How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? (John 5:44)

Women and girls want to look good. They wish they could have the perfect body, like an actress or supermodel. Unfortunately, the picture of the perfect female body tends to be a chain-smoking anorexic with implants. But that’s what many girls and women want to look like.

Men and boys also want to look good. They want to look like movies stars and macho athletes, with muscle rippling on every part of their body, even their pinky. Unfortunately, the picture of the perfect male body tends to be a steroid-popping body builder who spends too much time lifting weights to get a life. But that’s what many boys and men want to look like.

Our obsession with looks has made huge amounts of money for diet doctors, exercise gurus, cosmetics companies, and clothing designers. It has also led to eating disorders, drug abuse, and kids who can’t survive if their clothes or haircut aren’t quite right. The worst thing about being so appearance-conscious, though, is not what it does to our body but what it does to our inner self. We become silly and shallow, more concerned with how we look than with what we are really like on the inside.

Imagine you’re watching a TV screen, and the camera shows a closeup of a beautiful piece of jewelry. You are impressed. You wonder what elegant person owns it. Then the camera pulls away and shows that the jewelry is in the snout of a pig. That’s what it’s like for someone to be good-looking on the outside but is bad on the inside. The Bible says, “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion” (Proverbs 11:22). When it comes to looks, she is pure gold, but when it comes to character, she’s a dirty sow. When she looks in the mirror, she sees Miss Perfect.  When God looks at her, he sees Miss Piggy.

But a lot of us care more about looks and what others think of us than we care about God’s view of us. Young people are often eager to impress their classmates and friends, and many adults are also eager to impress others. Many of us spend more than we can afford on clothes and cars and jewelry and fancy houses, all to make an impression.  We’re more concerned with our image than with our true self.  We’re as ridiculous as a gold ring in a pig’s snout.

Why do so many of us put so much emphasis on appearances?  The answer is simple.  We want other people to think highly of us.  We want to impress them.  Would you buy expensive shoes instead of a cheaper pair, if you didn’t care what your friends thought of your shoes?  Do you wear expensive clothes when you’re at home relaxing?  Of course not.  We do so many things for no other reason than to impress other people.

All of us, to one degree or another, are infected with a longing for other people’s approve.  But if you allow this desire to dominate you, you die spiritually.  After a while you have no sense of self.  You can get wrapped up in things that are shallow and silly, or even in things that are downright harmful, not so much because these things really matter to you, but because they seem to matter to people around you.  Or even when you do something good, you might do it not because you love goodness but because you want to seem good to the people around you. But in all of these cases, you’re just a people pleaser.  You have no genuine identity of your own.  You might impress others, but that doesn’t make you into a great person, any more than jewelry in a sow’s nose can make a pig into a princess.

What God Approves

One of the most important questions you will ever be asked is this: Whose approval do you want? Do you live for God’s approval or for the approval of people around you? What if you weren’t seeking the approval of anyone but God? What sort of person would you be?  Would you be the same as you are now?

God looks at things differently than people do. The Bible says, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

God tells women, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornments, such as your style of hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes.  Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3-4, see 1 Timothy 2:9-10). How you look doesn’t matter nearly as much as who you are.

That’s true not only for women but also for men.  What’s on the inside is what counts.  Men focus on cars and how many horses are under the hood, but God doesn’t care about horsepower. Men focus on how fast a man can run or how high he can jump, but God isn’t much concerned about that.  The Bible says, “God’s pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of a man; the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love” (Psalm 147:10-11).

The first step to becoming the person you’re meant to be is this: Stop worrying about what others think of you, and start focusing on what God thinks of you.  Don’t bother so much with how you appear to others, and instead invite God to look deep into your heart.  Pray with the writer of Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart;  test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

Do you care what God thinks when he looks deep into your heart?  Or do you only care what other people think when they see what you’re like on the outside?

Jesus didn’t put any stock in what other people happened to think of him.  He said, “I do not accept praise from men, but I know you.  I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.  I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him” (John 5:41-43).  Jesus didn’t try to impress people who were more impressed by showoffs than by the reality of the living God.

