It was the middle of July and I was speaking at a student summer camp in West Texas. This particular Thursday night was just like every other night during this time of year—it was a breezy, 182 degrees. OK, I may be exaggerating, but only by a little bit.
On this night, I had preached on a familiar passage from John chapter three. Of course, I focused on verse 16: “For God so loved, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” As sweat dripped from the tip of my nose onto the highlighted passages of my Bible, I pled with the students to experience, enjoy and be encouraged by the truth that God loves them and sent His very best for them—His only Son. He loves you with a perfect love, so don’t ever get over it. Be overwhelmed by it, rest in it and love others out of the overflow of it. The three most powerful words in the English language: God loves you.
After the message, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a young man who was standing about 10 feet from me, looking as though he wanted to speak with me but didn’t know how to approach. I walked over to him and he indicated he wanted to talk. We went right outside of the Worship Center so that we could hear each other.
“What’s going on man?”
“Well, Shane, I appreciate what you had to say about God loving me. However, I can’t enjoy God’s love because I don’t even think that God likes me. In fact, I am certain that God doesn’t like me very much at all!”
“Wait. What? You don’t think God likes you? You think He is mad at you? Did He schedule to fight you at the playground after school or something?” (Yes, unfortunately I often operate in the spiritual gift of sarcasm.)
“Ha. Nah, man. Nothing like that. I don’t think that God likes me because I work really hard to keep His rules, but I still struggle with sin. I try really hard to overcome my problems, and I can’t. I pray and go to church. For the most part I am a really good person. However, I still don’t feel like He cares about me. In fact, I am so certain that He doesn’t like me that I am starting to not like Him very much either.”
Plain and simple. Trying to work really hard to get God to like you is a fruit of self-righteousness. What is this? It’s the effort to become righteous before God by your own efforts. Sadly, self-righteousness is always defined by self. You decide what is right and wrong. You vainly attempt to define what is good enough for God to be pleased with you. Or, more honestly, you determine what actually pleases you. You’re desperately working to get to the point where you say, “This good enough. I bet God likes me now.” If we’re really transparent with ourselves, the ultimate reason we want God to like us is because we think if He likes us He will do what we want Him to do.
Self-righteousness becomes its own form of religion, and religions are built on what mankind can do for their god or gods. However, the teachings of the Bible lead us in a very different direction. In fact, they lead us in the very opposite direction. It leads to a life of freedom that can only be found in the love of God.