were kids, Mum was dropped off at church for cheap baby sitting and Dad was dropped off so his parents could play golf.
My parent’s marriage has been the bedrock of my entire family, from it sprung most of my other relationships, certainly growing up. Cousins, family friends and church friends, when I think back to my childhood I don’t remember tv or video games, I remember people, wonderful, warm memories, my fondest memories are about people.
But I’ve also been involved in some painful ones too.
I became a Christian when I was 28 but before that I was married and divorced in my early 20s, a marriage which produced 2 amazing kids. Divorce hurts, it hurts everyone involved, the kids, my parents, not to mention my ex wife and I. It created a huge wound in me which I carried around within me for many years, so painful that I actually couldn’t talk about it for many years.
I wonder if that’s been your experience. Think of your fondest memories, I bet they’re about times you’ve shared with people. But then, think of your most painful memories, again almost always involving people. Relationships are incredibly powerful aren’t they? They have the power to fill us with incredible joy but also the power to cause immense pain.
The question is – why? What is it about how we relate to other people that is so powerful? Why do relationships have the ability for the highest of highs but also the lowest of lows?
But even deeper than that, is it possible for us to relate in marriage, in friendship, in church community in a way where we don’t keep seeing things break down and cause havoc, but rather be a source of joy and happiness for us?
God is not a silent God, He speaks and He speaks directly about this topic, and we have few better players to hear from than by observing the very first human relationship, between the very first people.
What we see here are not just helpful guidelines for us in relating to one another, but also the idea that actually the power in relationships is not accidental, it’s intentional and it points us to a deeper purpose at play that God has in bringing us together.
Genesis 1, which you looked at a few weeks ago talks all about Gods creation of all things. It’s this incredible aerial, birds-eye view of creation. Now, if you remember, at the end of most days of creation God would look back and assess his handiwork and say ‘this is good’. The last thing he creates is people and he takes it one step further and says ‘this is VERY good’. God has made everything and he’s pleased with it all.
That is until now. The Bible reading we had given for us starts with something very different.
Up until verse 18 everything has still been good, good, very good but then:
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone... ~Genesis 2:18 (NIV)
This is good, good, good, very good. But now this is NOT good. What is it? Man’s alone-ness, loneliness. And that shouldn’t surprise us because God, the creator, has never been alone. In chapter 1 you see that he is the trinity, in constant community within himself, never lonely or needy. All eternity past and future in community.
And just as he is, so we are designed by him for relationships, in community. We are designed for relationships with one another. That is why loneliness is such a terrible thing.
A death row documentary shows prisoners where the worst punishment was isolation. 23 hours a day alone with 1 hour for exercise in a cage. The state of Florida knew to really hurt a man you cut him off from people. It made them deranged, and was a path towards insanity.
Covid19 in isolation. We’re designed to relate to each other and so that’s why God does something about it.
…I will make a helper suitable for him. ~Genesis 2:18 (NIV)
And so, in verses 21 and 22 we read how God made a woman out of the rib of Adam. In the woman the suitable helper was created.
So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. ~Genesis 2:21-22 (NIV)
In the woman, Eve, the suitable helper for Adam was created. I know to our 21st century ears, that sounds incredibly sexist and demeaning, like God is giving Adam a maid or a slave, but that’s not the meaning of the term. The phrase suitable helper is used 16 times in the Bible and 13 of those times it’s used for God himself, being a suitable helper for his people Israel. So, this is not an expression of superiority but rather of equal but different partnership. We see here Adams desire for relationship being completely fulfilled in Eve, his wife.
So we have what is not good, loneliness and God reaching into the middle of that and giving us each other… other people. The illness is loneliness and the cure is each other!
We were designed for relationships, to know and be known, to love and be loved in return. You were created to be fulfilled by others but also to fulfil others.
And we don’t just get this concept in Genesis but all throughout the rest of the Bible. We see it here, in husband and wife. Later, with children, then with friends and ultimately, in the church.
Why do relationships have so much power over us? Because God says the most important thing about your life is relationship. Not accomplishment or achievement, it’s people. That’s the heart of life. Relationships are what makes life mean anything. That’s why when it’s good it’s amazing. But when it’s bad it’s truly awful.
So, the question is, how do we take that principle, that relationships are what matter most and apply it to our relationships in order to make them what God designed them to be: loving, caring, thoughtful?
Is it possible that our lives don’t have to be defined by a lifetime of bitterness and anger and resentment but instead can be defined by mutually loving and caring relationships?
The answer is - yes! That’s why God made you that way and He shows us how in the passage.
