How to Please God
When a biblical writer says something like “this is pleasing to God,” we’d better lean in and take a close look because that sounds important. That’s what the author of the letter to the Hebrews says. I hear the surrounding text clearly saying love each other and don’t love stuff. Sounds pretty Jesus-y, right? Listen in:
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Heb. 13:1-8, 15-16)
Hospitality and contentment are just screaming at me in this text.
Hospitality is a tangible, practical way to express love towards others, especially for Christians. Hospitality was essential for travelers as well as for providing a place for the local church to meet. Those economically-advantaged early believers opened their homes as the meeting places of the early church. Our circumstances are different today. Lots of churches have buildings, we have numerous lodging options when we travel, and I suspect you don’t have many strangers knocking at your door asking if they can stay the night. So what does hospitality look like in our current context?
We often think of hospitality as hosting people in our homes. That is important. But the kind of hospitality described in our text today is about strangers—people we don’t yet know. Being hospitable in our daily lives can mean seeing with spiritual eyes—attending to the work of the Spirit in the world around us.
It could be greeting your neighbor on your morning walk and taking a moment more to learn her name. Or writing a note of encouragement to your child’s teacher, a co-worker, the librarian, or staff at the local fire station. Or asking the cashier how his day is going and then listening.
Our text is also about being hospitable to those who are hidden from our sight, who are marginalized, mistreated, and suffering. These folks especially need our presence—this visible show of support and commitment, which is the physical embodiment of God’s promise to never leave us.
So I wonder, who is out of our sight and easily forgotten? Well, prisoners are an easy choice—they’re tucked away behind thick walls and barbed wire fences, well off the beaten path of everyday life for most of us and, as such, out of sight, out of mind. Reaching out to those in prison requires creativity and intentionality. But also, in our neighborhoods and places of work, there are oppressed people among us—they fit into any number of categories of discrimination and disenfranchisement by the systems of our country. They are often unseen, their voices silenced. These faces need to be sought, their voices heard. Again, this requires us to see with spiritual eyes, live more intentionally, be aware of our surroundings, and be present to people.
I often experience hospitality from our neighbors and local government. My first neighborhood association meeting was Portlandia meets Parks and Rec, complete with a small dog roaming around the room getting into people’s bags while the owner was unaware or didn’t care, following Robert’s Rules with calling for votes, and someone next to me snoring while the person on the other side of her looked at me with eyes that told me she thought it was me! It was surreal. I continued attending these monthly meetings, and as a congregational minister, I expected to be met with suspicion. After all, Portland is supposed to be the most “unchurched” city in America. But this community of neighborhood folks hosted me—they brought me in and asked me to be more involved, to serve on the board and eventually to become the chair. They welcomed my voice in conversations and decisions, and when our church adopted a roadway to clean up, several of these folks joined us. Through their gracious, inclusive actions, they taught me about hospitality. Hospitality goes both ways, and we must be willing to both give and receive hospitality.
Gratitude and Contentment
The author of Hebrews warns us against being inhospitable, immoral, or greedy. As we live by faith, we assume a posture that’s markedly different from the consumeristic culture we’re swimming in. Having stuff isn’t the problem. Liking and enjoying stuff isn’t even the problem. But when we love stuff and elevate it over people, then it becomes a problem. This move of inhospitality is a movement toward darkness, toward death.
“Keep yourselves free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” The author knows discontentment is the path of destruction. It’s plagued by an elusive goal, with no end to the wanting.
You may tell yourself, “I just need to get these three things, make these two last updates to our home, then I’ll be content with what I have.” But you get that new car and update the kitchen, and then you realize there’s something more you need. When we push our contentment into the future and say, “I’ll be content when,” we set ourselves up for failure because that day will never come. Contentment isn’t out there at the end of the shopping list or to-do list. It’s right here in this moment. And it’s found through practicing gratitude.
I’ve been a consumer in this culture long enough to know that wanting and acquiring don’t result in contentment. Contentment is a posture, a disposition that doesn’t depend on circumstances. Contentment doesn’t need the updated fixtures or new car smell or trendy styles. It can coexist with these things, but it doesn’t depend on them. It depends on gratitude, which cultivates in us a certain disposition toward things.
When we view the “stuff” as a gift we are grateful for and hold it loosely, we’re free to share. When the love of stuff starts to fade away, our chains to the love of money start to loosen. Gratitude helps to re-center our wants appropriately. Instead of focusing our desires on possessions, we focus on loving God and others well, seeking out and discerning God’s work in our world and joining that.
Gratitude is the antidote to greed and the prescription for contentment.
Here’s how it’s all tied together: as we are grateful for all that we have and all that God has done, we are increasingly content, and we respond with hospitality, extending the generosity of God toward others. And that is what’s pleasing to God.