At the end of the day, there are really only two kinds of people in the world. The first kind are those who simply want to please themselves. They live for themselves, they put self first in all things, and their fundamental loyalty lies to self.
It might seem obvious who the second sort of people are: those who live for others, who seek to please others, who do not live just for self. Yes, that is certainly the opposite of the first sort of people. But it is not quite the opposite I had in mind. You see, the real opposite to the one who is soaked in self and lives to please self is the one who lives to please God. Those who put God first are those who have renounced self and pride and the desire to be pleased.
Now of course the person who seeks to please God will also be one who seeks to serve others, to help others, to be a blessing to others. So yes, the other-centred person is the opposite of the self-centred person, but it is because he is ultimately the God-centred person.
The whole impetus for this train of thought, and for this article, comes from a biblical passage I read this morning. Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 5:9a, “So we make it our goal to please him”. In many ways this is the heart of Paul’s Christianity. He no longer lives for himself, but now lives for the one who died for him, who redeemed him, and who raised him to newness of life.
That passage is a pretty good motto which all of us could adopt. Indeed, this morning at church a visiting US speaker talked about leaving a legacy. He asked, if we were to die today, what would we like to be known for? What would we like people to remember us for? And he even passed around cards and pencils so that each of us could answer such a question. Well, my morning reading of 2 Cor. 5:9 immediately sprang to mind, so that is what I put down on the card.
It is not a bad life verse. It makes for a great motto. It is the sort of thing that all believers should aspire to. Indeed, let’s look at the passage a bit further. The immediate context of this passage is 2 Cor. 5:1-10 which “continues the theme of Paul’s earthly apostolic existence and his heavenly expectation” as James Scott comments. “To please God in all things is the apostle’s highest goal (cf. Rom. 12;1,2; 14:18; Phil. 4:18; Col. 3:20). To bring praise and honor to God is Paul’s constant aim.”
Scott Hafemann explains how the context gives form to this desire of Paul: “The main point of 5:1-10, therefore, is Paul’s ambition to please the Lord in walking by faith (5:7a, 9). This ambition is rooted in his courage during this life (5:6a, 8a) because of his confidence in the resurrection of the righteous (5:1-5) and his awareness of the universal judgment to come. (5:10). He is thus motivated both by the positive appeal of God’s promises and by the negative prospect of Christ’s judgment against all that is ‘bad’.”
This teaching on judgment to come is part of the Bible’s treatment of eschatology, or the last things. Such doctrines are meant to be practical, not just speculative or theoretical. As Linda Belleville comments, “what we believe about the future should affect our lives today”.
Paul Barnett in his commentary notes how the doctrine of future judgment should motivate us to seek to please the Lord, as it did Paul: “The teaching about the judgment seat before which all believers must come reminds us that we have been saved, not for a life of aimlessness or indifference, but to live as to the Lord (see 5:15). This doctrine of the universality of the judgment of believers preserves the moral seriousness of God. . . . Our ‘confidence’ that we will be ‘with the Lord’ (v.8) is to be held in tension with the ‘fear of the Lord’ (v. 11), from which we serve him. Confidence, while real, does not empty service of sobriety,”
It is not only that there are two kinds of people in the world: those believers who live to please Jesus, and those unbelievers who live to please self. There are, unfortunately, also two kinds of believers: those who seek to please Christ and those who seek to please themselves. That is why Paul has to remind believers that this life is not the only one, and one day we will stand before Christ and give an account of what we did for him in this life.
That is why the New Testament is so full of calls for believers to deny themselves, to die to self, to pick up their cross and follow Jesus, and so on. We are not called to live for self, but to live for the one who loved us so much that he gave his life for us.
Of course that does not mean a life of misery, unhappiness and drudgery. True joy can only come when we live as God intended us to live. Jesus put it this way: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:10-11).
Indeed, Jesus said he came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). This comes as we put him first in all things. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you” (Matt 6:33).
So in the end, those who seek to only please themselves will not even obtain that. But those who seek to please their creator and redeemer will also find that they too are blessed, happy and living a pleasing life. C. S. Lewis often spoke about this issue. He once noted how those who seek to find happiness and joy in this life will always come up empty handed. That is because they are looking in the wrong place:
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
That is a big part of the Christian message. When we seek for real life, meaning, joy and purpose outside of Christ, such things will always elude us. But when we put him first, all these other goods will be thrown in. As Jesus said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39).
If we make it our aim to please Him, we will find the real pleasure we have been looking for. If we aim for pleasure apart from Him, it will not be found. The choice is ours.