The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman, for she was taken out of man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. ~Genesis 2:23-25 (NIV)
How can they feel no shame? This is a picture of life with no sin. Living life the way it was designed, living life with God at the centre.
You see, God has designed you to relate not just with each other but with Him. In fact, even more than that, He has designed you to best relate to one another when you’re in a relationship with him.
It’s crucial that we don’t forget Gods presence here. This relationship is an incredible one, but not because of the two people involved but because they were in constant relationship with both each other, and with God. The vertical and the horizontal. This is a picture of a relationship with each other but with God at the centre.
The meaning of life, this isn’t a small thing. In fact, let me say outright, I believe this concept, knowing and being known by God and by people is at the very centre of what it means to be alive. To be living life the way you were designed. I don’t think it’s possible to live a meaningful life without both of these things.
A little bit later, Jesus addresses the same issue. In Matthew 22, a man approached Jesus and asked him straight, what does God want from us?
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ ~Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV)
Love your neighbour as yourself, value relationships, put other people first, relate to other people in community. But don’t miss the other part. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
Jesus says, among all the relationships in life, it’s relationship with God that matters the most. That’s what life is all about. That’s the main thing. That’s what God made you for.
And yet it’s interesting, that whilst most of us would acknowledge that relating to other people is important, even though most people in this country say they believe in Gods existence, the truth is he hardly ever comes up on our radar. We just don’t think about him or acknowledge him. And it’s because of that that Jesus was sent to earth.
Jesus was sent to earth not to teach religious people to be good, or to give you life tips, but for a far deeper purpose. To reconcile you to God. To bring you into relationship with God. He died on the cross taking the punishment we deserve so it could happen.
Jesus is the best argument for the truthfulness of what he’s saying. Not only did he speak about it and offer it, He demonstrated it.
You see – at the heart of the universe something truly incredible is going on. There is a God who made you, who loves you and who wants to know you, who has moved heaven and earth in order for that to happen.
So, what do you need to do?
All you need to do is say Yes to God. Accept his offer of a relationship and realise you need to apologise for the way you’ve treated him, realise you need forgiveness and put your faith in him.
The new year is upon us! Now there are a few things that happen every new year aren’t there? The fireworks in the harbour, coupled with the horrific TV coverage, repeats of some of your favourite movies, left overs from Christmas lingering in your fridge, and the Sydney test match.
But of course there’s something else that’s synonymous with the new year isn’t there, and that’s resolutions! I wonder what your resolutions were this year? Here’s a list I found of the top 5 resolutions for 2018, and I wonder if any of yours are on there. Going from fifth most popular to the most popular, they are ‘meet someone’, ‘volunteer’, ‘travel more’, ‘eat better’, and most popular … ‘improve your fitness’.
Ring any bells for anyone? Anything there that you’re silently nodding along with, or that you’ve begun attempting for this year? Most of us have at one stage or another made resolutions like this. We’ve attempted to resolve to do something—or not do something— as the case may be. But the question is, why? Why do we do these things? The article I read tried to explain:
Self improvement, or at least the desire for it, is a goal shared by all Australians, which is why so many of us make a New Year's Resolution in the first place.
We resolve to do these things out of a desire for self-improvement, in other words, to change. And I think that’s right. I think that’s on the money.
We are constantly discontent aren’t we? We are constantly dis-satisfied with our lot in life. We taste satisfaction, for moments. We taste joy, and contentment, for periods. We search for meaning and purpose in our lives, and sometimes it feels like we have it, but then it slips through our fingers.
This is true of all of us. What’s also universal is what we do with this feeling. When we struggle to find meaning in our existence, we look towards the future. We’re constantly moving toward the future in the promise that the future holds for us a greater satisfaction than we’re experiencing now. We invent new, sexier, wealthier, more successful versions of ourselves, where we’ve actually achieved all our goals.
And in this vision, we’re satisfied. We’ve achieved, so we’re content. We’ve acquired, and so we’re joyful. We are part of the 8% of people who have stuck to our resolutions and so we’ve found that much desired meaning in life in which we’ve been scrambling for.
And yet it never, ever plays out this way, does it? 10 years ago you had plans for today where you’d be satisfied, and content, and joyful, and yet the truth is, that’s not the way life works, is it? \All of us who seek for meaning in the better version of ourselves will always be left disappointed.
But I want to tell you something, and it’s something that I think is shocking, and might actually run against your thinking on this issue. None of what I’ve told you is bad news. In fact, the opposite is true. Rather than our lack of contentment being a bad news story, it’s actually wonderful news.
