The End of the Sisyphus Cycle

Chapter 3 of Glory Hunger: God, the Gospel, and Our Quest for Something More by Charles L. Vassar Jr.

My parents were kind enough to bequeath me a metabolism slower than a chess match. I did not ask for that. We don’t have a say in those matters, nor do we have a say in the biological family we are born into. We might have chosen a different one if we could, but the truth is that the choice was out of our hands. Nor do we determine our genes, DNA, or natural talents. If we could, I would have chosen to be tall, fast, athletic, and naturally toned. As it is, I possess none of those traits, and neither did my parents. We can blame those kinds of things primarily on our biological family tree. The roots of that tree determine the fruits of our features. We reflect our biological fathers.

Spiritually, we are born with Adam as our father. After his tragic fall, he fathered a race “in his own likeness, after his image” (Gen. 5:3). When Adam sinned, he fell from the heights of glory. He incurred the condemnation of God, his nature was corrupted, and he lost the greatness he originally possessed. Through his sinful act, he brought this tragic loss on the entire human race (Rom. 5:12). We are in his lineage. We share his spiritual features. We are the branches of his family tree. Adam serves as the root of that tree and determines the fruit of the features of our inner life. As his children who have his blood coursing through our veins, we share his condemnation and corruption, and we too lack the greatness God intended for humanity.

We feel our condemnation. Deep down we know we are wrong, but we want to be right. We point fingers, shift blame, and justify ourselves because the pain of a soiled record and a condemning conscience is too much to bear. We feel our corruption, embarrassed over the things we are capable of. And we feel the loss of the dominion that was originally given to Adam in the fact that we are racked with a litany of limitations and failures. In light of the fact that we were made to rule over all creation (Ps. 8:6–8), our accomplishments don’t quite scratch our itch for greatness, but we keep trying. Our glory hunger is the unrelenting fight to overcome this shame and recover the goodness and greatness that Adam lost.

I liken this struggle for the recovery of glory to what is sometimes called the “Sisyphus cycle.” Sisyphus was a king in Greek mythology who was condemned by the gods to spend eternity pushing a large boulder up a steep hill. But it was an exercise in futility, since every time he reached the top of the hill, the large stone rolled back down to the bottom. When we are driven to recover glory for ourselves, it is like pushing a large boulder of our own goodness and greatness up an insurmountable hill. We struggle and strive in our attempts to feel good about ourselves by complying to our own moral code. We push and plod in our attempts to make everyone else feel good about us by meeting the cultural expectations for greatness. But we never quite make it over the top of the hill. We inevitably embarrass ourselves by failing to meet our own standards and by failing to embody the cultural values of successful, sexy, and cool. With every failure, the stone rolls back down to the bottom of the hill, and we don’t feel good or great. So we start pushing the stone up the hill one more time. It is exhausting.

There is a way to be finally free from the vicious Sisyphus cycle. But this freedom will not come by you and me climbing our own hills. We will find our glory hunger satisfied and the Sisyphus cycle broken by another, who heroically climbed the ultimate hill for us. Jesus, through his holy life, substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection has secured for us all the goodness and greatness for which our hearts ache. Our longing for the recovery of glory is met finally and fully in Jesus’s work on the cross. His hill was Golgotha. He climbed it and heroically won back for us what Adam lost.

Our Approval Secured

Jesus was the only one since Adam’s fall to be free of guilt and condemnation. He was the Son of God, born of a virgin and free from Adam’s corruption. Jesus was without sin (Heb. 4:15) and always did what was pleasing to the Father (John 8:29). At his baptism the Father’s voice spoke from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). Jesus asked his accusers, “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:46). No one could, yet he died like a common criminal. The Jewish leaders condemned Jesus, and the Roman governor Pilate sentenced him to die by crucifixion. Yet it was ultimately God’s plan. Though sinful people carried it out, the death of Jesus was ultimately God’s intent (Acts 2:23).

In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul tells us what God accomplished in Jesus’s death: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” By the cross of his Son, God made it possible for us to regain the standing and status that Adam lost for us. Jesus became our sin and bore our curse so that we could become his righteousness and know the blessing of God. The Father held his Son legally liable for our sins, and Jesus paid for them in his death on the cross. In a glorious exchange, Jesus’s perfect obedience is credited to those who trust in him, and they are declared righteous. God took an eternity of what we deserved, bound it up into a moment, and unleashed it on his Son so he could spare us and give us an eternity of what we don’t deserve. God looked upon Jesus as though he lived my life so that he could look upon me as though I lived Jesus’s life. At the cross, the only commendable one became the condemned one, so that the condemned ones could become the commendable ones. Jesus removes our condemnation from us, bearing it himself.