Jesus then asked these people, “How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44)  That question cuts right to the heart of the matter.  If you don’t put your faith in Jesus or follow his way, the obstacle might not be lack of information about Jesus.  More likely, you’re preoccupied with what others think of you instead of what God sees in you.  You can’t believe, says Jesus, if you’re so eager for the approval of others that you don’t seek God’s approval.

Reputation or Reality?

Our eagerness to impress others is a mark of insecurity. We’re not content with who we really are on the inside, so we construct a phony image on the outside.  We’re not confident of God’s acceptance and approval, and so we try to win the acceptance and approval of other people.

French genius Blaise Pascal wrote, “We are not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves and our own being.  We want to lead an imaginary life in the eyes of others, and so we try to make an impression.  We strive constantly to embellish and preserve our imaginary being, and neglect the real one.  And if we are calm, or generous, or loyal, we are anxious to have it known so that we can attach these virtues to our other existence; we prefer to detach them from our real self so as to unite them with the other imaginary self.  We would cheerfully be cowards if that would acquire us a reputation for bravery” (Pensees).

How about you?  Do you fit Pascal’s description?  Do you care more about your reputation, or your reality?  Would you rather do something brave that nobody else noticed, or get the medal of valor for something you didn’t actually do?  Would you rather be generous and have nobody know about it, or be greedy and yet impress other people with your donations to charity?  Would you rather be wise and have people think you’re stupid, or be stupid and have people think you’re wise?  Would you rather be holy and yet have people despise you, or be evil and yet have people admire you?  Do you care most about your imaginary being that exists in the eyes of others, or your real being that exists in the eyes of God?  God commands us to get real.

Earlier we saw how easy it is to get caught up in concern about looks and appearances.   We try to impress others with fashion and fast cars and fancy houses, and what’s the result?  We become superficial and vain (and we often end up going deep into debt in the process).

But vanity about our appearance isn’t the only pitfall that comes with trying to impress others.  Take noble activities like giving lots of money to help others, or praying, or religious exercises.  These are good things to do, but when our only reason for doing them is to impress others, it is spiritually fatal.  We become phonies and hypocrites.  We look good on the outside, but nothing changes on the inside.  Then we fit Jesus’ description of hypocrites as whitewashed tombs: we look great on the outside, but inside there’s nothing but rottenness and decay and death.

As long as we do things to make an impression, and not because we truly love God and love other people, our good deeds will only make us more corrupt.  Our desire to impress others is so persistent, so powerful, and so deadly, that we need to deal with it ruthlessly.  If doing something good would impress the people around you, says Jesus, then do your good deed with as little fanfare as possible, and keep it a secret whenever you can.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.  If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do … to be honored by men.  I tell  you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)

If Jesus is right, then why do so many of us try to make sure that other people know about it whenever we do something decent? Why do so many people, including religious people, want their names trumpeted far and wide when they support a charitable cause?  Why do fundraisers name buildings after generous donors? And why do the donors let them?  If Jesus is right, then that name on the building is all the reward they will ever get.

But many organizations ignore these words of Jesus and aggressively offer to give potential donors lots of publicity.  Why?  Because it works.  It raises money.  Many people become more eager to give money if they know that others will take notice.  They’d rather do their giving in the spotlight than in secret.  It’s not enough for them that God knows what they’re doing.  They want other people to know too.

So, depending on how much you’re willing to give, you can get your name recorded on a special list of supporters, or engraved on one of the seats in a church, or on one of the windows, or on the piano or pipe organ.  You can fund a university endowment or research grant or professorship in your name, or contribute to a building that will be named after you.  You can give for nutrition and medicine and education for the poor, and if you really give a lot, somebody might publish pictures of you and write a flattering article about your generosity.  And the result?  The charities get money to do their work, the donors get recognition to enhance their reputation–and meanwhile they ignore the words of Jesus and forfeit any rewards from the heavenly Father.

We have to value inner reality over outer reputation.  If we are really in tune with God, we will act purely out of love, without caring who gets the credit.  In fact, says Jesus, we need to go out of our way to make sure we don’t get the credit. After his command in the Sermon on the Mount about keeping our gifts of charity a secret, Jesus goes on to say that we should try to keep our personal prayers and religious exercises a secret too.