Because it’s only in our dissatisfaction with the things of this world that we actually can truly find the source of true satisfaction. It’s only when you realize that you’ll never find meaning in the meaningless that you’ll understand where true meaning comes from.
We are looking together at the book of Ecclesiastes, one of the 'wisdom' books of the Old Testament. Even though this book was written almost 3000 years ago, it’s incredibly relevant to us today. This book is like a knife. Knives can be used to destroy and to kill, but in the hands of a surgeon, they can be used to cut away disease and give life. That’s what this book does—it destroys and kills the lies we’ve been told about life, but also heals and gives us the sweet-tasting nectar of life.
Let me tell you a little bit about it. Look at Ecclesiastes chapter 1 verse 1:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: (NIV)
This book is written by a man who calls himself ‘the teacher’, and in fact, that’s what the word 'Ecclesiastes' means: 'teacher', 'preacher'. He then identifies himself as the son of king David, who was the greatest king in ancient Israel’s history. And then he further tells us that he is also king. And so that tells us who the author is: a man by the name of king Solomon.
Now, if you don’t know anything about king Solomon, that’s ok! The big picture is that he was a king of tremendous wisdom, and that wisdom given to him by God.
However, even though he had great wisdom—and he started out as a good king—over time, he went astray. God had told him, “don’t use your position for personal gain”, and yet that’s exactly what he did. He grew incredibly wealthy, he amassed a huge army, and even more than that, he amassed a huge number of wives. The bible tells us he had 700 wives and 300 concubines! He eventually ended up turning away from God and worshipping the false gods of his wives. So 1 Kings 11:4 tells us:
As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God. (NIV)
Solomon literally had everything, every single desire of his heart was his, and anything that he wanted, he got.
And so Solomon sets out on a quest for meaning in every conceivable place and experience available to a man with limitless resources and unconstrained power. He goes from one potential source of meaning and fulfillment to another—knowledge, wealth, pleasure, worth, building projects—a full tilt search for the meaning that he’s desperate for. And yet each one of these possibilities, which started off so promising, proves to be a dead end. They absorb meaning; they don’t give it. He grows old and finds himself more empty of meaning than ever before.
And in the midst of this dissatisfaction, this unhappiness, this discontent, Solomon turns back to God. He returns to his true Father in heaven. And when he does so, he reflects on his life, a life that has been wasted, a life lived seeking meaning and pleasure everywhere under the sun, and he writes a journal, a biography of his journey, the story of his pursuit, the story of his search for meaning. And that journal, that story, is the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s the story of the search for meaning.
So we are going to uncover what Solomon discovered. We’re going to look at what his endless pursuit has produced. But I must warn you. It’s not pretty. In fact, the following words are some of the most offensive and horrifying in the bible! Ecclesiastes chapter 1 verse 2:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (NIV)
Now as I said, Ecclesiastes cuts like a knife. Solomon is not being subtle here. All the money, all the power, all the sex, all the influence, all the property, it’s true worth is meaningless!
Now the Hebrew word for meaningless is fascinating. It’s far richer than what we can translate. ‘Meaningless’ means ‘without meaning’. That is, it has no true significance. But in Hebrew, it has another connotations—‘vapour’, ‘mist’, ‘a puff of smoke’. It is like seeing your breath on a cold day: it’s real, it exists, but it cannot be grasped. It slips through your fingers. That’s why Solomon then asks the rhetorical question, in verse 3:
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? (NIV)
And Solomon’s point is clear: it doesn’t matter what you do. It does not matter what you achieve, or attain, or acquire: it all comes to nothing. It might gratify, it might bring short-term happiness, but it won’t last. It won’t give you what you desire.
Of course, this is the opposite of what we’re told. It’s the opposite of what we tell ourselves. The resolution principle says that meaning in life would be ours if we would just earn more money, go without money, quit drinking, start drinking, go on that holiday, work harder, raise your family right, get a degree, ditch your job, get married, get divorced, have a child, get that promotion, buy that house, build that extension, have sex with the person of your dreams, be liked and respected. If you get those things you’ll be the better, new and improved, version of yourself, and you’ll be unbelievably happy, and your life will just be amazing.
But Solomon is stating—and our own human experience is confirming—that it’s just not true. It’s the great deception of the human race. It’s the serpent in the garden all over again. Satan is saying, “Come and taste this fruit”. It’s a house built of a deck of cards: one slight gush of wind and it falls apart.
But Solomon is not content to just make the statement and leave it hanging. He then writes a poem with examples from nature and from our own lives to prove his point. Look at verses 4 to 7:
4Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. 7All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. (NIV)
Humanity is in an endless cycle. One generation comes, and one goes. One goes, and one comes. Each generation is replaced by another, and then another, and another, on and on, in constant repetition.