Now, for those who are in Christ, there is no condemnation before God but only the commendation of God.

I first began to understand the doctrine of justification by faith in my early college days. Poring over the Scriptures in my dorm room, my mind marveled and my heart sang over the fact that God had declared me righteous in his sight solely by faith in Jesus, apart from any work of my own and apart from my actual condition. Looking back, I now know I was starting to grasp what is clearly and succinctly laid out in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. How are you righteous before God?

A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Although my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, have never kept any of them, and am still inclined to all evil, yet God, without any merit of my own, out of mere grace, imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ. He grants these to me as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me, if only I accept this gift with a believing heart.7

In other words, to be justified by God means that God sees me in Jesus, “just as if I had never sinned; just as if I had always obeyed.” God considers me in Christ as having met all his expectations and fulfilled all his demands. Since I am “in Christ,” I am not condemned by God; rather, I am loved, approved, and affirmed. This truth of justification is why the apostle Paul could say to the Corinthians:

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. (1 Cor. 4:3–4)

In other words, I’m not defined by how good I feel about myself or how good another feels about me. I’m not even defined by how good I really am or am not. I’m defined by what the Lord says about me. The Lord is my judge, and he has justified me. He has declared me righteous in his court and set his love and affirmation upon me forever.

Whether we have acknowledged it or not, this is the glory we want. Throughout our entire lives we have been seeking a positive verdict in the courtrooms of human opinion. Every courtroom in which you and I secure a positive verdict eventually gets trumped by a higher court, and then we exert all our energy for the favor of that higher court. I tight-rolled my jeans in the seventh grade for a middle-school courtroom. I worked hard at athletics for a high-school courtroom, and with every ground ball that went through my legs I lost the trial. I graduated from high school and college, and the courtrooms kept changing and getting more sophisticated and complicated. The demands of achievement and appearance became harder to attain. All along the way, I found (and find) myself living in a courtroom struggling to prove my case and be commended.

I’m guessing you have (and do) too. Maybe it was the courtroom of your parents, and you just wanted to hear your dad’s verdict of “I’m proud of you.” Maybe you’re living for the verdict of a boss or a spouse or a social circle, and the best you can hope for is a hung jury. All these courts are shadows of the highest court. Our desire for a positive verdict in human courts is the surface rumbling of our deepest need for the ultimate verdict that comes down from the ultimate court.

God put in your heart this need to be justified, and until you are able to stand before him justified, with the verdict of “fully loved and fully accepted,” you will never be truly free from all the lower courts you are living for. Until the opinion of the one who matters most actually matters most to you, you will never be free from your unrelenting glory hunger.

This is not legal fiction, a make-believe world in which we pretend we are okay. It is not a judicial act of God in which he coldly declares us righteous against his better judgment or wishes. It is the most real thing about us if we are in Jesus, and it is relational. God delights to credit us with the righteousness of Jesus and gladly adopts us in that righteousness as sons and daughters whom he loves and in whom he delights. We see the power of this as we eavesdrop on Jesus’s prayer to the Father that led up to his crucifixion:

The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:22–23)

The last line of that request is staggering. Jesus was saying that because of his work at the cross, all who believe in him will be brought into a relationship with God and have him as their Father. As his children in Jesus, the Father loves us with the same commitment and joy with which he loves his own dear, eternal Son. He takes pleasure in his justified ones like he takes pleasure in Jesus. How he feels about Jesus is how he feels about those who are in Jesus. Just like God spoke over his Son at his baptism, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11), he speaks over his adopted sons and daughters and says to us, “I claim you as my child, and I find happiness in you.” And the Holy Spirit wants to convince us more and more of that reality and satisfy our hearts with it (Rom. 8:16). Jesus has won that glorious status for us, and the weight of it has the power to satisfy us like nothing else. I love how C. S. Lewis describes God’s posture toward those in Christ:

The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible because of the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses . . . shall find approval, shall please God. To please God . . . to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness . . . to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But it is so.8

Jesus has removed our condemnation and made us objects of God’s delight, ingredients in the Father’s happiness. I must admit that in the past I have cringed when others have spoken of God in highly emotional terms. I have been uncomfortable with songs and sermons that I felt made God look sappy. But after a recent encounter with God, that changed. At the time, my wife and I were struggling with fear in an area of our lives. We were praying late one night, and I began to reflect on the love of God. As I prayed, I had clear images in my mind of my interaction with my children. In that moment, I recalled the numerous times I have gone into their rooms while they sleep, stroked their hair, smiled over them, and whispered in their ear how much I love them.

