Ephesians 5:10, “and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.”

Darkness characterized our existence before we knew Christ. We once engaged gladly in that which manifests evil hearts — sexual immorality, covetousness, deceptiveness, and all other forms of impurity (Ephesians 5:3-8). Now that we have trusted Jesus, we are light in the Lord and must walk in a way consistent with light — in goodness, righteousness, and truth (Ephesians 5:8–9). There is an even simpler way to summarize what it means to walk in the light. As the Apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:10, those who are in the light of Christ “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10).

Scripture often emphasizes our need to please God in all circumstances. The Psalmist hoped that his prayer would please the Creator (Ps. 104:34). Paul and his ministry partners aimed to please the Lord (2 Cor. 5:9). Christians who support the work of the gospel present a “fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable to God” (Phil. 4:18). This desire to please God is a mark of conversion, and the Bible finds it inconceivable that any regenerate person would lack a desire to please the Lord.

Some people might consider an emphasis on our need to do what pleases God incompatible with the gospel of justification by faith alone. Indeed to stress what it means to please the Lord would be improper if we were to believe that we must please God before He will save us. Our best deeds fall far short of our Creator’s perfect standards (Isa. 64:6), so pleasing Him is not our ticket to heaven. But it is not inconsistent to seek to please the Lord following salvation. A desire to please God is the necessary and inevitable consequence of the new birth. We see this in the very structure of Ephesians: first, Paul describes salvation by grace and prays that we would understand this doctrine (Eph. 1–3), then he describes how we are to lead a life pleasing to God in light of this redemption (Eph. 4–6).

How do we discern what pleases the Lord? Dr. R.C. Sproul answers, “There is no way of learning more accurately or more quickly about what is pleasing to God, than studying the law of God” (The Purpose of God: Ephesians, p. 125). Soaking ourselves in Scripture reinforces our understanding of the light in which we must walk, transforming our minds that we might do what pleases God (Rom. 12:2).

Studying the Word of God does not consist merely in coming to intellectual knowledge of its contents. It also requires us to put what we are reading into practice. As we practice the truth, we become more aware of how this truth is to be applied under challenging circumstances. Dr. John MacArthur writes, “As believers walk in the light of the truth, the knowledge of the Lord’s will becomes clear” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1699).

Living as children of light is determined not only by what we do but also by whom we please. Paul says, “Live as children of light … and find out what pleases God” (Eph. 5:8, 10). With this brief wording, the Apostle reminds us that living as a child of light is a matter of the motive of the heart as well as the works of the hands. Not only are we to do what God commands for fruitfulness, for we are also to do so out of a desire to please him. We should delight in his delight. Mere outward conformity to the law is not what God requires. The person who does what God says with a resentful heart and begrudging obedience does not bear the mark of the true child of light. The heart renewed by the Spirit desires to please God is anxious to find out what he desires and is motivated by the sense of bringing God pleasure.

It is almost impossible to think of being motivated to bring God pleasure without thinking of the words of the devout athlete Eric Liddell, who was made famous in the movie Chariots of Fire. Why did he strive to run so fast, and so well? He said, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.” But the record of one who has performed splendidly from the desire to please God likely does not occupy the mind of the Apostle. He writes to Ephesians of multiple and shameful backgrounds in a corrupt and profane culture who are still struggling to live as children of light. Why does he tell them to “find out” (i.e., prove, as in testing a metal) what pleases God? The Apostle desires that even in their weakness and frailty, the Ephesians will know they can please God.

When we know that our meager offerings to God—the little thoughts, words, and acts of righteousness that are all that we have to give—bring him pleasure despite their inadequacies and our shame, we want to bring him better gifts. The desire to please One so delightfully pleased with us becomes our passion and our power, our highest and strongest motivation. We want to keep finding out what pleases him—to express light for his sake.