Humanity is like the sun, and the wind, and the oceans, Solomon says. Rise, set, set, rise. Wind blows, this way and that, only to have to do it all over again. The water runs from the rivers and lakes in torrents into the ocean, and yet the ocean never fills up. All these things take massive amounts of energy and effort. They relentlessly go on and on in an endless cycle, endless effort, endless energy, and yet nothing changes.
Can you see his point? For all the efforts and energies that we put into our activities in life, it actually achieves no purpose. Nothing changes. Humanity is not in a better place than in was 100, 200, or 2000 years ago. Despite the increases in technology and medicine, despite us living longer and healthier and wealthier, the point he makes is that nothing is gained. We think our lives are making a deep footprint. But it’s a footprint in the sand next to the ocean which will swallow it up and destroy everything we’ve done. But in case you’re unconvinced, he continues in verse 8:
All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. (NIV)
You want to see an example of humanity’s never ending discontent? Then think of the senses. They can be fed but never, ever filled. Even today, in 2018, at this very moment, we have an endless supply of sensory delights. Right now, we can see and hear more than we’d ever need. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Netflix, Stan, Foxtel, emails, texting, ipod, ipad, iphone, itunes, i-never-have-enough. Your eye never stops wanting to see more, nor your ears wanting to hear more.
We look and hear all these things, but what have we gained from it? Is your life better for it? Are you happier from scrolling through your phone at 2 in the morning electronically stalking and eavesdropping on everyone else?
Still not convinced? Take human history. Verses 9 and 10:
9What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. (NIV)
The killer blow of the verbal knife attack which is Ecclesiastes 1 culminates here. For all of humanity’s efforts, and achievements, and advances, there is something no one will say. There is something that politicians and teachers and bosses can not force themselves to say: there are no gains under the sun! What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. You might now be able to do it wearing the brand new fashion, or listening to the brand new music on your brand new electronic device, but for all those things, it hasn’t changed a thing! Sure, we can build a rocket which reaches the moon, but has it saved us from murder, or bitterness, or jealousy, or hatred? Yes, new inventions may make your bones heal quicker, but will they make your heart heal from betrayal?
Worst of all is verse 11:
No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
Our great grandchildren will not even know our names. It will be as if we’ve never existed. From dust we have come, and to dust we will go!
Where are you searching for meaning?
Are you searching for meaning in your occupation? You will not find it. Are you searching for meaning in adulation? You will not find it. What about your personal situation, your reputation? You won’t get it there. Geographic location? Sexual gratification? Imagination? Your work, your marriage, your children’s successes, your body fat index and chiseled abs, your house, your renovations, your bank balance, your car, your clothes, what people think of you? You will not find it in any of those places. It’s all been tried before, by millions of people. There is nothing new under the sun.
Now, let’s step back for a minute. That’s a dark picture so far, isn’t it? You see why I say the book of Ecclesiastes is like a dagger. Ecclesiastes tears away at our delusions. It rips to shreds the lie that we will ever find meaning in our achievements or accomplishments. It stabs to the heart of the historical amnesia which proclaims that humanity is improving!
But Solomon is not a crazed killer, seeking to depress you or make you feel insignificant. For in the right hands, the same blade which destroys delivers healing. The same dagger which kills can bring life. Solomon is not a killer. He’s a surgeon.
You see my friends, this bleak, dark picture of life is not the whole of the story. Solomon is not writing to wither, but to warn. He says what he says to build you up, not tear you down. He has found, first hand, the utter meaningless of searching for meaning in these places. And so Solomon wants to prevent you from starting the fruitless pursuit. He wants to save you from the search and point you in the right direction.
Solomon says all of what he says, so that rather than looking left, towards achievement, and looking right, towards accomplishment, you will stop, and look up, and raise your gaze to God.
Why can’t you find meaning in what you do? What can’t you find satisfaction, and purpose, and lasting joy in what you do? Because God has made you to only find those things in Him. It’s what you were designed for. It’s what you were created for. It’s what you were made for. It’s what you were meant for.
C.S. Lewis says this:
If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world. (Mere Christianity, Reprint New York: HarperColins, 2001, 136-7)
You see, what Solomon is doing is merely the first half of a contrast. Almost like the ‘before’ shot in a weight loss commercial. Solomon is saying, “This is what life is without God.” But with God, life becomes meaningful. God has created you to know him, and to be known by him. You were meant to be in a relationship with him.
