APPROVAL ADDICTION

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By Pete Alwinson

I’m an addict. I am addicted to getting other’s approval through my hard work. It had been going on for years, but I didn’t really understand how my addiction was driving me. I had a nebulous sense that something was wrong in my life—that I was too dependent on work and others’ approval— but it didn’t seem like a negative thing. After all, I was doing pretty well at my job. Others thought of me as a success.

For twenty-six years I served the same church as church planter and senior pastor. They were my people and I loved them. I was in it for Jesus and for people, but lying just below the surface was an insatiable thirst to get my worth from performance.

No doubt my drive to achieve and be noticed by others for my achievements hurt my wife the most. The decision to enter the pastorate was more by my prodding than a mutually well-prayed-through decision. I grimace as I write this, but I practically bullied her into the pastorate.

And, as a pastor, I often put my need to be approved by church members above the needs of my family (notice I didn’t say their actual needs, but my need for their approval). I remember one day when our first son was young and Caron asked me if I could come home and watch him while she ran an errand. My response was that I had too much work to do to come home. Later I confessed to her that the truth was that I feared someone from our church would stop by the office, find it locked, and then criticize me as one of those pastors who was doing the bare minimum because “pastors really only work one day a week.” I sent a message to her loud and clear: my work is more important than you.

My pressure to perform put my wife on notice to perform and made her feel unworthy, unloved, and conditionally accepted.

In the long run, worth from approval kept me from investing in closer relationships with other men and fostered a loner mentality. Since the work of the church is never done, being busy brought admiration and helped build an active church, but inhibited my capacity to make hard decisions, build deeper relationships with staff and leaders, and no doubt sent messages of disapproval to staff who didn’t work as hard as I did or whose “results” were not up to my standards.

Nothing I did in ministry could satisfy my constant, never-ending desire for others’ approval. You can’t keep that up forever and eventually fuel for my work was gone.

Nothing I did in ministry could satisfy my constant, never-ending desire for others’ approval. You can’t keep that up forever and eventually fuel for my work was gone. I couldn’t keep going as a pastor. I was burned out. I had to let go of my work because in the end it wasn’t about serving Jesus as much as it was about trying to build my own kingdom where I would be noticed, approved, and accepted. My desires to focus on reaching men help me let go of a role that after years only fed me guilt, shame, and emptiness. That’s difficult to write, but it was a grace to run out of gas and to hear the Father say, “Son, it’s time. I’m lifting the weight.” He lifted the burden and has been calling me to freedom from work induced worth ever since.Perhaps you can relate? You too have learned to measure your manhood by what you achieve and by what others think about your achievements. But what a precarious foundation on which to build your worth. Timothy Keller calls this, “The crushing burden of working primarily to prove” our worth. What lengths we go to in order to gain the esteem of others and to prove our worth as men!

What breaks into this cycle of performance-approval? What can deliver us from the uncertainty and the never-ending work of trying to find our significance in what we do? We need to go back to our heavenly Father.

In Romans 3, Paul gives us the bad news and the good news. The bad news is that what we have feared our entire lives is true—that we fall short. We haven’t done enough. We can’t do enough. No matter how hard we try. No matter what we accomplish, we will never measure up to God’s standards for us. We have been examined and found to be sinners. Our never-ending struggle for approval, significance, and success all stems from this one central truth: we fall short. That’s why no success, no work, no affirmation from any human satisfies. We are doomed to always work and never to rest.But there is good news. Someone has done for us what we could not do. Jesus lived the perfectly right life that we could not. When we put our faith in him, his perfect life becomes ours—“the righteous of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:22).

The approval we desire is available to us by faith in Jesus. Because he paid the price for our sins, we are justified. That means God has declared us, “Not guilty.” We are loved and graciously gifted with the full righteousness of Christ through God-given faith. We are officially pronounced not guilty by the Father of any and all sin, and we are acquitted of all charges against us for all time and eternity. To be justified brings peace with God—a sense of “shalom” or well-being that fills our lives. Because of the cross, all is well with you and God. What a relief from “the crushing burden” of always trying to prove our worth.

Whether acknowledged or not, we know deep in our hearts that we don’t measure up. We feel the lack of our Father’s approval and so we set out to get it ourselves— we work, we strive for acceptance and significance, but we are never satisfied. No human approval can ever substitute for approval from our heavenly Father. The result is that a black cloud of guilt hangs over our lives. Guilt is often the unrecognized motivator in what we say and do—it leads us to try harder and work harder to measure up (what the Bible calls works righteousness).

But the solution is not trying harder—it’s resting on what Christ has done for us. That’s why we must allow the truth of the gospel that Jesus paid it all and did it all to soak through to our masculine work ethic. We need to remember every day that nothing we do, achieve, accomplish, or make can erase our guilt and provide worth. Only the righteousness of Christ can undo, wipe way, and remove guilt before our holy Father—Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross has accomplished it!

Because of God’s grace to you in sending his Son to die for your sins, you can breathe easy. Knowing you are forgiven in Christ means you can daily and quickly acknowledge to God that you are a sinner who needs forgiveness. You can bring your workaholism to God and request forgiveness. And daily you will receive forgiveness and love from your heavenly Father. Not based on your efforts, but based on what Jesus has done for you. This is God’s grace. Grace is receiving what you don’t deserve when there is every evidence that you deserve the opposite. Look up and see the face of an approving and beaming Father. Ambition of our own never fills our souls. Approval from the Father always will

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Excerpted from Like Father Like Son © 2015 by Pete Alwinson. Used by permission of New Growth Press. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the express written permission of New Growth Press. To purchase this and other resources, please visit www.newgrowthpress.com.

Pete Alwinson has been involved in developing men for over 30 years. A Californian, he is the founding pastor of Willow Creek Presbyterian Church {PCA} in Winter Springs, Florida, where he served for 26 years as Senior Pastor. He has served churches in California, Illinois, Connecticut and Florida. He is a graduate of Biola College in Communications, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.Div) and Reformed Theological Seminary (D. Min) in Oviedo, Florida. Alwinson has taught Communications and the Theology of Ministry at Reformed Theological Seminary and serves on the Board of Directors of Knox Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Alwinson has been married to Caron for 36 years, and they have three children, two beloved daughters-in-law, and two grandchildren. His hobbies include hiking, duck and gator hunting, and fishing with his family.

You can connect with Pete Alwinson at: Facebook: Pete.Alwinson | Twitter: @Pete-Alwinson