As I prayed with my wife that night, I sensed in my heart that God was interrogating me. It seemed as if he were asking me, “Do you think you are a more tender father than I am? Are you more affectionate toward your children than I am toward mine? Is your heart more capable of delighting in your kids than my heart is capable of delighting in mine?” I was overwhelmed as I sensed the reality of God’s love. The fact that in Jesus, I am living my life under the smiling countenance of God and that he is for me erupted in my heart. As my joy in that glorious status rose, fears sank, and I was free.

That is the glory we are made for, and only when we are satisfied with God’s pleasure in us will we be free from the fear of displeasing everyone else. Only his approval will cure our hunger for glory. It can be ours by grace. The tragedy is that many will pass on it, discounting it and pining for the approval of mere men instead. When the apostle John tells us in John 12:42 that certain officials passed on Jesus because they “loved the glory that comes from men more than the glory that comes from God,” John intends us to be shocked. In longing to be justified before men, they were forfeiting the ultimate justification. Longing to keep their standing before people, they forfeited their standing before the ultimate person. John was making sure we would know a glory hunger that is legitimate. There is a glory that we should long for and seek after, but it is not found from men. It’s a glory that comes from God, a verdict he speaks over our lives. And it’s a game-changer for the glory hungry.

Our Corruption Healed

As a child I was rather rambunctious. My hyperactivity often led to mischief and rebellion. My poor mom, in desperation, came up with the ingenious idea of a “be-nice shot.” The be-nice shot was a miracle of modern medicine that would instantly turn a deviant child into a delightful one. Like all children, I hated shots, and the thought of going to the doctor to get a shot that could adjust my attitude was sufficient to adjust my attitude. However, one day I grew tired of my unruly self. Even as a young child I felt the inner struggle to be who I sensed I was meant to be. I was ready to be free from the struggle, so I went to my mom and requested that she take me to the doctor for the be-nice shot. Her cover was blown!

Although I would not have used these words, what I was feeling as a child was the passion to be free from the corruption of my fallen human nature. As one made in the image of God, Adam was created to reflect God. He was made to reflect his holiness and moral perfections, to mirror his attributes. Adam possessed unimaginable beauty, not just physically but also morally. He was radiant with virtue. But Adam failed, and his glory was diminished in the fall. As Adam’s descendants, we are tainted by sin and fail to reflect the beauty God created us to possess and reflect. As those infected with Adam’s moral corruption, ugly and inglorious things reside in our hearts and make their way into our lives: “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander,” and these things “defile a person” (Matt. 15:18–19).

We feel this defilement. We often hang our heads in shame over it. We have skeletons in the closet that testify against us and make us out to be fools without sense or self-control. There are pictures of our past that expose the ugly flaws of our character. Our glory hunger can’t handle this truth, so we hide those pictures and edit our profiles, trying to present ourselves as flawless people. Whether it was last year or last night, we have done things that we would rather forget and keep others from knowing about. We hate our defilement, and we want to be free from it—at least we do when we are sane.

One of the evidences that we desire to be truly good is the way we esteem virtue in others. I have noticed this especially during highly altruistic seasons such as Christmas. No one ever says, “I liked the old Ebenezer better.” We prefer the new Ebenezer, who is gracious and generous. What we admire in others is a good indication of what we wish we saw in ourselves. When we are moved by the virtue of another, it is a reminder of the virtue we were made to possess and wish we possessed. Our aspiration toward virtue is the echo of Eden in our hearts. It is a longing to have the image of God, diminished and vandalized by sin, fully restored in us.

The gospel addresses our condemnation, assuring us that God does not condemn us for our corruption, because Jesus was condemned for us. Through his work, Jesus purchased the gift of the Holy Spirit, who now resides in us and is working to restore in us the glorious image of God. The old person we were before Jesus is progressively done away with as this new image is brought into clearer focus. Paul’s words to the churches in Ephesus and Colossae affirm this to us:

You have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:21–24)

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Col. 3:9–10)

If we are in Jesus, we have the power to be done with the old self that belongs to our former manner of life, the old, inglorious self that was in Adam’s image and suffered corruption. In Jesus, we are new and can experience a glorious renovation of our lives as we are renewed in the image of our Creator. The Holy Spirit is at work in us to make us more like Jesus, who is the very image and likeness of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). Jesus is all that, deep down, we wish we were, and God will make us like him. As Christ is formed in us (Gal. 4:19), we are increasingly healed of our corruption and reflect the glorious image of God, bearing the fruit of love and all the virtues that go along with it. The outward glory so prized by the world will fade away, but inwardly we are renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16). As we behold Christ and exalt him as our Savior and the standard for our lives, we are changed from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18).

