“As for other matters, brothers and sisters, 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 Thessalonians 4:1)
I was talking with someone the other day about this passage from 1 Thessalonians as a follow-up to my sermon on Sunday, “Holy Hope.” As we talked, they mentioned that the idea of living to please God sounded difficult and even painful. It conjured up the idea of living under God as a schoolmaster demanding perfection instead of a God inviting us to love.
When we think of living in a way that pleases others, there can be several shades of meaning. If I am a people-pleaser, that carries a negative connotation. It means I am trapped by other’s opinion, often contorting myself to fit others’ desires and aims for my life. In that context I am bound up and not free to be myself and live my life. However, in the context of a healthy relationship marked by love, seeking to please another person usually has a positive connotation. In that situation I am utterly free to totally be myself and yet simultaneously free to consider what brings delight to another person I dearly love. These two contexts are quite different.
Paul’s exhortation “to live in order to please God…[and] to do this more and more” arrives in a context of freedom. Because of God’s wonderful saving work in Jesus Christ, we have been set free from the need to please others by demeaning ourselves or contorting ourselves to fit others’ expectations. God speaks life to us in Christ and that life calls us to live liberated in our God-given identity redeemed in Jesus. This is why several times where this same verb form appears in Paul’s writings, living to please God is often in contrast with the idea of living to please people:
- “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)
- “On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts.” (1 Thessalonians 2:4)
- “Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:8)
When we live to please God more and more we are responding to the love of God, not twisting into some demand of God. Because God loves us more than we know and because we have been bought with a price, our lives are now liberated that we might live in a way that brings God the greatest joy as we rejoice in Him. In a sense, the melody of our life becomes a joyful echoing harmony to the loving melody God sings over us. When we read in Zephaniah 3:17 that God “will rejoice over you with singing,” that freedom in God brings forth joy in God through a loving life singing joy back over God.
Do we hear God’s joyful song over us? Do we know God delights in our joyful song back to Him?