Is God Pleased With Us?
I fear that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
In the centuries prior to the 20th, we read about an abundance of preaching that was described as ‘hellfire and brimstone preaching’. We read about ministers who would describe to their congregations, in great detail, the torments of hell. There was a time when the wrath of God was unduly emphasized in the pulpit and, as a result, the primary motivation for Christian obedience became the sheer dread of the Almighty.
I fear that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Rarely do we talk about the judgment of God; scarcely, if at all, do we ever mention the torments of hell. Preachers are well aware of the fact that most congregations, in our postmodern context, simply will not tolerate sermons that alert us to the notion that sin angers God, and that sin makes us vulnerable to God’s judgment.
Beloved, I do not want to return us to a day when we are scared into Christian obedience, but I do, however, want to alert you to the fact that how we act evokes a response from God. What we say, what we do, or don’t do, evokes either God’s pleasure or displeasure.
This is the note sounded by the apostle Paul in 1Corinthians 10, “I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness” (10:1-5).
Important for us to note here is the corporate context. The emphasis is not on individual obedience as much as it is on corporate obedience. Paul, commenting on the Hebrew Scriptures, reminds us that God was not pleased with the collective behaviour of the Israelites in the wilderness. And notice that this displeasure of God existed in the presence of numerous blessings.
God had miraculously delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians, giving them safe passage across the parted Red Sea. In the barren wilderness, God provided them with manna, bread from heaven (Ex. 16:4), and He provided them with water through supernatural means (Ex. 15:25; 17:6). And above all of that, Paul says the preincarnate Christ was with them—Paul references “a spiritual rock which followed them; and the spiritual rock was Christ” (10:4). “Nevertheless”, Paul maintains, “with most of them God was not well-pleased” (10:5).
Commenting on these blessings, 19th Century Princeton scholar, Charles Hodge, observes “If any people ever had reason to think their salvation secure, it was those whom God thus wonderfully guided . . . Yet their carcasses were strewed in the wilderness. It is not enough, therefore, to be recipients of extraordinary favours; it is not enough to begin well” (Hodge, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 171).
God had poured upon the Israelites blessing upon blessing, and grace upon grace, and yet they did not rightly honour Him.
I find it interesting that Paul would reference the Israelites in the desert to make a point to the Christians in Corinth. Approximately 1500 years separates these two groups. The two cultures were vastly different from one another. Yet, they had this in common: Both groups failed to respond appropriately to the grace of God. For this reason, Paul repeats himself, saying, “these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction” (10:6, 11).
Similarly, nearly 2000 years separates our church and the early church in Corinth, yet what Paul says to the Corinthians applies equally to us, “these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction.”
The sins of the Israelites in the wilderness were many, yet Paul highlights a few in particular for the Corinthians to avoid. First, he warns them not to commit idolatry. He tells them “do not be idolaters, as some of them were” (10:7). En route to the Promised Land the Israelites encountered many different cultures and, as a result, they were tempted to assimilate aspects of these other cultures, and blend them with their own. To do this, however, to appropriate this pluralistic approach to worship was tantamount to idolatry; it was unfaithfulness to God.
It is not hard to see the relevance of Paul’s warning for our own day. We are bombarded with opinions as we watch CBC news, as we listen to 680 radio, and as we read the daily newspaper. There are a plethora of individuals, and organizations, that would love to shape the way you and I think and behave. Yet, clearly, to appropriate opinions, and to engage in behaviours, that contradict the plain teaching of Scripture is idolatry; it is unfaithfulness to our Lord Jesus Christ.
The second sin that is named by Paul is immorality, “Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day” (10:8).
Beloved, I do not pretend to know what moves our God to execute justice in this manner, and in this proportion, but we should maintain nonetheless that God is holy in all that He does. We must confess as Job did, when he lost all that he had, he declared, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Let us not waste time then speculating why God judges the way He does, but let us be sobered by the fact that God does, in fact, judge sin. And let us heed Paul’s counsel to “flee immorality” (1Cor. 6:18).
The third sin that is named by Paul is the sin of complaining, “Nor (let us) grumble as some of them did, and were (subsequently) destroyed by the destroyer” (10:10).
Once again we see that the sin is followed by a punishment. Of these three sins, idolatry, immorality, and grumbling, this last sin appears, on the surface, to be the least serious. Yet, I don’t think we can say that. On many occasions, the Lord was greatly angered by the grumbling of His people. In fact, this was the sin cited by the Lord as the reason why He would not permit them to enter the Promised Land. In Numbers 14:26, and following, we read, “the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who are grumbling against Me? I have heard the complaints of the sons of Israel, which they are making against Me. Say to them, ‘ . . . your corpses shall fall in this wilderness, even all your numbered men, according to your complete number from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against Me. Surely you shall not come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.’”
Beloved, have you ever grumbled against the Lord? Have you ever challenged His sovereign wisdom? Have you ever doubted His faithfulness to you? Have you ever complained to God, imagining that you know what is best?
We learn from the apostle Paul that grumbling, along with immorality, and idolatry are great sins in the eyes of the Lord. And Paul reminds us that “these things; (these punishments) fell upon (the Israelites) as an example (for us), and they were written (down) for our instruction” (10:11).
The interesting variable in all of this is the idea that God’s people are often not aware of their sin. The Israelites, fresh off of their crossing of the Red Sea, wrongly understood God’s deliverance and provision as a mark of certain security. The libertines in Corinth had made the same mistake. They had heard the good news of salvation; they had heard that Christ would forgive them of all their sins and they imagined that they were beyond the reach of temporal judgment. So Paul, citing the Israelite example, tells them that they should know better. Paul warns them, “let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (10:12).
Who could blame us, at St. Giles Kingsway, for feeling secure? We have the largest membership in West Toronto Presbytery. We are debt free—and that is even after putting on a new roof. Our church events and church programs are well-attended and skillfully executed . . . “let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”
God had blessed the Israelites in so many ways, and yet, “with most of them God was not well-pleased.”
Do you see then, the importance of this question: Is God Pleased With Us?
That’s not a question about membership statistics; that’s not a question about church school attendance; that’s not a question about whether we will meet our budget demands.
If God’s presence with us now were incarnate, would He voice His approval for the manner in which we conduct worship? If God’s presence were incarnate at our Session and committee meetings, would He vote in favour of the motions we regularly carry? If God’s presence were incarnate in our homes, and in our places of work, would He be pleased with us?
Because if God is not pleased with us, and if we mistake our temporal blessings as Divine approval, we must “take heed lest (we) fall”. Paul’s warning is that God will punish sin. I say that, not to scare you; I say that, not to evoke in you undue alarm; I say that because the Bible says that.
What we say, what we do, or don’t do, matters to God. What we say, what we do, or don’t do, evokes either God’s pleasure or displeasure.
We can think about this in terms of our individual behaviour, but we must think about this in terms of our local congregation, for this is the context Paul envisions when he warns the Corinthians.
Before we make any decision; before we undertake any new project, our ideas and our plans must be placed under the microscope of Holy Scripture. Only when we have been diligent to scrutinize our plans under the light of Scripture can we have any hope of accurately answering the question: Is God pleased with us?
I pray that He is pleased with us. And, do I dare say that He is pleased with us. But let us not grow complacent, lest we make ourselves vulnerable to God’s judgment. For our aim is not to simply please Him today, but our aim is to please God now and forevermore. Amen.