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The Cud / Feb. 8, 2010

              Pleasing God

It's been more than a month since driving 2010 off the lot, and I've already managed to put a few dings into the New Year.  Though I have to confess, scratching the fresh temporal paint doesn't bother me the way it used to.  I stopped making New Year's resolutions long ago. Now, like a jaded old waiter, I make myself a few New Year's recommendations and shuffle off to bed.  I don't know if I'm growing realistic or apathetic.  But who cares, right?

New years are largely symbolic.  We don’t really get a clean slate.  The past still clings to us like lint on a dark shirt.  New Year’s day is a numerical holiday.  A clerical celebration.  Nevertheless, I still like the symbolism.  I like the idea of pulling off the highway, tossing out the litter from last year and reorganizing the back seat.  Even though I know the neatness won’t last, it’s still worth the effort.

And in the event you tossed out the last Cud in your own annual cleaning frenzy, permit me to rehash a bit and then continue where I left off…

In the last issue I proposed that God does not want us to make Him a priority, nor does He even want to be first in our lives.  I suggested that if God holds the first position, flattered though He may be, by definition He is excluded from the other positions.  If God comes in first, He doesn’t come in second, third or fourth.

Furthermore, when we downgrade God to a mere priority, albeit the top one, we are implying that He can be “completed”, after which we can move on to our other priorities.  Prioritizing God necessitates converting Him into an activity(s) that can be measured and achieved, and leads to a spurious sense of satisfaction once He’s been “completed”.  This all serves to further perpetuate the false dichotomy between the secular and the spiritual and ultimately leads to schizophrenic Christianity.  And one nasty headache.

But the most egregious consequence of prioritizing God is that it demotes Him from His proper place of preeminence.  He ends up being one of many suitors competing for our attention, rather than a master, unilaterally commanding our allegiance.  And Jesus was unambiguous when he declared, “no one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24).

The Bible makes it clear that our Lord wants an All Access Pass to every venue on the property.  He wants to permeate and preside over every pursuit, pastime and relationship.

“He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything” (Colossians 1:18); “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The better alternative to merely prioritizing God, is “to please Him in all respects” (Colossians 1:10).  It’s the difference between saying Christ is an important part of my life, and saying with Paul, “for me, to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21).  Paul wasn’t perfect, but he was perfectly oriented.  His defining preoccupation was that, in life or in death, Christ would be exalted in his body.  I’m convinced that Paul’s obsession with glorifying Christ was intended to be normative, not exceptional.

Surrender to the Lord’s preeminence over every square inch of me is a simple concept to affirm, but a challenging habit to form.  He doesn’t muscle His way into my day, so I have to be proactive in the pursuit of His pleasure.  This begins by keeping Him in the forefront of my mind and “practicing His presence”.  I won’t be thinking about pleasing Him if I’m not thinking about Him at all.  Further, it means positioning Him between the day’s stimuli and my responses, relentlessly posing the question, “Are you happy with me Lord?”

And then I have to prepare myself for the silent treatment.  Not because He’s neglecting me, but because He wants me to walk by faith and not by sight (or sound), (2 Corinthians 5:7).  I’m playing to an audience of One, where the One sits unseen in the back of the theatre, quietly observing actions and discerning motives, withholding all feedback and applause until the end of the show.  Let’s be honest, there are easier audiences, just no other legitimate ones.

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying the subject, I’ve reduced the process of pleasing God to four stages:

Stage 1) Purpose to please Him.  The first stage is the “stake in the ground” stage.  It’s a declaration of intent that requires constant review and renewal.  It’s where we join the apostle Paul and “make it our ambition to be pleasing to the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:9).  I don’t know about you, but I know ambition when I see it.  It’s a preoccupation with a pursuit.  It’s passion.  It’s paying any price.  It’s an Olympic athlete.  It’s a virtuoso violinist.  Ambition gets you out of bed early, and keeps you up late.  Ambition preoccupies your thoughts and shapes your day.  I know ambition when I see it.  The question is: Do I see it in me?  Is it my ambition to please God?  Sure, I’m convinced pleasing God is important and it’s something I’d like to accomplish whenever possible.  But is it really my ambition?  The question haunts me.

