(Note: for the next few weeks , I will post the manuscript that goes with the audio (posted Tuesdays) from a sermon in the Powerful Prayers series. People have requested the sermon manuscripts many time, but I’ve always been reluctant to make it available for two principal reasons: 1) I never simply read a sermon, so what people read is not exactly what I spoke. The manuscript might be better or it may be worse but it will be different. And (2) because the sermon has not been edited for publication. With those caveats, here is Prayers God Love to Answer: Colossians 1:9-12, Part 2.)
A college student named Nick Lutz’s got a hand-written, four-page letter from his ex-girlfriend. She acknowledged the mistakes she made in their relationship and apologized. Nick responded by sending the letter back to her, marked up like a term paper graded by a nitpicking professor. He pointed out formatting errors she had made, noted the introduction was too long, and made critical comments in the margins. At the bottom of the last page, he wrote: “Strong hypothesis but nothing to back it up,” and gave her a D-.
If you’ve ever tried to do something right and been criticized for it, you know how exasperating that can be. Oswald Chambers said, “A man who is continually criticized becomes good for nothing; the effect of criticism knocks all the gumption and power out of him.”
Some of you have had all the gumption and power knocked out of you. Maybe it was your parents who knocked it out of you – if you are a parent, I beg you not to knock the gumption and power out of your own children – or maybe you married a professional critic.
Maybe you sat under the teaching of church leaders who led you to believe that God is the professional Critic in the Sky, our Faultfinder who art in heaven, harder to please than any parent or spouse or boss. You take for granted that God is displeased with you. If that’s the case, I have really good news: you can please God; you can be a real part of his ineffable joy. Pleasing God is totally possible – you can do it – and pleasing God will bring great pleasure to you.
So, what do you have to do please God? What’s first? Go to church – a lot? Read the Bible for hours each day? Stop watching TV and read books – mostly boring books that don’t hold your attention? Oh, and fast – twice a week would be a good start. (You can always work your way up from there.)
That’s where our mind goes when we think of pleasing God: what do I do? But what really pleases God is who you become. Doing has an important part to play in becoming but doing is not an end in itself. God doesn’t need us to do things for him because his hands are full. That’s not why he gives us things to do. He gives us things to do because doing them will help us become strong, loving, effective, joyful, thankful people—and that is what pleases God.
In Colossians 1:9-12, St. Paul gets specific about pleasing God and gives us four things that really delight him. Let’s read those verses: For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.
“…we pray this” – that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will – “in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way.” That translation makes it sound like knowing the will of God leads to two distinct results: living a life worthy of the Lord and pleasing him in every way, but those two things are closely linked. A more literal translation might go like this: “to walk worthy of the Lord unto” – that is, which leads to – “being a complete pleasure to him.”
In other words, when we are trying to live in a way that is worthy of Jesus’s sacrifice, his love, and the high calling he’s placed on our lives, we will be pleasing to God. And it’s not just that we’ll try harder. If anything, we’ll feel less like we’re trying and more like we’re flowing.
There is a clarity in the original language which translations simply cannot match. There is one request – that God fill the Colossians with the knowledge of his will – along with a proposed means for granting that request: through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. Next is Paul’s reason for making the request: that the Colossians will live a life worthy of the Lord with the result that they will become completely pleasing to him.
All that is in verse 9 and in the first clause of verse 10. What follows in the rest of verses 10, 11, and the beginning of 12 is a description of what God finds pleasing. So not only does Paul tell us that we can please God, he tells us precisely what pleases God. He lists four things which, in the original language, jump off the page at us because each one is in the form of a Greek present participle. You can recognize those participles in English because they take the form of gerunds – those words that end in “ing.”
See if you can find them in the text. The first is “bearing fruit.” (In Greek, that is one word: fruitbearing.) Next is growing in the knowledge of God. Third is being strengthened. And fourth is giving thanks. If those words describe you, you are pleasing to God. He can’t look at you without a smile on his face.
