Living to Please God

Dr. Brian Allison

There are Christians who feel utterly deficient in different areas of their life. As they reflect upon their Christian walk and their relationship with God, they come to recognize their appalling weakness and countless failures, and perhaps feel somewhat discouraged because they are not where they want to be nor where they should be spiritually. The expectations and requirements of the Word of God may weigh heavy on their conscience; and throwing up their arms in despair may say, "What is the point? I just cannot get it right anyway. Why even try?" Is that where you are, my friend? Well, I am not going to condone this particular attitude, saying, "It is all right to continue to 'blow it', to continue to fail. God understands if we cannot succeed in our spiritual walk, and we continue to sin." Rather than giving this kind of counsel, I want to lovingly remind you that the status quo is just not good enough. 1 Thessalonians 4:1,2 reads, "Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus."

These verses mark a transition – "Finally then... ." In chapters 1-3, Paul's ministry, and its impact on the believers at Thessalonica, is detailed. In these chapters, the apostle Paul defends his ministry against the various charges leveled against him. These first three chapters assume the form of a narrative, with Paul rehearsing the immediate personal history with these believers. In chapters 4 and 5, the apostle shifts the emphasis, and focuses on Christian living. The form of the writing changes from narrative to ethics. Paul directs these believers into a fuller experience of holy living.

The need to give more

Paul exhorts these believers to strive for a more holy life so as to please God – "Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that...you may excel still more" (4:1). Paul continually emphasizes the need for Christians to increasingly excel in the faith. Notice, for instance, in this same chapter, "Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need of anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more" (4:9,10). Someone may retort, "Paul, aren't you ever satisfied?" Again, as he writes to the Philippian Church, Paul touches on this same theme of producing more fruit. In Philippians 1:9, Paul writes, "And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment." You may react to this language, and say, "Paul, what is the problem, man? You always want more – more seeking, more holiness, more righteousness, more love; more striving, more growth, more maturity. To tell you the truth, Paul, I am getting pretty tired of all this 'more' stuff. I am working in this area of my life, and I am working in that area. I seem to make some headway here and some strides there; and then I read the Word of God again and I hear more, more, more. Man, I am getting tired of the more – more perseverance, more prayer, more meditation. Can't I just be a simple Christian? Can't you be happy with the fact that I am a Christian, and that I am at least trying to do my best? When I hear this language, 'more, more, more', I feel guilty. I cannot give any more. Sorry, but I am too tired." Have you said something like this, my friend? I suspect that many Christians have said, "I need to take a break from this Christianity; I need to take time out and catch my breath. I am tired of the stress from not doing good enough, and that I have to give more." If that is your thinking, my friend, you have a wrong attitude and approach to the faith. If you find that you are tired, exasperated, and exhausted in trying to live the Christian faith, and that you cannot give any more, and that you need to take a break, then I suggest to you that you are trying to live out the faith on your own terms, trusting in yourself, rather than resting in God and being dependent on His Spirit and resources.

If God has called us to give more, and to strive for more, and to seek more, then God, Who is the God of love, will provide us with the grace to achieve that which He requires and commands. If you are tired in being a Christian, then you are not resting in Christ, you are not waiting upon Him. You are endeavouring to progress in the faith in your own strength, relying upon your own resources; and you will never achieve your spiritual objectives. God must actually produce the 'more', even though we have the responsibility to seek the 'more'. So, Paul says, on the one hand, that we are "to excel still more" in love (4:10b), and yet, on the other hand, he affirms that we are to love as we are "taught by God" (4:9b). God not only teaches us to love, but He also produces that love in us (3:12). But we have the responsibility to express faith. Faith is not a work; it is a response. Therefore, regardless of the amount of faith you express, or how many times you express faith, you should never get tired. Faith merely acquiesces in the promises and truth of God. It merely accepts His grace.

Pleasing God

Paul does not simply ask these believers to respond in a certain way, he exhorts them to respond in a certain way – "Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus" (4:1). Paul recognized the seriousness of this matter. Out of pastoral concern, he pleads with these believers as one in spiritual union with Jesus Christ. Paul was not simply speaking as a man. He was speaking as a representative of Jesus Christ. It was in relationship to Christ, in the presence of Christ, and in reference to Him, that Paul made this request and exhortation, knowing that a ready compliance was required for progress in the faith.

Notice specifically what the content of this request and exhortation is, "to walk and please God" (4:1). The term 'walk' simply means to behave. It refers to one's conduct; it points to lifestyle. This term is used in verse 12 of this chapter – "So that you may behave [same term] properly toward outsiders and not be in any need." Now, 'walking' is an apt metaphor of the Christian life. Think about that image for a moment. We are not to be stagnant, but rather we are to be moving, progressing, going ahead. As Christians, our spiritual lives should never be standing still, we should never be in neutral, we should always be assuming more of the image of Christ.

