This post is one of a series looking at four Scriptural truths about God’s nature. You can read an introduction to the series here.
Thomas the Tank Engine was a staple of my childhood reading: I think my grandparents must have had every single one of the original books; I can still hear Ringo Starr’s Liverpudlian delivery of “You have caused confusion and delay”, and the original theme tune remains a favourite1but please, please, spare us the new one!.
However, when it came to raising our kids, we rapidly dialled back on Thomas. The main reason was that every new arrival to the island seemed to be treated badly until they had proved to the stern Fat Controller that they were a “really useful engine”. While we are all in favour of a good work ethic, positive attitude, teamwork, and everything else that constitutes “really useful” in the stories, we didn’t like that the proof had to come first, before acceptance and friendship were offered.
When we work to impress others, it so often brings out the worst in us: we focus where our actions will be most noticed, rather than paying attention to more important but less visible things; we seek affirmation of our efforts, rather than giving them selflessly; and we risk prioritising charisma or reputation over integrity. We can also place our identity in the opinions of others, rather than treasuring our status as children of God.
When we work to impress God, things are no better. Jesus tells the parable of the Lost Son primarily as a rebuke to the Pharisees2see Luke 15:2-3 for their attitude, and casts them as the older brother of the story:
But [the older brother] answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”Luke 15:29-30
The Pharisees are so caught up in their worldview, in which their hard work is earning them credit with God, that they can’t celebrate the very things that God is seeking to do – reaching the lost. In their implicit criticism of God’s actions, they dishonour Him – just as the older brother dishonours the father in Jesus’s parable. But the truth is, we often see God through the lens of the Fat Controller – despite God making it really clear to us that He doesn’t operate in that way. Paul writes:
But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Romans 5:8
From this world-changing act of sacrifice, there flows a different way of living. Instead of working for love, we respond to God’s unconditional love with wholehearted work. Instead of us measuring out what we do and counting the return, we are loved beyond our ability to repay, and can give unstintingly to God and to others. And of course, knowing and living out the truth about God’s nature always impacts our lives for the better.
How would it change our lives if we looked to what God has done for our identity, and saw anything we do as a loving offering of worship?
- If God is in control, I can rest – even when there are still things on my to-do list.
- If God is in control, I can pray for outcomes that go beyond my own abilities.
- If God is in control, I don’t have to be anxious about things I’ve prayed about.
- If God is in control, I don’t have to fear the unforeseen things that might happen tomorrow, because they didn’t catch Him unawares.
- If God is in control, I have enough hours in each day and each week to do the things that He wants me to do. (maybe not to do all the things I want!)
- If God is in control, prayer is never a waste of my time.
The truth we want to internalise is this:
As always, it’s good to look at our own lives to see where we fall short of believing the truth about God. We can then counter these by “renewing our mind” with Scripture, and asking the Holy Spirit to change our hearts. Here are three of the most common ways in which an attitude of “I have to prove myself” can play out in our lives:
Demanding or controlling behaviour towards others
If we believe that we have to prove ourselves to our Heavenly Father, we will often display this behaviour towards others who we “father” – our own children, or perhaps employees at work – as well as in peer relationships. This is the one that I have to watch most myself, as it can easily creep into my own behaviour. When I find myself becoming demanding or hard to please, particularly with my children, I am greatly helped by reading passages that talk of God’s great love for us, offered without preconditions – passages like this one:
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.1 John 4:18-19
Boastfulness, self-promotion and pride
Perhaps you have spent time with someone who always brings the conversation back to themselves, or who responds to someone else’s story with one of their own to outdo them3some light-hearted reading!? Perhaps, if you take a long hard look at yourself, you are that person sometimes! This behaviour is countered by understanding the lengths that God has gone to in order to justify us, the vast significance of God’s view of us, and the near-irrelevance of others’ opinions about us. Two great prompts for this:
God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood … he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.Romans 3:25-26
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.Luke 6:22-23,26
But perhaps even more common is simple pride – putting on the mask of everything being fine, while underneath we are hurting, broken or tangled up in sin. The truth is that God desires to bring everything into the light, not to shame us, but to free us – the book of 1 John, which is all about how God’s unconditional love for us overflows, says this:
If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.1 John 1:7-9
Lastly, there is the low self-esteem that comes from a belief that we are constantly being evaluated on the basis of our works. If that were the case – if our value was tied up in our usefulness to God, or our faithfulness to His commands – we would rightly feel worthless. However, the love and status that God gives us is unrelated to our achievements or lack thereof. Psalm 8 puts this in beautiful perspective, showing how vast and powerful God is, how tiny we are, and how seemingly insignificant, and yet:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,Psalm 8:3-6
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands
What about you? Can you see mindsets or actions in your own life that stem from a need to prove yourself? What Scripture could you memorise and meditate on, to anchor it deeper in your life that God is gracious?
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.Romans 12:2