“And when you pray, says Jesus, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love … to be seen by men.  I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you…”

“When you fast, says Jesus, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.  I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen;  and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6,16-18).

Sometimes a reputation for being religious can get you ahead in life.  People trust you more if you give the impression that you believe in God and feel responsible to him.  As a famous atheist once put it, “I do not believe in God, but I want my banker, my lawyer and my doctor to do so.”  So if you’re a banker, or lawyer, or doctor, or accountant, or salesman, or business person, or politician, you can profit greatly from a reputation for piety and honesty and trustworthiness.  If you’re fairly decent, you trumpet if far and wide, and if you’re not decent, you hide your sins and try to maintain a public image of decency. Honesty may not be the best policy, but an image of honesty often is the best policy for getting people to trust you enough to help you get ahead.

If your life is based on impressing others, you’ll never amount to anything.  You’ll be a mask with no soul, no real you, behind the mask.  You may like it that people are impressed with you, but they’re not impressed with the real you.  They’re just impressed by the mask you’ve been showing them.

Get Real

You may like it when your ability to impress others helps you get some of the things you want in life, but at what cost?

Jesus said, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)  If you live to impress others, you lose your soul already in this life because you lose your real self, and you also lose your soul in the life to come, because you’ve separated yourself from God by caring less about what he thinks than what the people around you think. Only when you focus on what God thinks of the real you can you begin to become a genuine person and not a mask.

God knows you and me inside out.  We can’t fool him.  God says in the Bible, “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve” (Jeremiah 17:10).  You can fool most of the people most of the time, but you can’t fool God.  He sees inside you, and his assessment of you matters more than anyone else’s.

Letting that fact sink in is the first step to getting real. Until that happens, you can’t accept or believe the reality of Christ, and you can’t enter into the reality of who God created you to be.  As Jesus put it, “How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?”

If the people around you are shallow and you’re trying to impress them, you can’t follow Christ.  You’ll be too busy with shallowness.  If the people around you admire goodness and you’re trying to impress them, you can’t follow Christ.  You’ll be so busy pretending to be good that you won’t seek the genuine, inner goodness that grows out of the love of Jesus.  And if the people around you have no use for Jesus or for holy living and you’re trying to impress them, you can’t follow Christ. You’ll be too scared of their reaction (see John 12:43).

Before you can ever begin to get real, before you can ever become a genuine person and not just an actor, you need to ask yourself three questions:  The first question is, What does God think of me?  The second question is, What does God think of me? And the third question is, What does God think of me?

Until that question is foremost in our minds, says Jesus, we will find it impossible to put our faith in him.  We need to say with a biblical writer, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God?  …  If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

How about you?  Are you trying to win the approval of others, or of God?  If you’re still focused on the approval of others, then I have nothing more to say to you.  You won’t believe it anyway.  But if you want God’s approval, if you want to get real, then here’s what you must do.

First, be honest with God about your sin.  God already knows the worst about you anyway, but you need to know what God knows. You need to admit that God is absolutely right in seeing you as a sinner.  The Bible says, “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.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives” (1 John 1:8-10).  Getting real can be painful.  It’s hard to be honest about our faults.  But the only alternative is to call God a liar by pretending we’re okay the way we are.

Then, once you’ve confessed your sin, you need to enter the new life and the new reality that God provides for you.  Believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  Believe that his blood washes away your sin.  Believe that his Spirit can help you to stop living as a phony and instead to love God and love others from your heart. Getting real in the eyes of God means that you need to “obey his commands and do what pleases him,” says the Bible.  “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 4:22-23).

Once you trust Jesus and start loving others as God loves you, you don’t have to prove anything to anybody.  You can rest secure in God’s acceptance.  That gives you a sense of identity and security, and it simplifies your decision-making.  Whenever you face a choice, you simply say to yourself, “Whose approval do I want? I want God’s approval. What course of action would be most pleasing to God? Then that is what I will do.”

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.