Stage 2) Pursue the knowledge of His will.  Once I resolve to please Him, I accept responsibility to learn what actually does please Him (Ephesians 5:10).  Improvisation is not a virtue when it comes to pleasing the Lord.  And while He doesn’t have an instruction for every circumstance – not even remotely – between Genesis and Revelation He does give us enough data for informed decisions of faith.  “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man/woman of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Can I really believe I’m serious about pleasing God, if I’m not serious about listening to God?  Ignorant faith is arrogant faith.

Stage 3) Practice self-assessment.  It turns out this is the easiest stage for me to skip.  Assuming I’ve done my due diligence at stage 2, and accumulated knowledge concerning God’s will and good pleasure, there still remains that small matter of actually DOING something about it.  And I find that if I don’t examine myself, if I don’t review the remains of my day, if I don’t cultivate a habit of saying, “Search me, O God…and see if there be any hurtful way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24), then I’m easily lulled into thinking that because I know the will of God, I must de facto be doing the will of God.  I act as though information will automatically translate into application.  When in reality, I may be growing mentally obese and morally anorexic.  I have a stunning capacity for ignoring or rationalizing my condition.  I do with my behavior what I do with my body fat – I avoid noticing it.  If I don’t get naked, climb on a scale, look in the mirror and take a picture, I might never get around to admitting that I’m a little too well- upholstered.

The Apostle James understood our propensity to ignore the obvious:  “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.  For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was” (James 1:22-24).

Self-assessment is never relative to others, it’s an unaccompanied exam.  This is not a real estate appraisal where estimates are subject to the comparables down the street.  The Bible warns that when people “measure themselves by themselves, and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding” (2 Corinthians 10:12).  This is personal inventory only.  “Let each one examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another.  For each one shall bear his own load” (Galatians 6:4-5).

Reflection is not a luxury.  Self-exams reveal moral tumors that would otherwise grow unnoticed.  If I’m not confessing sins every day, it’s not because I don’t have any, it’s because I don’t bother to look for them.  Or worse, because I don’t care.

Stage 4) Prepare to be judged.  The self-assessment of stage 3 can be instructive and corrective, but it’s ultimately inconclusive.  My Father/Judge is the only one who can accurately assess my heart and scrutinize my performance (1 Peter 1:17).  He knows when I’m genuinely trying to please Him, and when I’m merely posing.  Self-evaluation is healthy, self-justification is just silly.  I’m utterly incapable of attaining an accurate read on my motives.  “The heart is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

The Corinthian church had a bad habit of rating their ministers and passing judgement on their performances.  Imagine:  “Corinthian Idol” or “So You Think You Can Preach”.  But Paul wouldn’t play, and with admirable tact dismissed his would-be judges by explaining, “To me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself.  I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.  Therefore do not go on passing judgement before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God” (1 Corinthians 4:3-5).

When Paul says he doesn’t examine himself, he’s not denying the introspection of stage 3, he’s merely emphasizing the inadequacy of the stage.  He’s saying he doesn’t pass judgement on his efforts or draw conclusions about his attempts to be a faithful servant of Christ.  Paul was reflective enough to declare, “I am conscious of nothing against myself”, but was realistic enough to concede, “Yet I am not by this acquitted” (1 Corinthians 4:4).

I aim for a clear conscience, but I can’t rely on a clear conscience for the final verdict.  God and God alone will measure the integrity of my efforts and the quality of my obedience.  Until that day I purpose to please Him, I pursue the knowledge of His will, I practice self-assessment and I prepare for His judgement.

It’s worth mentioning in closing that for many Christians the idea of accountability and judgement is foreign, if not repugnant.  They have been taught or have assumed that the grace of God and the blood of Christ shed for the forgiveness of their sins eliminates the prospect of divine scrutiny.  But there is a difference between freedom from condemnation and freedom from accountability.  And while God promises that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), He also promises that “we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Forgiveness of sin does not eliminate all of the consequences of sin, it eliminates the worst of the consequences – the wrath of God and an eternity in hell.  But the Bible is unambiguous in its teaching that there will be a “recompensing” even for the followers of Jesus.  And that’s a good news/bad news proposition.

Pleasing God or not pleasing God is an issue of eternal consequence.  It will matter whether we sought to please Him, whether we learned what pleases Him, and how well we did at the process.  And when we finally appear before Him, He will have all the information necessary to make a fair judgement and reward us accordingly. 

In true Cud fashion, I’m sure this is a subject that will come up again.  And if you think it’s uncomfortable being reminded of all this, imagine my accountability as the one doing the reminding.  Excuse me, I think I’m going to be sick now.

For that day,