Pleasing God Isn't The Point
Growing up in the evangelical, fundamentalist wing of the Church, I was taught some things that I still cherish to this day. I memorized Scripture, learned Bible stories, and developed a sense of the importance of a faith community.
I also learned to love some old, wonderful hymns that have been part of the Christian tradition for centuries. I also developed an affinity for energetic, passionate, and engaging preaching.
While the content and theology of the sermons from my youth were often pure, hot garbage (putting it mildly), I always loved a good sermon delivered with enthusiasm and great illustrations.
Those early influences are why I never read my sermons, and I have a particularly "evangelical" delivery when I preach.
I often write about all of the negative aspects of that upbringing, and there are plenty of those to write about, to be sure. But there were good things, too, and for the most part, I've let go of what was unhealthy and continue to hold on to the healthy and helpful things.
But there is one of those unhealthy things that I have had difficulty shaking in my faith journey, which has to do with my relationship with God, particularly what God wants from me.
I grew up thinking that all God wanted from me was blind obedience. I was told to please God in everything I did or suffer the consequences.
As a boy, I thought God was much like the Incredible Hulk from the 1970s show I loved to watch. In the TV show's opening credits, Dr. David Banner (who turns into the Hulk when agitated) tells the reporter who constantly hounds him, "Don't make me angry; you wouldn't like me when I'm angry."
Even though the Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, and preachers of my youth would cursorily say that God loved us, they more frequently said something like, "Don't make God angry; you won't like God when he's angry."
I frequently had visions of God getting mad at me and wrecking my life the way that the Incredible Hulk would wreck a room, a truck, or some bad guys.
Obviously, there were some problems with this way of thinking, and eventually (like a lot of other former evangelicals), I found myself no longer believing in that kind of God.
But still, after all of these years and everything I've learned in my faith journey, I sometimes wonder if I'm somehow being punished by God when something bad happens in my life. This always surprises me, considering I fired that God so long ago.
As it turns out, those old feelings are hard to shake, and I know I'm not the only one who feels them. People frequently come to me for guidance or counsel, and I'll hear the familiar refrain, "I feel like God is punishing me for some reason."
The fact of the matter, at least in my opinion, is that we tend to inflict all of the punishment on ourselves; God has nothing to do with that. In fact, God is constantly trying to show us that God is full of grace, love, and forgiveness and that none of those ever run out.
We refuse to look around us to see any signs of God's true feelings toward us, though, especially when feeling low.
I read a beautiful quote from Alice Walker's The Color Purple once and wrote it down to share one day. Here it is:
People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.
There is so much in that one line, typical of Walker. She offers a new way to understand God that is bigger and more all-encompassing than the vision of God as an angry judge waiting to sentence us for all our wrongdoings.
But we can see something completely different when we look around us and pay attention to where God's presence and shalom are in the world.
First, when we look around us, we are raising our gaze beyond the six inches in front of our face, which is where most of us tend to stare when we are going through hardships.
And then we widen our gaze; we are more likely to see God's truth, beauty, and goodness both in our world and within our hearts. We can see how God always tries to "please us back," this revelation can transform us.
In the Westminster Catechism from the 17th century, the question was posed, "What is the chief end of man?" The answer in the Catechism was this simple: "To glorify and enjoy God forever."
This is how we should view our relationship with God. Our purpose is to reflect the glory and goodness of God to the world around us and to actually enjoy God in the doing.
If you were taught to go through life worrying about messing up or being out of God's will for your life and that your actions would make God angry at you, let that hot garbage theology go.
God is constantly doing whatever it takes to gain your attention to show you how much you are loved, how valuable and cherished you are, and that you are forgiven, set free, and loosed on the world to help shine the light of God's Kingdom wherever you go.
May this knowledge bring you hope and peace.
And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.