by Erin Bird

Well, it’s here – the last gasp before the school year begins. Teachers reported back to the classroom this past Monday here in the Waverly-Shell Rock district and students show up tomorrow. Surrounding districts are starting around this same time as well. If you are a Jesus-follower, would you just take a moment to pray for the students, teachers, staff, and administrators of your local school system?

Also, Wartburg students are starting to show up. Many fall athletes are already on campus, freshmen and transfer students show up next week with returning students not far behind. Their classes begin on Wednesday, Sept 4. Would you join me in praying for the students, staff, and faculty? Also, pray God would give Riverwood the joy of loving on and investing in some Wartburg students this year.

Continuing Our Series

Last week, I began a new blog series based on a prayer found in the book Gospel by J.D. Greear. If you need a refresher, here is the prayer:

“Heavenly Father, in Christ, I know there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I have done that makes You love me less. Help me realize Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy. Just as you have been to me, so I will be to others. And Heavenly Father, as I pray, help me measure Your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.”

Last week, we looked at the first phrase, which means this week I want to take a few moments to look at that second sentence: “Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.”

Finding Joy, Fading Joy

If you have ever been infatuated with a boyfriend or girlfriend, you know the joy you found just by being with that special person. You didn’t have to have big plans to go do something in order to have fun. Simply hanging out, eating food, and even watching stupid movies was enough to make you happy.

But even if you marry that special person, more times than not, the feeling fades. There’s a house that needs cleaned, bills that need paid, and careers that need attention. No longer is the simple presence of the other person enough. The joy you felt during the early days of dating has faded.

This leads many people to search for joy in other places. Some look for it in a hobby, others in a sports team, some through vacations, some through their career, and unfortunately some look for joy in the arms of another person.

This sad story parallels what happens in many spiritual lives. Some people, when they believe the gospel, find such joy just being in God’s presence. If you follow Jesus, perhaps that was your experience. Do you remember it? Singing to Jesus, talking to Him in prayer, even reading the Scripture were such effortless tasks because it was more about God’s presence than anything else.

But then life happened. You got asked to do nursery duty at church, or recruited to serve at the Food Bank, or your co-worker dumped their emotional burdens on you, or the kids got sick, or the bill collectors kept calling, or you got extremely tired of that one song being played over and over on the radio, and eventually the joy you felt in God’s presence waned.

For many people, when their joy in Jesus fades, they turn to other things: Netflix, shopping, dating relationships, work, substances… anything that might give them some spark of happiness. But as we all know, the joy of these “idols” wanes even more.

So what is Jesus-follower to do?

Keep Going with the Gospel

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Jesus-followers in Colassae, writes “As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.” (Colossians 2:6)

Now, if you follow Jesus, re-read that verse, and as you do, ask yourself: How did you receive Jesus? The answer is “Through the Gospel!” So next ask: how are you to “walk in him” (i.e. follow Jesus)? Again, the answer is “Through the Gospel!”

In other words, as you keep peering into the Gospel, studying it, contemplating it, treasuring it, and thanking God for it, you realize the significant sacrifice Jesus made for you through the cross shows how much He loves you. And when you realize just how much He loves you, you find you WANT to be in His presence, for it alone gives you everlasting joy.

Getting Off the Approval Treadmill

But J.D.’s prayer doesn’t just say that God’s presence is all we need for everlasting joy. It says that God’s presence and approval are what we need.

You know, it’s funny: us humans spend so much time chasing joy in anything but God, yet we feel shackled by some sort of internal religiosity. We screw up – we drink too much, or blurt out Jesus’ name in vain, or think really evil thoughts against someone, or spread some unfounded gossip or watch some videos we know we shouldn’t view – so we try to make it up with God by going to church, or posting a Bible verse on social media, or spending some time reading the Bible, or even donating some money to the poor widow down the street. It makes us feel a little better about ourselves (which means God must be feeling a little better about us as well, right?). But then we screw up again, and the cycle continues.

It’s like we are caught on an approval treadmill – trying to get closer to God by earning His approval, but due to our sinful screw ups, we don’t seem to be making any progress.

If this is you, listen up: There is nothing you can do to earn more of God’s approval. God’s approval of you isn’t based on anything you do, rather it is based upon what Jesus has done. This is the scandal of grace.

Our spiritual enemy tries to whisper to us that God isn’t happy with us, and that we have to somehow re-earn His trust and affection. “If I am going to please God, I have to do more religious things,” we think to ourselves. But the doctrine of atonement corrects this lie by teaching us that when God looks at those who believe in Jesus, He doesn’t see their sin, He sees the righteousness of Christ. This is what the Apostle Paul expressed in Philippians 3:8-9:

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”

Paul knew his religious efforts to please God fell completely short of simply knowing Jesus. Instead, he needed to accept Christ’s death on the cross for him, and allow the righteousness of Jesus be counted as his righteousness. Because of what Christ did, Paul knew he had God’s approval, and so therefore he could experience full joy.

So if you are a Jesus-follower, may you this week pray to God, thanking Him that His presence and approval is all you need for everlasting joy!