And so you need to look at Solomon’s words through a new pair of glasses. Don’t just allow yourself to be cut with the dagger, but use Ecclesiastes as the surgeon’s healing knife. Solomon has made his case as clear as light: there is no ultimate gain in our pursuits or no lasting benefit to our expenditure of energy—that is, under the sun. Apart from God there is no enduring benefit to any human endeavor. There is nothing new under the sun.
But while there is nothing new under the sun, there is a God who rules over the sun, and he is always making something new.
The pursuit for meaning outside of God leads us away from him. We reject him, and insist on finding the meaning we want outside of him. But even though we all have done that—even though we have pursued created things, rather than the creator—God has not abandoned us. He has not turned his back on us.
And so in the midst of humanity’s endless cycle of rejection, and desire for a godless universe, God has stepped into humanity to make something new. God made a new covenant, a new promise, between himself and people. He sent his only eternal Son on a new mission: to come to this earth and become a man. Why did Jesus do that? So that God could make a new sacrifice. Jesus went to the cross and took the punishment we deserve. So we can know God, and find him, and know the true meaning of life. He gives new life from the empty tomb when Jesus rose again.
But God hasn’t stopped there. God creates new hearts out of old ones. He gives you a new heart when you believe in what Jesus has done.
Is there nothing new? Well, there’s nothing new that comes by our hands. But by God’s hand, there are good things available for us that are truly new. 2 Corinthians 5:17:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
God created the universe out of nothing. By his very word everything has been created. And the same word that created the universe that can create in you a new heart and new spirit.
What does all this mean? It means that you will not find meaning under the sun because the one who is above the sun has created you to only be satisfied through his Son!
And here’s where it gets incredibly real for us. For how will you spend your life? How are you going to put value into vapour, or meaning into mist?
The way forward for us is to live with God at the centre of our lives. Without him, all we do is meaningless, and turns to vapour and mist. But with him, there is meaning in the mundane, and value in the vapour. There is meaning in everything!
God wants you to enjoy your life. God wants you to love your life! And he’s given you the secret how, right here.
God doesn’t deal in accidents, or coincidences. God has you where he wants you, and he wants you there for a reason. You might not even know what it is yet: but God does. And that means whether it’s eating lunch, catching a bus, or working at a job that you hate, you are living your life under the sun defined by him who is over it. That’s what living a life of worship is: seeing God’s hand at work in even the most mundane things. Look at the sandwich in your hand, and marvel at the God who created yeast, and wheat, and rain to make it grow, and gifted farmers with the skills to turn it into food. Sitting on the bus, dwell on the God who made people with the intelligence to make engines, and wheels, and the God who has given us people willing to drive them. Think of that person who bugs you at work—they too are a gift from God.
Augustine famously said:
You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you. (Augustine, Confessions, 1.1)
Stop finding your meaning in the meaningless and instead find your meaning in the mundane gifts that make up your life, and the God who gave them to you!
This is how we are to live. This is what it is to live a life of true meaning, and true purpose—not searching desperately everywhere for meaning, but finding it where you are, because God has come near in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, and loving your life because you’ve found true peace in the one who gives all life.
The year was 2011. I had been dating my girlfriend Sammy, now my wife, for a few months, and things were going well. I was in love! And so the time had arrived. The time all men everywhere dread: it was time to meet her father.
Now, all the men here, let’s agree that it doesn’t matter how tough you are, or how successful you might think you are: this is always a scary prospect.
But even scarier for me were two things: First, Sammy’s dad was a pilot for Qantas, a successful man, and Sammy had described him to me as a ‘man’s man’, you know, a ‘straight shooter’.
But the second problem was me! I was 8 years older than his little girl, covered in bad tattoos, with more baggage than one of his jumbo jets.
The day arrived, and we were meeting at his favourite pub, and I was sweating. I mean, I was really nervous, but I was also literally sweating because to cover my tattoos up I was wearing a thick woolen jumper which I was terrified to take off. I just sat there thinking, over and over again, “What are his expectations? What are the things that he would want from me? What does he want from me?”
Well, we got there, and things were fine-ish. Max, my father-in-law, was friendly and warm, and didn’t bust my chops. The only downside of the night was a slight break in conversation where it felt like we’d run out of things to talk about, and my beloved girlfriend, scrambling for conversation blurted out, “Hey Dad, guess what? Dave can’t drive a manual!.”
And I just looked at her, I just stared at her with that look that says, “What on earth are you doing?” Because as everyone knows, nothing destroys a man’s masculine façade quicker than it being revealed that he struggles with a clutch and a gear stick.
