On Pleasing (and Displeasing) God

Many biblical truths have a positive as well as a negative side to them. That is, an affirmative truth may well have an obverse negative element to it. Consider the notion so often found in Scripture about pleasing God. We find examples of this and exhortations to do this throughout the Bible.

But the reverse is also true, sadly: we can also displease God. Scripture likewise offers us examples and exhortations about this. And these warnings are not just directed at unbelievers. The truth is, believers can displease God, and that is a very frightening prospect indeed.

As to pleasing God, there are plenty of passages to mention. Jesus of course always pleased the Father. At his baptism we read this: “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:17). And at his transfiguration we find these words: “While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’” (Matthew 17:5).

Or as Jesus said in John 8:29: “The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” There are many other texts on pleasing God. Here are just a few:

-Proverbs 16:7 When the LORD takes pleasure in anyone’s way, he causes their enemies to make peace with them.
-Romans 12:1: Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.
-Romans 14:17-18: For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.
-Eph 5:8-10: Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.
-Philippians 4:18: I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.
-1 Thessalonians 4:1: Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.
-1 Timothy 5:4: But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.
-Hebrews 11:6: And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
-Hebrews 13:16: And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Every Christian should have it as their chief aim, goal and passion to seek to please God. But if we can please God, it is also possible to displease God. Thus every one of us should strive to never displease God. And that, regrettably, is something believers can indeed do. Of course we expect non-believers to displease God, and Scripture speaks to that, eg.:

-Psalm 5:4: For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness; with you, evil people are not welcome.
-1 Thessalonians 2:14-16: For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.

But I am here concerned about the fact that believers can displease God. Recall the famous warning in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 about the dangers of idolatry, immorality, etc. The first five verses say this: “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.”

Indeed, ancient Israel often displeased the Lord. We read for example in Isaiah 65:11-13: “But as for you who forsake the LORD and forget my holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword, and all of you will fall in the slaughter; for I called but you did not answer, I spoke but you did not listen. You did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me.”

Or as we find in Psalm 85:3-5: “You set aside all your wrath and turned from your fierce anger. Restore us again, God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us. Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger through all generations?”

Similarly, we find this in Hosea 8:13: “Though they offer sacrifices as gifts to me, and though they eat the meat, the LORD is not pleased with them. Now he will remember their wickedness and punish their sins: They will return to Egypt.”

In Romans 8:8 Paul says this: “Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.” And in Mark 10:14 we find that even Jesus can be displeased: “But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

Hebrews 10:37-39, citing Habakkuk 2:3-4 says this: “For, ‘In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.’ And, ‘But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.’ But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.”

All these warnings and examples need to be taken seriously by believers. Our lives should be such that we are daily pleasing our Lord, and not causing him displeasure. Anything that grieves God’s heart should grieve ours, and anything that pleases his heart should please ours.

The trouble is, God often seems so remote and distant and intangible. Because we cannot see him or feel him as we do people, it is easy to forget he is even there. We worry often about displeasing people, but we seem to be much less concerned about displeasing God.

The fear of man brings a snare (Proverbs 29:25), but the fear of God is a fountain of life (Proverbs 14:27). We need to turn things around here, so that we stop fearing and seeking to please man, and start fearing and seeking to please God.

As A.W. Tozer said in Man: The Dwelling Place of God: “The desire to please may be commendable enough under certain circumstances, but when pleasing men means displeasing God it is an unqualified evil and should have no place in the Christian’s heart. To be right with God has often meant to be in trouble with men.”

William Gurnall put it this way: “We fear men so much, because we fear God so little. One fear cures another.” Or as Leonard Ravenhill says in Why Revival Tarries: “If we displease God, does it matter whom we please? If we please Him, does it matter whom we displease?”

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