As we are changed, shameful behaviors lose their place in us. Those embarrassing outbursts of anger wane in their force and frequency. The hidden lusts that rage in our hearts are progressively subdued by love and self-control. The virtues we admire in others find increasing expression in our own lives. As God superintends this process, we find that we are not what we used to be. But also we are not what we are going to be. Similar to the current television home-makeover shows, our transformation is a process of renovation with a great reveal at the end. One day we will be made fully like Jesus, glorified before God, free from sin’s humiliating presence in our lives, and we will no longer hang our heads in shame.

Our Greatness Restored

As one made in the image of God, Adam was the pinnacle of God’s creative activity. He possessed a greatness that is hard for us on this side of the fall to imagine. Martin Luther explains that before Adam sinned,

his intellect was the clearest, his memory was the best, and his will was the most straightforward—all in the most beautiful tranquility of mind, without any fear of death and without any anxiety. To these inner qualities came also the most beautiful and superb qualities of body and of all the limbs, qualities in which he surpassed all the remaining living creatures. I am fully convinced that before Adam’s sin, his eyes were so sharp and clear that they surpassed those of the lynx and eagle. He was stronger than the lions and the bears, whose strength is very great; and he handled them the way we handle puppies.9

That description sounds like a modern-day superhero, but it is what God intended for humanity. Adam was put on earth to rule, to exercise dominion over all the creatures that filled sky and sea and walked upon the ground (Gen. 1:26). He was to fill the earth with God’s creative activity and exercise a commanding presence. Everything yielded to him as he was yielded to God. God gave this glory to Adam, and it was his only in relation to God and in submission to God. Yet Adam failed to exercise this dominion over the Serpent and instead yielded to it. He rebelled against God and gave up the rule that God had given him. He not only became corrupt in his nature, suffering guilt and condemnation, but also experienced the diminishing of God’s designed greatness. He became weak, susceptible to the oppression of the elements and forced to do sweaty battle with the ground for daily bread. He eventually lost the battle and returned to the dust from which he came, suffering the ultimate shame.

As those who share in Adam’s humanity, we were made to possess greatness. We were not meant to cower under the elements or the animals. We were not designed to be taunted by our weakening bodies. We were not meant to suffer sickness, injury, and certainly not death. We were meant to reign, not as tyrants who exploit the creation, but as God’s vice-regents who reflect his character as we reign with him. That dominion has been frustrated, but we still have an ache for it. We want to win. We want to be on top. In the words of Tears for Fears, “Everybody wants to rule the world.”10 That glory hunger that manifests itself in our desire for greatness and control is a Genesis memory of what we were made for but what Adam lost. It is the residue of the image of God in us that gets twisted and can result in oppression and power trips, but it is also a hint of what we were made for and what God intends to restore to us in Jesus.

In his life and ministry, Jesus demonstrated the dominion that God intended for humanity. He commanded the winds and waves, rebuked fever, overturned death, and crushed the head of the Serpent, as Adam couldn’t. But that exercise of dominion was a foretaste of what is coming. For those who have sided with Jesus, the restoration of our glory culminates in Jesus’s return to this world in glory and power. He will return as king and judge. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). And the promise to us is that “if we endure, we will also reign with him” (1 Tim. 2:12). We who fear the judgments of people will judge the world and angels at his coming (1 Cor. 6:2–3). We who want to rule our little corners of the globe will one day inherit the entire earth (Matt. 5:5). Jesus promises, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21). Our glory hunger should lead us to Jesus, who has won for us an incomparable greatness we could never gain by our Sisyphean boulder pushing.

Jesus, the End of Our Glory Hunger

Our glory hunger can be a gift to lead us to the only one who can satiate it. Jesus is the end of our glory hunger. He restores to us the glory that Adam lost for us. This is why the Scriptures refer to Jesus as the second and final Adam:

In Adam we glimpse the goodness and greatness that God intended for human creatures. Yet we only glimpse these, because Adam spoils them for all mankind, forfeiting them in the first moments of the world. In Christ, we behold a second and greater Adam, the restorer of human goodness and greatness. What Adam squandered in a moment, the second Adam regains and bestows forever. As Paul writes in Romans 5:18, “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”11

Jesus is better than Adam in every way. Adam grasped for godlike status and plunged the world into sin and death. Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6). Rather, he humbled himself by taking on flesh and, bearing our sin and condemnation, was plunged into an inglorious death so we could have our glory restored. That glory is God’s affirming verdict over us and the renewal of our God-given capacity for greatness and dominion. In him we have the “very good” of God spoken over our lives as objects of the Father’s pleasure. We are being renewed in his likeness, and we are destined for a greatness rivaled only by his. This is the glory we were made for.

Chapter 3 of Glory Hunger: God, the Gospel, and Our Quest for Something More by Charles L. Vassar Jr.

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