Later on I said to her, “what were you thinking?”, and she said “I dunno! I was just trying to make convo!” And I said, “Sam, how demeaning, telling him I can’t drive a manual! This is a man who can drive a plane!” And she just looked at me with pity in her eyes and said, “Fly a plane Dave. It’s fly a plane.”
Now, let the record show that I actually now can drive a manual—I learned this year, at the age of 36, just to prove it’s never too late.
There are moments when we’re not quite sure what’s expected of us, aren’t there?
It might be meeting someone new, starting a new job, or a new relationship. There’s always an underlying question, “What do they want from me?”
I want to ask you a question, one that maybe you’ve never thought of before, or maybe its one you’ve spent a lot of time on. “What does God want from you?”
Has God created the universe and you in it and then walked away, not really caring? Or is the opposite true, that he made you, and he actually is very interested in you and does deeply care about what you do?
What exactly are his expectations of us? Does he want us to live a certain way, or does it not really matter? Is there a heaven and a hell, and is that dependent on what we do here on earth, or is there just nothing after this life?
I’m convinced that we can find out. It is actually possible to know for sure about these things.
But that’s not all. I’m convinced that when you discover the answer to this question, that it doesn’t just tell us the truth about God, but that it reveals to us the truth about us, about our lives, and the meaning and reason why we’re alive after all.
So we’re going to answer that enormous question, “What does God actually want from us?”
Across the planet there’s really only two opinions out there about this question. And so what we’re going to do is just look at these two opinions and see which one is actually true.
Opinion 1 is by far and away the most popular opinion that people have about Gods expectations of us. I summarize it as ‘background and behavior’. What do I mean?
In short, his opinion says that God wants us to work for his love, to work for his approval. This view says that we must win God over to our side.
Many of us think that our background is really important. It is really important to be brought up by our families doing the right things. We think that our behavior is important, and that we must act in a certain way.
People of this opinion imagine that God is a school teacher with a report card for every one of us, and he’s marking off the things that we do. He’s marking off if we do enough of the right things, or if we don’t do too many of the bad things, then we’re ‘good people’. And that should mean that we get good things here on earth, and it also means we should get to heaven when we die.
I’d say the vast majority of people on the planet hold to this position, regardless of their religion, and even a huge number of Christians as well. This seems sensible, and logical, but is this true? What does God actually say? How can we get right with him?
As Christians we believe that God actually speaks through the Bible, and thankfully, he speaks directly about this, in the book of Philippians in the New Testament, written by the apostle Paul.
Now Paul wasn’t always a Christian. In fact, he used to be a Jewish extremist who hated Christians. In other words, there was a time when Paul absolutely agreed with the ‘background and behaviour’ opinion. He was convinced of it. And the start of this passage is all about this. Philippians 3:4:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: (NIV)
In other words, of all the people who’ve lived, you might think you’re good and religious, but you’ve got nothing on me! My ‘background and behavior’ is absolutely top notch. And the next verses go on to list out Paul’s moral and religious resume. Philippians 3:5-6:
5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. (NIV)
Now, there’s heaps in there that might seem a bit confusing, but let me explain what he’s getting at. Paul makes four statements here about his background. In summary, he is saying that he is from thorough-bred religious stock! His family were devout Jews, stretching back generations. Even amongst Jewish people Paul was considered extremely Jewish!
And then he makes three statements about his behavior. In summary, he is saying that he was incredibly devout, and obedient, and good! If God is the school teacher marking Paul’s spiritual and moral performance, at one time he reckoned that he got an A+.
Of course though, that was 2000 years ago. What would a modern equivalent be? Well, you might think you’re impressive to God because of your background, the way you’ve been brought up. Maybe you were dedicated, or baptized, or confirmed. Maybe you have a different religious background and so went to mosque, or temple. Maybe you grew up at Sunday school or Mass. Or maybe you don’t have a religious background, but your family is a good family—kind, loving, hard working—and so part of you feels, “Well, that must impress God”. Or maybe you think you’re impressive to God because of your behavior? You take a moral inventory and think, “You know what, I’m not that bad. I’m a good person. I’m not perfect. But I am a good person. I try not to lie, and cheat, and steal. I’ve never murdered anyone. I’m good enough for God.”
And Paul, looking back to before he was a Christian, agrees! He is saying, “Yes, I think that my background and my behavior shows that I’m good enough for God! If God is there, then surely I’ve done enough.”
And as I said, I totally understand this position. It’s logical, it’s rational, and nearly everyone thinks it. Every other religion preaches it. I get it. Do what you can with what you have and, well, hope for the best!
