I Once Heard a Preacher Say: “You Need to Stop Trying to Please God”

Maybe you have said something like this yourself.  Or maybe you have heard a preacher say it.  Or maybe you heard someone give a testimony in which they said they that no longer lived according to the performance model.  They no longer tried to please God.  Instead, they simply loved and trusted God, rather than seeking to obey him or do what pleases him.

Of course, the major problem with this sentiment is that it is entirely unbiblical.

To be sure, God is a god of grace.  He overlooks our faults.  He has forgiven us, not because of anything we have done, but solely from his mercy and grace.  We are not saved on account of our own merits, but on account of the merits of his dear Son and his atoning death for our sins.

However, in no way does this lessen our responsibility to seek to do those things that please God.  So, pay close attention to the following list of passages that tell us that we need to seek to please God.  Now there are those who would say that this idea of trying to please God is an Old Testament concept, and this has been done away with in the New Testament.  So, the following passages come only from the New Testament.

And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  (Matt 3:17)

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”  (Matt 17:5)

By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.  (John 5:30)

The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”  (John 8:29)

Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.  (Rom 8:8)

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.  (Rom 12:1)

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.  (Rom 12:2)

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.  (Rom 14:17-18

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.  Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.  For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”  (Rom 15:1-3)

. . . even as I try to please everybody in every way.  For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.  (1 Cor 10:33)

So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.  (2 Cor 5:9-10)

The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.  (Gal 6:8)

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. 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.  (Eph 5:8-10)

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.  (Phil 4:18)

And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.  (Col 1:10)

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.  (Col 3:20)

On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel.  We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts.  (1 Thess 2:4)

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 Thess 4:1)

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  This is good, and pleases God our Savior.  (1 Tim 2:1-3)

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.  (1 Tim 5:4)

Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.  No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs–he wants to please his commanding officer.  Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules.  (2 Tim 2:3-5)

But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.”  But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.  (Heb 10:38-39)

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased GodAnd 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.  (Heb 11:5-6)

And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.  (Heb 13:16)

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever.  Amen.  (Heb 13:20-21)

Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him (1 John 3:21-22)

Some things I need to note about the above list:

(1) Some of the quoted passages have to do with how Jesus sought to please his Father.  On the one hand, of course, the Father always delighted in his Son, from all eternity.  But the quoted passages have to do with how the Son sought to please his Father by his actions, by doing things that pleased his Father, by keeping his commands.  If there is anyone out there who is still in WWJD mode, then let me assure that one of the things that Jesus would do would be to try to please his Father.

(2) Some of the passages have to do with pleasing other people.  I have included these passages because, often, when we are told that we shouldn’t try to please God, we are told along with this that we shouldn’t try to please people either.  Evidently, however, this was not the Apostle Paul’s attitude, not was it the attitude of Christ Jesus (Rom 15:1-3).

(3) One could view this list of verses as simply a list of proof-texts.  Two points I need to make in this regard:  First, I believe that the context of each passage does, indeed, support the idea that we should have a mindset that seeks to find out what pleases God and then do it.  Second, even if someone would still want to see this list as simply a collection of proof-texts, I would challenge anyone to come up with even one proof-text that would suggest that we should stop trying to please God.

(4) All the cited passages come from the NIV translation (1984).  There are different Greek words that stand behind the word “please” in the NIV.  In a more academic article, those words would need to be thoroughly investigated and analyzed.  However, I believe it is safe to say that the NIV, with its use of the word “please” to render these Greek words into English, is very much in line with what most other translations have done, and has correctly captured the meaning and nuances of the Greek words.

(5) Of course, there are any number of passages in the New Testament where these Greek words or the English translation “please” do not occur, and yet the thought or the concept is still there.  For example, in 1 Cor 9:27, Paul says, “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”  Paul, the preacher of grace, certainly expresses an attitude here of wanting to maintain God’s approval, both of himself and of his ministry.  The same attitude is evident in a passage like Phil 3:8-15, where Paul seeks to “gain Christ,” to “attain to the resurrection from the dead,” to “press on to take hold of,” to “strain toward what is ahead,” to “press on toward the goal,” to “win the prize.”

(6) These passages by no means encourage some kind of automatic or auto-pilot view of the Christian life.  This understanding, that all I need to do is to love God and trust him, and then obedience and doing the things that please God will automatically follow, receives little, if any, support from the New Testament.  In fact, it cuts against the grain of the entirety of New Testament teaching.

There are many more points that could be made, and many more passages that could be looked at.  But I think for now, I’ll let this suffice.  I realize there are people whose desire to please borders on paranoia and threatens to become obsessive-compulsive.  Great pastoral care should be employed in these situations.  And the passages I have cited above certainly should not be used like baseball bats to clobber people over the head.  At the same time, bad theology is never a proper corrective.  And the New Testament’s language about pleasing God cannot simply be ignored.

So, based on my reading of the New Testament, here’s my advice:

Don’t stop loving God.

Don’t stop trusting God.

Don’t stop trying to please God.

Jerry Shepherd
July 21, 2014