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: Background and Behavior
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?
Opinion 2: Relationship Not Ritual
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.