Pleasing God by Receiving from Him
In Part 1 of this blog series on what it means to God, we saw that the first step toward pleasing God is to think of him as a mountain spring, and not as a watering trough. That is, the way to please God is not to do things for him to fill him up so that he will be satisfied, but rather to come to him to receive from his fullness so that we will be satisfied.
In this post we will consider practical ways to do this, including prayer and the obedient application of biblical truth to the way we live.
A Wealthy Beggar?
Imagine a man who lives a miserable, homeless existence on the streets. He barely eats, never has clean clothes, and can never find a place to bathe or rest comfortably. One day he is approached by a lawyer who has been searching for him to tell him that his father (who was previously unknown to him) was an incredibly wealthy man who had died recently, leaving him a large inheritance. He is told that although he will not receive the bulk of his multi-millions for a number of years, there is a yearly allowance of a hundred thousand dollars that will start being paid to him immediately. Now imagine this: The man responds that he wants the millions, but until the full sum is available he wishes to continue living his filthy, hungry, homeless life on the streets.
This scenario illustrates the unconscionable thought that one who has been adopted by the God of glory should be content to continue living as a spiritually bankrupt child of sin (cf. Rom 6:1-7). Unfortunately for too many, they have chosen something very much like this: having professed faith in Christ as something of a “fire insurance policy,” they hope to avoid hell and secure a pleasant eternity, but without any desire for the riches of increasing conformity to Christ promised to the one who becomes a child of God by faith. In this life, we please God not only by receiving his promise of life after death, but also by receiving his good gift of sanctification — the ministry of the Holy Spirit given by God as a down payment on the inheritance of those whom he adopts as children (cf. Rom 8:9-11, 29; Eph 1:13-14).
Pleasing God through Prayer
God’s children have a lavishly generous Father. David writes in Psalm 65 of how God causes the earth to overflow, greatly enriching it with water and grain (Ps 65:9-10). Because of God’s generosity, there is bounty and fatness — hills, valleys, and meadows full of good things to enjoy (Ps 65:11-13). As Jesus explains in Matthew’s gospel, it is not just those who are saved by faith who receive these good things, even God’s enemies are the beneficiaries of his good and loving gifts of common grace (Matt 5:44-45).
While there is much abundance that all people receive without even asking, we also know from numerous Scriptures that God gives generously in response to his children’s prayers. Comparing God to human fathers who will not withhold good from their children, Jesus teaches that God will give all the more what is good to his children “who ask him” (Matt 7:11).1 Similarly, James teaches that we “do not have” because we “do not ask” (Jas 4:2). Jesus emphasizes the integral place of prayer for those who would receive from God, using a parable to teach of the need to come to him persistently with our requests (Luke 18:1-8). In his illustration of the vine and the branches, Jesus ties prayer together with our hope of fruitfulness: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:7-8).
Perhaps the sweetest aspect of this is how clearly the Bible tells us that prayer pleases God. Solomon writes that “the prayer of the upright is his delight” (Prov 15:8), and the heavenly scene in Revelation 5 includes ministers holding golden bowls full of incense, “which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev 5:8). To help us understand why our prayers are so wonderfully pleasing to God, it is good to remember that God has delighted to live for all eternity in the fellowship of the Trinity. For the One who epitomizes self-giving grace, it is a gloriously pleasing thing for his children whom he loves to come to him making requests befitting our need. As we saw in the previous post, one who would magnify the worth of a mountain spring must get down on his knees and drinking deeply.
Of course, something that we see in many of the above texts is that to pray in a way that is pleasing to God is to pray in a way that is in accord with his will. James teaches that we will not receive what we ask if our motive is to spend it on ourselves (Jas 4:3). Jesus indicates that our most urgent need in prayer is that for the fruitfulness that comes from abiding in him (John 15:7-8). Isaiah tells of the kind of heart that God regards: The one that is humble and contrite, trembling at his word (Isa 66:2). Thankfully, the Psalms (along with many other Scriptures) are full of these kinds of prayers, because God’s people through the ages have, at moments of great weakness, seen that our greatest need — one for which we are most clearly insufficient in ourselves — is for perseverance in godliness. God is pleased when — in good times and bad — we come before him persistently in our need, to receive from his faithfulness and abundance.
Pleasing God through Obedience
As we already saw in John 15, God is glorified when we bear much fruit and prove to be Jesus’ disciples (John 15:8). This is the consistent testimony of Scripture, that — although any attempt to offer God our own righteousness is like a filthy abomination (cf. Isa 64:6) — the Christ-wrought, Spirit-led obedience of a believer is pleasing to him (Heb 13:20-21; Col 1:10; 1 Thess 4:1). As with prayer (and every other thought we might have with regard to our relationship with God), the key here is to see him as the giver and ourselves as the receivers of his grace. I think Paul captures well the relationship between our good works and God’s grace when, following his proclamation that the faith that saves is itself a gift, he further states that even our good works were prepared beforehand by God so that we might walk in them (Eph 2:10).
A good way to think about this practically is to remember that we do not naturally know the things that are pleasing to God — we must learn them from his Word, and they are, in this respect, a gift. Furthermore, even knowing what these things are, we do not naturally have the desire to do them (in fact, our natural desire is the opposite!). Therefore, we are dependent on the work of the Spirit (again, through God’s Word) to change our desires, so that we have the desire to do the things that we have learned from his Word are pleasing to him.
Finally, even as we do the things we know are right with a newfound desire to please the Lord, we find that we are never free from sinful motivations (and thus, our best works are still as filthy rags). Thankfully, just as he does in our justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, God counts our “good works” as actually good because they are wrought by Christ through his Spirit.2
God is the all-sufficient source of life and righteousness. We and our counselees are weak, dependent creatures in desperate need of that life and righteousness. Thankfully, God is pleased when we come to him with an open hand. May we not be heirs of great wealth who live needlessly impoverished lives. Rather, let us pray earnestly (and together with our counselees) that the Lord would continue to glorify himself in the fruitful abiding of his people, that we might be pleasing to him.
- [Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in this post are from the NASB translation.] It is noteworthy that in Luke’s parallel account of this saying, Jesus says that the Father will “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him” (Luke 11:13). It would seem that this equates “good things” — those specific things given to God’s children over and above the abundance we receive in common grace — with the ministry of the Holy Spirit. This fact lends itself to what follows, in helping us understand that what we should look (prayerfully) to receive first and foremost is the fruit of faith (i.e., the Holy Spirit’s ministry of sanctification in the believer for fruitfulness) to the glory of God.
- This is the concept known as “double justification,” articulated by John Calvin. Because our works are imperfect they need to be counted as righteous in order to serve as a basis of judgment and to be pleasing to God; as such, they are never meritorious — i.e., we could never offer them as our gift to God; rather, they are always his gifts to us (See Calvin’s Institutes 3.17, sections 8-10.).
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