If you ask a group of Christians about their sin struggles, you’ll likely hear at least a few references to desiring approval. Almost everyone can relate to J. R. R. Tolkien’s observation that “the praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards”—and it’s easy to feel guilty about this.
Perhaps surprisingly, instead of condemning this longing outright, Scripture shows that it is grounded in God’s original design. In the garden, we see God offering full approval to Adam upon completion of the covenant of works. And yet because of Adam’s failure, humanity has lived in a perpetual state of longing for divine approval ever since.
Instead of condemning our longing for approval outright, Scripture shows that it is grounded in God’s original design.
At its core, our desire for approval is actually a desire for righteousness. As Tim Keller explains, to be righteous means means “I have passed inspection in the eyes of a significant other; I have been found pleasing to someone I want to please.” He also argues that this desire “is at the center of all our souls.” Now, if our longing to be approved is so central—and if this desire is ultimately a desire for righteousness—how can we satisfy this longing?
From the fall onward, God’s people have recognized that our longed-for approval can only be obtained by covering ourselves with something. True to form, though, we haven’t always chosen the right covering. The Bible shows us three common (but flawed) coverings, while ultimately pointing us to the only covering that can give us the approval we crave.
1. Fig leaves (approval by ‘hiding’)
When Adam and Eve wanted to obtain God’s approval after the fall, they covered themselves with fig leaves—a common tactic we still use today. Maybe if I keep my flaws hidden, I can earn their approval. So we hide—we avoid talking, we avoid being transparent, we avoid being seen.
Unfortunately, as Adam and Eve discovered, this path to approval falls apart as soon as we are exposed (which inevitably happens to all of us at some point). Fig leaves are not the covering we need. They cannot heal our shame, forgive our sin, or protect us from being found out.
2. Goatskin (approval by ‘pretending’)
If hiding is trying not to be seen, pretending is trying to be seen—but as someone better or different than you actually are. We get a taste of this tactic in Genesis 27, when Jacob pretended to be his brother Esau by wearing goatskin, in order to obtain his father’s blessing.
While most of us have never donned goatskin to try to pass off as a hairy sibling, we all often portray ourselves as someone better than we are. We do this every time we touch up our social-media photos, change our personality, exaggerate our achievements, or downplay our failures.
While most of us have never donned goatskin to try to pass off as a hairy sibling, we all often portray ourselves as someone different than we are.
Unfortunately, as Jacob discovered, pretending only leads to fear and pain. We constantly worry about being found out, we expend copious amounts of energy to maintain our image, and we don’t experience the freedom of living as the people God created us to be.
3. Dirty rags (approval by ‘trying harder’)
Beyond hiding or pretending, our favorite approval-seeking technique is often just trying harder. Maybe if I try harder, God will approve of me. Maybe if I clean up my act a bit, I’ll be accepted. Maybe if I do a few more good works, God will bless me. Unfortunately, this attempt at earning approval is no better than Adam’s fig leaves or Jacob’s goat fur. As the prophet Isaiah points out, dressing ourselves in our own righteousness is like dressing ourselves in filthy rags (Isa. 64:5–6).
Trying to impress God with good works is like trying to impress a king with soiled garments. Not only is this a fruitless endeavor—it actually damages our well-being. As Isaiah notes, when we try to clothe ourselves in our own righteousness, we “shrivel up like a leaf” (Isa. 64:6). Eventually, after countless attempts at trying harder, we inevitably break down, wear out, and shrivel up.
4. Christ’s robes of righteousness
Whether it’s hiding, pretending, or trying harder, none of these self-made coverings will ever work to heal us or to earn God’s approval. Fortunately, the Bible presents another kind of covering, one God looks on with great pleasure: the covering of Christ’s righteousness (Isa. 61:10; Rev. 7:13–14). This is the only covering presented in the Bible that has nothing to do with our efforts, ingenuity, or worthiness.
‘The gospel is not you putting together a righteousness and giving it to God—the gospel is God putting together a righteousness and giving it to you.’
And only by clothing ourselves in this righteousness do we obtain the approval for which we so desperately long. To quote Keller once more: “The gospel is not you putting together a righteousness and giving it to God—the gospel is God putting together a righteousness and giving it to you.” Because Jesus wore our dirty rags on the cross, we through faith can be dressed forever in his spotless robes.
What Are You Wearing Today?
Are you most tempted to clothe yourself in fig leaves, goatskin, or dirty rags? Whether you are a believer or an unbeliever, Jesus invites you to stop hiding from him, and to start hiding in him (see Col. 3:3). Jesus is the righteousness you need (1 Cor. 1:30)—and if you trust in him, you can be sure that the same words the Father spoke to him, he speaks to you: “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.”
May we rest and rejoice today, and every day, in this divine approval.