Now, the incredible truth is that we can actually live in such a way that we may please God. Did you realize that you could conduct your life in such a way that you could please God? Are you pleasing God now? With how you relate to your wife, to your husband, to your son, to your daughter, to your employee, to your employer, are you pleasing God? Is His smile upon you? Do you have a conscience void of offence? As you think back over this past week, were there times that you unjustifiably lost your temper? Or became impatient? Or became critical? Did you say an inappropriate or harsh word to someone? In order to really live in a way that is pleasing to God, we must believe that we are able to do so. We cannot live a perfect life, but, according to the Word, we can live in such a way that God delights in us; that He looks down upon us, and says to us, "Well done." Now, if such a state is a possibility, then such a state ought to be our desire, and our resolve. Is pleasing God your chief desire? Maybe you are thinking that you cannot please God, but rather feel that you are the brunt of His displeasure. Maybe you feel that you do not measure up to His standards, that you never quite 'cut the grade' (and, of course, if you are living in sin, I am not surprised that you feel His displeasure because God does not delight in sin and selfishness; and hopefully that sense of displeasure motivates you to seek His pleasure), but if you have been seeking the Lord and endeavouring to live a life according to the Scriptures, then you ought to recognize that God is pleased with you, regardless how you feel. God delights in us when we conduct ourselves in holiness and righteousness.

In other words, we can live worthily before the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 2:11,12 reads, "Just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory." And so, we are to walk in a way which is pleasing to the Lord which is the same as walking in a manner worthy of God. Now, with that possibility, are you motivated to progress or have you 'thrown in the towel'? If you trust in yourself, you will never please God. Christ must work in you. He makes you pleasing to God; and that brings peace to the heart. Can you really say, "'It is well with my soul'? God knows the way I have taken this past week, He knows what I have thought about, He knows what I have desired after, He knows how I related to my wife, He knows how I handled myself in the work place, and His Spirit bears witness with my spirit that I have pleased Him." If you can, you are blessed.

Do you know what exactly you have to do to live in such a way that pleases God? I suggest that most Christians know exactly what they must do, even as these Thessalonian believers knew – "as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God" (4:1). Many Christians have also received instructions. There are no excuses. We know the attitudes we should evidence, we know the kind of speech we should utter, we know the kind of behaviours we should demonstrate. We know because we have received instruction. And having received the proper instructions, these Thessalonian believers actually carried them out – "just as you actually do walk" (4:1). We must actually carry out the instructions in holiness as well.

Delighting in the commandments

So, it is possible to please God, and it is necessary – "Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you...how you ought to...please God" (4:1). The term 'ought' is a term of necessity. We have no option; we are morally obligated. If we are Christians, we must live in such a way that His pleasure is upon us. Is that how we are living? With respect to this emphasis on the 'ought', notice verse 2, "For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus." Here we simply have a commentary on what Paul has said in verse 1. In developing this particular point, he is simply saying, "We directed you specifically on what to do." The term 'commandments' is a military term. It may be translated 'orders'. Paul, in effect says, "We gave you orders." Many do not like to hear that kind of language these days. It sounds too high-handed. Many retort, "Do not order me around. Do not tell me what to do. We are not living in the 1940's or '50's. We are people of the '90's. We believe in egalitarianism and collegiality, not in authority structures. My opinion is just as good as yours. Who do you think you are to hand down orders?" Yet, Paul says, "For you know what commandments [orders] we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus." Paul knew that if people contended with him, they were not really contending with him, but with his Lord, because Paul had been called and commissioned by Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, and thus he could speak with authority. His authority was not based on his own understanding, or reputation, or personal position, but rather on the divine call and commissioning. The Lord Jesus had appointed Paul to preach and teach the Word of God. Those who preach and teach the Word of God, having been duly called and commissioned, ought to preach and teach with authority, without compromise, even in the face of reaction and opposition.

Moreover, if Paul delivered commandments to these believers, then we ought not to despise commandments (or rules). Now, I am not advocating legalism. Death to legalism. However, there is a place for rules, commandments, that is, being told what to do. Paul uses this same term when he writes to Timothy. 1 Timothy 1:5 reads, "But the goal of our instruction [commandment] is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." Again, in 1 Timothy 1:18, Paul writes, "This command [same term] I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight." Christian brothers and sisters, do not react to rules and commandments. Yes, react to human rules and commandments, and even human traditions, but not God's rules, commandments, and traditions. Do not reject the whole notion of rules and commandments outright because the New Testament is filled with rules and commandments. Again, this is not legalism; but being and walking in the Spirit entails conforming to God's commandments in Jesus Christ. We read, "He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Rm. 8:3b,4). And we read, "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome" (1 Jn. 5:3). The child of God delights in the commandments of God. They are his or her spiritual food and drink. True believers desire and do the will of God.

The commandments of Christ are non-negotiable; when God tells us what to do, we must do it. It is not the case that we sit down at the bargaining table deciding what we will or will not do. So Paul says, "For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus" (4:1). And as we keep these commandments, as we follow Christ's rules, fulfilling Christ's law, we live in such a way that pleases Him. To put it simply, if we are not being obedient, we are not pleasing the Lord. Many have lost sight of the concept and necessity of moral purity; many do not even know what moral purity consists of. We attain to moral purity simply by being obedient to the Word of God and conforming to the commandments of Christ. That is it. As one author has put it, "In receiving Christ, we take on the obligation to be like Him."

Have you been obedient to God's Word this past week? Again, the status quo is not good enough. God says to you and me, "More, still more;" and we may reply, "Lord, is there no end?" And He answers, "There is no end until you reach glory." There are no recesses, there are no breaks, in the Christian life. There will always be new spiritual territories to traverse, new spiritual mountains to scale, new spiritual seas to navigate, new spiritual lands to discover, for the Spirit of God has no limits nor bounds, and God continually calls us to walk in Him.