But then something happens in our Bible passage that turns this entire opinion on its head! In fact, I’m hoping that when you understand it, it will turn your opinion of God and Jesus on its head! In verse 7 Paul says, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss”.
What does this mean? Paul has laid out his moral inventory—and he’s listed all his accomplishments, all of his credits, all of his pluses, but then he says that in reality, they’re worthless. “I count them as loss”, he says, “as nothing”. They’re not credits.
But then he goes one step further in verse 8, “I consider them garbage. I count them as rubbish.” And in the original Greek in which this was written, the word can be translated as ‘manure, dung, poo’.
What’s Paul saying? He’s saying that the works he did, all the religious rituals, all the religious righteousness he inherited but also all the good things he did, all the nice and wonderful acts he did—all of them are not just worthless, but they’re less than worthless. They stink. They smell. They’re poo. They’re worthless. They’re nothing.
Remember the big question, “What does God want of us?” We think God wants our background and our behavior. But God says all throughout Scripture that this is not true. Your background does not impress God. Your behavior does not impress God. God’s love for you is not dependent on how you act. God is not a school teacher with a report card. You can spend your whole life focused on your behavior and your background, and yet, in actual fact, all those things do is fool us into thinking we’re doing what God wants, when that’s not what he says at all.
When I was a kid, my favorite story was written by Hans Christen Anderson and is called ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. The story is about an emperor who hires some men to make him some new clothes, but the men are con-men. They tell the emperor that they are making him amazing clothes, and are using a very fine and rare material, and that this material is special, as it will be invisible to anyone who is ‘hopelessly stupid’.
The emperor’s friends and his senators can’t see the clothes, but they don’t want to appear foolish, so they pretend to admire them, and the emperor himself does the same. The emperor parades through the city, and all the people uncomfortably say through the same thing, because they don’t want to appear foolish.
But then finally a small child, too young to care if he seems foolish, cries out, “the emperor is naked!” And then everyone else begins to shout it out too.
It’s a great story about what? It’s a great story about thinking that something is magnificent, when in reality it is absolutely nothing. It’s a story about thinking that something is worthy when in reality its worthless.
And Paul is saying that our religious ritual, and our acts of righteousness—our attitudes and our attributes—are like the Emperor’s clothes. We think we’re dressed nicely. We think they make us look amazing. Yet the truth is that they’re non-existent. They don’t mean anything to God. In fact, rather than standing in front of God as impressive, religious, and righteous men and women, we’re actually naked with nothing about us that actually impresses God.
So, that’s opinion 1. And we’ve now worked out that it’s not about our rituals, or our good works that God wants from us. So what is it?
Verses 7 and 8:
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (NIV)
What makes Paul count every religious ritual and good work as loss? It is the surpassing—which means, the superior—worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Do you see it here? What does God want from you? He wants to know you, and for you to know him, and to be in a relationship with him. He wants relationship, not ritual. Look at verse 10, “I want to know Christ”. I want to know Christ. That word know is the word that’s used for marriage, the word is used of the closest and most intimate relationship we have. To know Christ is to be captured by his love. It is intimate adoration, not romantic, but all consuming.
Listen to how Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John, John 10:14-15:
14 I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. (NIV)
And now you might well ask, “What on earth does that mean?” You cannot earn God’s love, because God loves you more than you can know.
God’s love is not for sale. It cannot be bought, not with religious ritual or with your attempts at good behavior. You see my friends, the Bible picture of God is not that of a stern schoolmaster, working out what grade you’ll get. It’s of a shepherd, caring for his flock, or even better, it’s of a father, who loves his children.
And so God wants to know you, and be known by you. He wants you to love him back, to actually desire to speak to him, to hear from him, to meet with his people. God wants to change you. It’s impossible to be in a relationship with God and not be changed. God is in the transformation business.
Do you see what Paul is doing—he’s talking about change. “I once was this but now I’m this. I once thought it was background and behavior, but now I realize it’s about relationship, not ritual.”
So there you have it. What does God want from you? It’s actually not your good works. God loves you so that you will do good things, but God can’t be bribed. If the Christian things you do are just because that’s what your family does—not because you really love God—then it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t impress God. He doesn’t want those things: he wants you, and to be in a relationship of love with you.
But there’s a huge issue here we haven’t yet touched on. Why can’t your good things, the righteous things that you do, impress God? I mean, it feels so logical doesn’t it? So why doesn’t it work?
Our righteous deeds cannot save us because the reality of our lives is so different to what we might think. Let me try and explain with a story.