Let’s look at those four traits, one at a time and, as we do, let’s look at ourselves. For that, we are going to need God’s help, so let’s take down our defenses and ask God to show us plainly where we stand.
The first characteristic that pleases God is fruitbearing. God wants his children to be productive. He loves to see us making a difference. Notice that this fruitbearing happens “in every good work.” That’s why the knowledge of God’s will is so critical: his will for us as individuals and us as a church includes doing certain good works. Paul has written elsewhere that “God has prepared beforehand good works for us to walk in” (Eph. 2:10, lit.).
Do you see how this plays out? God fills us with the knowledge of his will – makes us aware of the good works he’s prepared for us to do. As we go through our day (“walk” is Paul’s metaphor for that), we recognize the works God has prepared for us, engage in them, and produce fruit – things that advance God’s purpose in the world. You will never be as fruitful doing the things you think of to do as you will doing the things God thought of for you to do.
There used to be a character on TV who, nearly every episode, would say: “I love it when a plan comes together.” As we do the good works God prepared for us and start producing results, our heavenly Father’s plan comes together and he loves it – he is pleased.
Of course that means if you’re not doing good works, you’ll not be fruitful. Fruit grows and ripens as we do the good works the wise God prepared for us to do. But that’s not all: as we engage in those works, we also grow in our knowledge of God, and that pleases him too.
Our heavenly Father wants his children to know him. Growing up, I didn’t know my earthly dad as well as I could have. He was an enigma to me. I knew when he was angry but I didn’t know what made him angry. I knew when he was happy but I didn’t know what made him happy. I knew he valued courage and hard work but I didn’t know why. And, unlike my heavenly Father, my dad wasn’t particularly eager to reveal himself to me.
But that changed, especially after I had kids. I started “growing in my knowledge of him,” which I think pleased him and certainly improved our relationship. Most people want to be known – want to share themselves with others – and, in that, they are like God. He wants us to know him, not just because he wants to be known but because knowing him is life changing. More than that, knowing him is life giving. In speaking with his Father, Jesus prayed, “…this is eternal life: that they may know you…” (John 17:3).
Some Christians don’t know any more about God now than they did when they first believed. Some still think God doesn’t want them to have any fun, or doesn’t care about them, or has abandoned them. How sad it must be for God, when his children misunderstand him like that. He longs to be known by his children.
The knowledge of God that Paul had in mind is more than just knowing about him – the knowledge needed to recite the creeds or defend the doctrine of the Trinity. This knowledge is personal. People who are growing in this knowledge “get” God in a way they previously did not. They recognize what he’s after in various situations, like a husband and wife who “get” each other so well that one look, across a room, can communicate volumes.
As we grow in our knowledge of God, we grow in our likeness to God. And this happens, remember, as we are filled with the knowledge of his will and engage in the good works he has prepared for us to do. God not only gave us good works to do so that we could be fruitful but so that we could have the pleasure of getting to know him.
Those are the first two things that please God: bearing fruit and growing in our knowledge of him. The next thing that pleases him – that next participle – is “being strengthened.” God is delighted to see his children grow stronger, build muscle, become unbreakable.
God is a Father and no father ever said, “I sure hope my kid grows up to be a weakling.” No father wants a child who is always giving up, falling apart, and unable to handle the things life brings. God is a Father and he is pleased when he sees us growing strong.
This sentence is eye-catching in the original language. It goes something like this: “being empowered with all power according to his power” (where the final term for power is a different word in Greek). Power. Power. Power. God wants his children to be strong. He is pleased when his children are strong enough to handle what comes their way.
How does that strength manifest itself? Kevin was telling me recently about the kind of strength athletic scouts look for in potential recruits, which is described as explosive power. The best test to display this power is the standing vertical jump. But what test displays the power that God longs to see in his children? There are actually three of them.
