The Bottomless Search for Approval

Shortly before film director Sydney Pollack died in 2008, an article about him explained that as he was sick and dying, he couldn’t stop working. Even when his family begged him to stop because it was shortening his life, he refused. The article said, “Pollack says that although the grueling film movie making process is wearing him down, he can’t justify his existence if he stops. And he said, ‘Every time I finish another picture, I feel I have earned my stay for another year or so.’”

Seeking justification is not strictly a religious pursuit. All people, secular and religious, are searching for justification. We all have our own way of saying, “This is how I earn my stay.”

Some try to find it in their parenting: I read about a writer whose career was not going anywhere because nobody was reading his work, and so he questioned his whole purpose in life. “But then,” he said, “I look at my two little girls, and I know that my existence is justified.”

A lot of parents earn their stay through their children. Children are wonderful, but if your children are your justification, it’s a disaster. You end up putting too much pressure on them, because you need them to succeed. Not for them, but for you to be validated.

And if they don’t succeed—if they do poorly or get in trouble or compare unfavorably—you take it as a deep personal blow to your identity. You might say as much to them, something like, “If you don’t do this, then I have failed as a parent.” More likely the message is more subtle but just as powerful and just as dangerous.

Is your passion for your children’s success about them? Or is it a selfish means of feeling like you’ve earned your stay in this world?

If you aren’t a parent, you’re not off the hook. We all tend to use others to justify our lonely existence. We simply all do it a little differently. We may prefer to look to a spouse, or a set of friends, or our co-workers, or even the approval of the masses. But we all do it.

This bottomless search for approval is nothing new. It goes back to a soul condition we see pictured in the Garden of Eden, and it’s one of the most revealing pictures of the human race.

St. Augustine said that before they sinned, Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed because they were clothed in God’s love and acceptance. One of the first effects of sin after the fall was a sense of shame over their nakedness. They had always been naked, but without God’s approval, now they felt naked.

That’s a picture of the human race: We feel exposed, unacceptable, and ashamed. Our whole lives are spent as a quest to re-clothe ourselves. We’re always looking for what sets us apart and makes us “right.” We’re always looking for something to validate us, something to prove that we’ve earned our place in this world.

But apart from Christ, whatever we turn to for our justification becomes a snare.

Worse, it becomes a point of division in our communities—and in the church. If I’m trusting in my parenting to be made right, then I need to be a better parent than you. If I’m trusting in my moral goodness, then I need to present a better picture of holiness than you. If I’m trusting in my group of friends, then I automatically assume that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys.

Thank God justification doesn’t work this way. It is given to us freely as a gift in Christ Jesus. The apostle Paul says, “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith” (Romans 3:27 CSB).

The gospel eliminates boasting, not by telling us to stop boasting, but by undercutting the very basis of pride: We aren’t saved by anything we do. We can’t keep the law. We can’t make any claim to success on our own virtue. At our core—at our best—we are a race of miserable failures. There is none righteous, not even one.

In fact, we are so bad, Jesus had to die to save us. And that destroys the basis of pride.

But praise God, Jesus was so loving, he was eager to die to save us. And that destroys the basis of despair.

When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the prince of glory died.
My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.