I want you to imagine that we decide to do some renovations at church and so a construction engineer comes to check out the church building. And so he arrives and he looks the church over and then he says, “I’ve got some bad news. The church building is infested with termites. Underneath these walls are millions and millions of them, and they’re eating the building apart. In fact, if you don’t sort this problem out in two weeks, the building will collapse.”
And so all the pastors and wardens and deacons and elders get together and make a decision. “We know what we’ll do!” And off we go to the local hardware shops and we buy hundreds of liters of paint, and for two weeks we work tirelessly, painting, and washing and polishing and cleaning the walls of the church building. In fact, after two weeks, the church looks better than it did when it was brand new. It looks incredible!
The engineer comes back and says, “So, have you fixed the problem?” And we say, “Of course! Have a look at the building! It looks better than ever!” But the engineer just looks at all of us and shakes his head. “My friends. I admire your hard work. But it’s useless. The problem is inside the walls, not outside. All the painting and polishing and cleaning hasn’t done anything. The building is still condemned. The problem is not external but internal, and within.”
Why can’t the good things we do impress God? Because the truth is all of us here have a problem, and it’s not the external but internal. The Bible calls it ‘sin’. Now, that can be a scary word, or maybe a word that offends you, but let me define it for you. Sin in the Bible means ‘rejecting God’, putting ourselves and what we want over what he wants. Sin leaves a permanent mark on us, on our record. We think we can be good enough for God, but the truth is, we can’t. We’re sinners. And no amount of polishing, or painting—no amount of good works or religious ritual—can deal with sin. No amount of good can undo the bad that we’ve done, and deep inside, most of us know that must be true. It’s true in our justice system, in our personal relationships, in everything.
So what’s are the consequences of sin? What are the results of sin?
Sin means that we’re separated from God. And worst of all, it means that when we die, we will get judged for what we’ve done. And if our sin is unforgiven by God, we will be punished for what we’ve done. And so we’re left with these two truths: first, we all sin. We all fall short of God’s standard.
But that’s not what I want you to walk away with here today. I don’t want you to think for one moment that this is the ‘take-home’ point. Because here’s the second amazing truth we must hold onto. It is that God loves you. He doesn’t want to be out of relationship with you. He doesn’t want to judge you and find you guilty. God wants to know you, and to be known by you, not because you’re impressive, but because he made you and loves you. And it’s because of this reality that God does something incredible—the most incredible action in history. Jesus referred to it in John 10:14-15:
14I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.
What does Jesus mean when he says “I lay down my life for the sheep”? Well – “lay down my life” is obviously a term talking about his death. Jesus is saying that I am the shepherd: the protector, the guide, the leader—and people are my sheep—and I will lay down my life for my sheep. In other words, I will die on behalf of these people.
And the question is, “Why? Why did Jesus die?” Most of us know that he did die. We know that he was executed and that he died on a cross in a judicial murder. But why? He says here he would lay down his life, so we know he did it on purpose. But what was the reason?
Was Jesus’ death an example? Was it an inspiring act of sacrifice to show us how we should live? Or is there something more?
Well my dear friends, it was all about our sin, the sin that lives in our hearts, and that is on our records. Jesus took it off us and put it on his shoulders. Jesus went to the cross to take the punishment for our sin. He died so that we could be found not guilty, and so we could know God.
You want to know what love is? Jesus walked to the cross on purpose. He knew he was going to die. But it’s more serious than that. For it was the Father who offered Jesus up as a sacrifice of atonement for us (Rom 3:25-26). The Father sent the Son to die. While it is true that it was the Romans who killed Jesus, or that the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus killed and made sure it happened, but fundamentally and ultimately, it was God the Father who wanted Jesus his only Son to die for us. For in the atoning sacrifice of the cross, God the Father poured out his anger on his beloved only-begotten son. Jesus endured the anger that we all deserve. God satisfied his justice and his just anger at our sins on the cross. He bore the punishment that we deserved, and his death brought us peace. And God did this so that you could be saved. You could be forgiven. You could know God, and be friends with him, and can call him ‘father’.
So are you putting your faith in what you’ve done, on the things you do? Or is your faith, your trust, in what Jesus has been done for you? Is your hope in the good things that you do? Or is it in the one who has done everything for you?
Don’t trust in what you do, but what Jesus has done for you. You don’t need to add to the cross. You can’t. If you could impress God with your background or behaviour, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to die (Gal 2:21). The cross is not a supplement to what you do. The cross is perfectly sufficient to pay for all your sins. You don’t have to try and compile a spiritual resume, or parade your morality before him to try and deserve eternal life. There’s only one thing needed, and it’s not a thing. It’s Jesus.