“By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was approved as a righteous man, because God approved his gifts, and even though he is dead, he still speaks through his faith. By faith Enoch was taken away, and so he did not experience death. He was not to be found because God took him away. For before he was taken away, he was approved as one who pleased God. Now without faith it is impossible to please God, since the one who draws near to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What does it take to please God? While you may not ever ask that question directly or out loud, I suspect your inherent need for an answer to it animates a fair sight more of your life than you’re comfortable admitting. Even if you aren’t giving any thought to the Christian God, the higher power you happen to have embraced leaves you wondering at least occasionally how to make it happy. With the God of the Bible, pleasing Him is a whole lot simpler an affair than you might expect. Through the lens of a couple of examples out of the very beginning of God’s story, let’s talk about what it takes to make Him happy.
People used to think the gods were angry. That was why bad things happened. And given just how broken the world is, the gods were angry a lot. You could try to appease them with sacrifices, those who would work sometimes. But the gods were capricious, so sometimes they wouldn’t. Maybe you didn’t make a big enough sacrifice. Or perhaps you followed the incredibly complex ritual almost right, but not exactly. The gods could be picky about their rituals. Or just maybe the priest was having a bad day and messed things up on your behalf, but the priest was the gods’ representative, so they were mad at you instead. The result of this was that most people lived their lives most of the time with a mixture of guilt and fear.
This was simply the way life worked in the various religions humans invented over the centuries. The gods were mostly an angry bunch, you did what you could to please them, and otherwise kept your head down. The God who revealed Himself to the people of Israel, though, was different. As He shared with them the stories of their people’s past, He specifically included bits of His character that indicated He could be pleased. He told them rather specifically what it was that made Him happy. And it wasn’t ritual and sacrifice. The thing that made God happy was faith. This wasn’t something He introduced late in the story either. He started making this clear right out of the gate. The author of Hebrews here includes two stories that make this point.
The first story is about Abel. Abel was the second named son of Adam and Eve. I say “named son” because we are only told the names of three of their children (Cain, Abel, and Seth). In their nearly thousand years of life, they likely had lots and lots of children to fill the earth as God had commanded. We simply don’t know their names. In any event, Abel was Cain’s younger brother. The two brothers followed different paths in life as brothers often do. Abel was a farmer while Cain was a shepherd. Both brothers made offerings to God, but God only accepted Abel’s offering, not Cain’s. This made Cain incredibly jealous of his brother to the point of murder.
In the context of the original story, there is always this lingering question of what exactly it was about Abel’s sacrifice that made it acceptable to God where Cain’s was not. The author of Hebrews here tells us the answer. Abel’s sacrifice was offered in faith. That is, he accepted who God was, sought to live his life in light of that, and offered his sacrifice from that standpoint. The sacrifice itself wasn’t the thing that pleased God. Abel’s lifestyle did. His faith did. The sacrifice was merely the ritual by which God conveyed His pleasure to him. It was a symbol of the real thing. Cain did not trust in God’s character and so did not live his life in light of God’s character. As a result, God wasn’t pleased with him like He was with Abel.
The next story is even more dramatic. He tells about the descendant of Adam and Eve named Enoch. We don’t know anything about Enoch save two facts. The first is that he walked with God. The second is that he never died. He walked with God, and then he was not because God took him. That’s pretty much all we know from the Genesis account of Enoch’s life. The author of Hebrews, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, adds a bit more to the story for us. The reason he never had to face death (one of only two people to ever receive such a gift) was because he so pleased God. He made God so happy that God said, “You know what, you’re not going to have to go through death. You can just skip over that and come straight on to be with me.” And how did he manage such a feat? His faith. He trusted so deeply in God’s character, and because of that lived his life in such completely harmony with God’s character, that he didn’t have to die. And Enoch was just a regular guy.
Somewhere along the way of human history, though, and in spite of incredible stories like these that assured us this God wasn’t angry with us, we lost sight of all this. We let our vision be consumed by the capricious, petty, angry gods of this world, and started thinking that Yahweh God was like all of these other gods. He was angry. This thinking wound its way deeply into the psyche of the Hebrew people. Then Jesus came onto the scene to set things straight once again. God isn’t angry. He can be pleased. And the church ran with this message for a while, but eventually we fell back into the same thinking we had adopted before.
Today, many people live their lives as if God is just angry all the time. He’s angry with them all the time. And we generally respond to this in one of two ways. The first is to lean hard into religion and the various means we have been assured will make God happy with us. We start doing for Him. We do lots for Him. What this doing looks like exactly depends on the cultural moment, but whatever it is, we do it. All of it. Then we start trying to get others to do it because we still don’t feel like He’s happy with us, but maybe this anger isn’t with us exactly, but with the people around us, and if we can just get them to do the things that will make God happy, we can create a bubble of God’s happiness for ourselves. Yet all the while there’s a little nagging voice in the back of our minds telling us all this doing isn’t really working. God is still angry.
The other way we respond is by throwing up our hands and walking away. In fact, sometimes we go beyond that. We lean into the anger. If God is angry with us, and if we can’t really do anything about it, then we’ll do the things we know make Him angry. It’s not like we have anything else to lose. But in the midst of all this running, the weight of that anger starts to get heavy. Then it gets heavier. And the running gets harder. And less fun than it used to be. Soon we’re just miserable, confident of God’s anger, and completely unsure of how to deal with it.
Because human nature has remained pretty constant over the centuries, I think the author of Hebrews knew all of this. In the very next verse, rather than telling another story, he offers a summary statement on these two stories. These two men pleased God because of their faith in Him. They trusted in His character, looked forward to a positive future with Him, and lived their lives in the present in a way that was consistent with all of this. This wasn’t incidental to them either. This faith is how anyone can please God. It’s how you can please God.
He makes it a negative here in the sense that you can’t please God without faith, but let me turn it around and make it a positive. You can please God with faith. You don’t have to live your life under the cloud of an angry God. He’s not angry. Well, He’s angry at sin and the terrible impact it has on His creation. But you He loves. And you can live in that love when you are willing to live by faith. When you are willing to place your trust in His revealed character and live your life in light of it, you will be accepted by Him. Don’t live any longer under the presumption of an angry God. Live by faith, and by that live in confidence that you are pleasing Him. You’ll be glad if you do.