By Myra Dempsey
“Have you made God smile today?” That question, printed in bold letters on a church sign, caught my friend’s eye as she drove by. She mentioned it to me on the phone, because we’d had multiple conversations about this idea- us making God smile. “Have you made God smile today?” Such a simple question stirs a myriad of feelings inside me, like frustration, relief, and sadness. I’m frustrated by the implications of that question, namely that God isn’t smiling at us until we do something to earn it. I can remember growing up in church and hearing this idea taught…when I’m good and obey the rules, I make God smile. I even had a kids’ cassette tape with Christian songs and little skits, one of which was all about “making HIM smile,” by doing various good deeds. My parents, in their best attempt to raise me right, reiterated the same point at home. God is so pleased with you when you’re good!
This may seem on the surface like an appropriate thing to teach your children. We want to encourage them to obey, right? Yes, teaching obedience is a wonderful thing, but we must bear in mind the WHY of obedience that we teach. It is not to earn God’s favor or to make him smile. Those are both already freely given in Christ Jesus!
The relief I felt when thinking about that church’s question was in response to God’s mercy to me. He has so mercifully taught me, all because of his goodness and grace, the truth of his gospel. He has, over time and oh-so-patiently, undone the harmful effects of my performance-based teachings. This will be an on-going journey of healing and learning, but I love that I can look back and see a marked difference in how I understand God’s love for me, my identity in him, and the unshakable nature of my right-standing before this holy God.
While I praise God for his mercy and truth revealed to me, I also feel sad for so many brothers and sisters in Christ. Countless believers have a genuine affection for Jesus, and desire to please the Father, but turn away from dependence on the Spirit and toward their own “right” behavior. There’s an oddly comforting element to believing that we can earn God’s approval. Our innate depravity seeks control and resists brokenness or dependence. It’s very scary to be completely dependent on someone else! The cultural air we breathe is replete with messages praising our own ability and elevating independence. We’re taught to make our own plans and work extremely hard- relying on our own strength- to meet those goals. But those seemingly innocuous messages are like tiny blades, slicing with surgical precision and draining us of our lifeblood… faith and dependence on Jesus.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 ESV). Jesus’ metaphor of vine and branches reminds us that our salvation and connection to him is wholly apart from our own merit or achievement, and is utterly dependent on his grace. We get to abide in him! We get to lay aside all the planning, striving, stressing, and trying that this world deems good and necessary. We get to rest in Jesus. He lived the perfect life that we could not, constantly honoring the Father and loving his neighbor. He fulfilled every iota of the law that we can never, as hard we may try, keep perfectly. And Jesus Christ, the God-Man, died the brutal death that we deserved, to completely absorb the wrath of our Righteous Judge and make us clean.
As mind-blowing as those truths are, Jesus didn’t stop there. He also defeated death itself and came back to life after three days, imputing to us all of his righteousness" (1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21)! As we’ve explained it to our kids, “Jesus took all of our bad stuff away, AND gave us all of HIS good stuff!” So that is where we can abide- in the knowledge that we make God smile, all the time, and not because we behave well or follow the rules… only because of Jesus Christ. God’s ways are much higher than our ways, so we can trust that his “smile” is not like ours, as a temporary response to emotion. No, God’s affections for you, dear brothers and sisters, are deep, unchanging and everlasting.
We get to abide in him, and we get to taste and see how good it is to be completely dependent on Jesus. There is freedom in letting go of the exhausting pursuit of self-righteousness. Your righteousness has already been accomplished! It is finished.So we can press deeper in to our amazing Savior, have discernment for unhealthy messages from our culture (and even from churches), and walk in grateful, humble, confidence! Our behavior does not earn us anything from God. He has already freely given us all that we need to be made clean, declared righteous, and to live a life that glorifies our King and brings us joy. Yes, obedience is a part of that life, but I don’t obey to “turn God’s scowl into a smile.” I obey because my loving Father already smiles at me, all because of Jesus, and it is my joy to submit to that kind of King!