First, the endurance test: “strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance.” Among God’s children, strength is measured by how long one can trust God when circumstances are difficult. When sickness comes and doesn’t leave; when promotions are denied; when the car was in the shop three months ago because the brakes went out, two months ago because the muffler rusted through, and this month because the transmission needs to be replaced; when life is harder today than it was yesterday, and will be even harder tomorrow, God wants his children to be strong enough to trust him and go the distance. The endurance Paul has in mind could be defined as faith in God over an extended period of time in the midst of difficult circumstances.
The second test of strength – we could call it second-level strength – is patience. Patience could be defined as love over an extended period of time in the presence of difficult people. Endurance puts up with difficult circumstances without giving up. Patience puts up with difficult people without breaking down. Of the two, patience reveals the greater strength.
This kind of strength can endure unfair criticism. It keeps treating people in a Jesus-like way, even when they are self-centered and difficult. People who develop this second-level strength can even bless those who curse them and pray for those who mistreat them (Luke 6:28). That’s strength!
When a spouse is thoughtless or unkind, they call on God’s strength, trust him, and do what’s right—regardless of what the other person does. And they are able to do that repeatedly, one act of forgiveness, followed by three reps, then five, then ten. Three reps of putting up with annoyance, then five, then ten. Three reps of overlooking a fault, then five, then ten. They are strong and they’re getting stronger.
But we’ll make a serious mistake if we think of it as our strength, a sign of our abilities and accomplishments. This strength comes to us from God. We are strengthened with strength according to his glorious power. Both the strength to endure trials and the strength to be patient with people come out of a connection to God. Disconnect from him, and your strength for these things immediately begins to diminish, just like the strength of your phone battery diminishes as soon as you disconnect it from the charger.
What that implies – you may have already realized – is that if you aren’t able to endure difficult circumstance without giving up; if you aren’t able to be patient with difficult people without breaking down, your connection to God may not be solid. This kind of strength does not originate with you; you need to be recharged.
If the way I take this passage is correct (which is like the ESV but unlike the NIV), there is also a third level of strength. If faith over time in difficult circumstances is a sign of strength; if love over time with difficult people is a sign of even greater strength; then joy in the midst of difficult circumstances and the presence of difficult people is the sign of supreme strength.
In Greek, the word the NIV translates as “joyfully” is really a noun, “joy,” so I think what Paul is saying is this (verse 11): “being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance” (first sign of strength) “and patience,” (second sign) “with joy” (the ultimate sign). Joy in difficult circumstances and with difficult people is evidence of that explosive strength that comes from God alone. Kingdom people who have joy under such circumstances are like top-tier competitors at the Olympics. Their heavenly Father is in the stands, and every time they endure a trial or forgive an offender he jumps for joy.
God is pleased when his children are strong. That was the third thing that pleases him. There is one more. It is at the beginning of verse 12: “Giving thanks” (there’s the participle) “to God the Father…” Gratitude is an indicator – maybe even the indicator – of spiritual health and it pleases God. Most of us can be grateful when things go right, when the terrible thing doesn’t happen but the unlikely blessing does. But spiritually mature people are also grateful when things just go on: when the table is set for supper; when a favorite song comes on the radio; when the furnace works; the car runs; and telephone wait time is shorter than expected. They are even thankful when things go wrong. They regularly and genuinely thank their heavenly Father, whatever the circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
To recap: the four traits that please God are (1) fruitfulness; (2) a growing knowledge of God; (3) strength, manifested through endurance, patience, and joy; and (4) gratitude. With that in front of us, would you say you are pleasing to God? Are these traits evident in your life? If not, are you aware of something that is getting in the way? Do you need to reconnect to God, to be recharged? What is God saying to you right now?
 Emily Lund, PreachingToday.com; source: “Fla. Student Grades Ex’s Apology Letter, Sends It Back” NBC 5 Chicago (2-21-17)
 Oswald Chambers, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Christianity Today, Vol. 30, no. 4.