Since the beginning of history mankind has sought to find approval and meaning. For as long as I can remember most (if not all) of what I do has been done to gain approval. Even things I enjoy are stained by this endless desire for applause and recognition. For the longest time I didn’t even realize that my life’s desire was the approval of others, self, and God - My goal was to make my character resume great enough. But great enough for what?
I am not alone in this, we all have a built in desire to gain acceptance and recognition. Some people desire the acceptance of as many people as possible, while others want acceptance by just a few specific people, or maybe even just one person - possibly themselves, a father, a wife, a friend, or a boss. Most of humanity has attempted to satisfy this sense of desire for acceptance and recognition by attempting to placate a god or gods of some sort. As someone who has grown up in Christianity, I have come to realize that I was not any different in this regards, and this lead to my abandoning of religion.
If you look at what religion really is, it is nothing more than a transaction between man and some god or gods in which approval and blessings are obtained. Religious people basically think like this, “God, I will give you what you want if you give me what I want – we both have much to gain.” Their god or gods usually want worship, obedience, honor, etc. and humans want God’s acceptance through the form of blessings and favor in this life and the one to come – it is a transaction of goods that fulfills man’s need for recognition and acceptance. However, there is a major problem with this since most (if not all) religious people constantly doubt and struggle over whether or not they are truly fulfilling their end of the bargain – they continuously doubt whether they have prayed enough, obeyed enough, honored God enough, etc., which ultimately leads to discontentment. The only contentment they do find is by comparing themselves to others and judging them for not being as devout as they are.
Not only does this method lead to discontentment, it causes us to hide ourselves from others by putting on masks, and all of us are very good at hiding our true selves because we want to convince ourselves and others that we are devout followers. Here is how this works; I don’t want you to see my faults, problems, and struggles, so I hide them, and since we are all doing this we delude ourselves into thinking that no one is as broken as I am. Conversely, if we are prideful and naive we will fill this void by comparing ourselves to others and judge them for not being as good and devout as we are. Jesus constantly criticized the religious leaders of His day for being prideful and believing that they were accepted and blessed by God because of their works. To make matters worse, from time to time we fool ourselves into thinking that we aren’t really that broken after all. We either convince ourselves that that we are very devout, or we look outside of religion and believe that that new promotion, love interest, hobby, thing, or life goal will bring us happiness and peace; we distract ourselves, temporarily only, from the truth that they will never give us the lasting happiness they promise. Once we actually get whatever it is we are living for, the greatness of it slowly melts away, and we are then left frantically searching for something else to give us happiness and to rest our identities on. We look around at the world and say to ourselves, “If I just had that, then I would be happy.” But it is never true.
Religion doesn’t bring lasting happiness and contentment because it leads to panting desperately after a god or gods who are never satisfied with us. Religion causes either unbearable delusion and pride, or hopeless depression and doubt - but so does irreligion. If we try to use money, power, family, or anything for that matter to find happiness, it will still lead to the same discontentment that religion gives. If I live for my career and I am successful I will inevitably feel the coldness of its un-lasting serenity since it never satisfies. Conversely, if I live for my career and I am unsuccessful it will crush me and lead to depression and guilt over my failure – the same thing applies for every other materialistic “thing” you can live for. If you don’t live for a god or gods you will live for something else. "The human heart takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them.” If we look at those who have achieved their life dreams and ambitions it is easy to see how things don’t fulfill us. In Keller’s book The Reason for God he provides a quote from Cynthia Heimel who had this to say about her friends who she saw achieve success. “That giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything OK, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to fill them with ha-ha-happiness had happened, and the next day they woke up and they were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable.” Religion and irreligion can’t bring lasting happiness and contentment, so what should we do? Should we join ranks of the old atheist who realized how depressing and pointlessness life is? Is nihilism all that’s left? No, there is one other option.
Christianity, the Gospel, is the only religion that is not a religion. Christianity’s message is not a guidebook on how to please God through obeying Him; its message tells us the exact opposite. The Bible explains that we can’t do anything to please God since all of our works are filthy rags before God. The gospel message of Jesus was simple; God demands absolute and perfect righteousness, and since everyone is a sinner no one can meet that standard and will face God’s judgment for their sins. This explains our never ending desire that we all innately have for approval and acceptance; we know there is something wrong with us, so we try to cover up our shortcoming with things and achievements. Through Christ we are offered a release from this never ending cycle of guilt and need of acceptance. For those who have accepted Christ’s saving work on the cross, they are no longer judged by their records of right and wrong, but by Christ’s who lived the perfect life. The complete and perfect standard that is required by God is fulfilled for us through Christ. Essentially, a Christian goes to God realizing their inability to bring anything to trade with, so we fall on the mercy of God to save us not because of what we have done, but because of what He has done for us. This is one of the reasons religious people hate the Gospel, for it breaks down human pride in that we cannot be our own savior.
Some people have this idea that it is simply God’s job to forgive them since that is what He is supposed to do; it’s in God’s job description. This is a misunderstanding of God’s character since God isn't required to forgive anyone. God cannot simply over look sin since He is a just God and must do what is right and punish sin, which is why Christ had to die in order to even be able to forgive our sin. The price of man’s forgiveness is beyond our comprehension. This is why Christianity isn’t a religion. I am not a Christian because I do good things and obey God; I strive to obey God and to do good things because I am a Christian, because of what Christ did in order to forgive me. Christians still sin all the time, and the main focus for a Christian should not be on their sin but on their savior. Tim Keller writes,
“The gospel of justifying faith means that while Christians are, in themselves still sinful and sinning, yet in Christ, in God’s sight, they are accepted and righteous. So we can say that we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope — at the very same time. This creates a radical new dynamic for personal growth. It means that the more you see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to you. But on the other hand, the more aware you are of God’s grace and acceptance in Christ, the more able you are to drop your denials and self-defenses and admit the true dimensions and character of your sin.”
I have given up religion and replaced it not with irreligion, but with the Gospel, and once a person comes to understand the major differences between the two, it makes all the difference in the world. The human heart defaults to religion and I am still constantly tempted to return to religion and start viewing my status and relationship with God as a business transaction in which I must fulfill my quota of obedience. One thing that helps me fight off that urge is to remember that when God looks at me, I am right now accepted and loved through Christ as much as I will ever be. It is all too easy to embrace the idea that once I get my “stuff” together I can have a relationship with God. I strive to live as God says I should not to gain his approval and be accepted, but because I am loved and accepted already. Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). Only through the Gospel message of Jesus Christ can we find lasting contentment and rest.