Essay / Misc.

Eager to Please

In Colossians 1:10, Paul prays that the Colossians would be able to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” In its original Greek, it’s a a rougher sentence, reading something like this: “to walk worthy of the Lord in all pleasing.” Most responsible translations do something to smooth that out, because even to make sense of the phrase, we readers need to know what the word “pleasing” is pointed toward. Clearly it’s pointed toward the Lord who was just mentioned: Walk worthy of the Lord, with the maximum possible amount of pleasingness to him.

“Pleasingness” — Not a word. In Greek it’s areskeia, and it is used to describe the way underlings behave toward kings. “It is used especially of ingratiating oneself with a sovereign or potentate,” notes one commentator, which explains why Aristotle does not consider areskeia to be a virtue. The comportment of underlings toward overlords is not generally a pretty picture. We have a lot of words for this behavior: obsequious, sycophantic, servile, fawning, toadying, smarmy, truckling, unctuous, etc. Most of these words have dropped out of common English usage, to be replaced by the decidedly crude term “brown-nosing.” It is beyond me, by the way, how we could surrender a half-dozen perfectly good words to oblivion and accept in their place a scatological vulgarism as our primary way of referring to this behavior. But I digress.

It’s easy to see why the moral vocabulary of the ancient world would use “pleasingness” or “eagerness to please” in a negative sense. It’s bad enough to see a yes-man just waiting eagerly for the next command, but areskeia goes to the next level: It implies a servant whose attentiveness to his master’s will is so all-consuming that he tries to anticipate his master’s desires and fulfill them before they are even spoken. Not only is every one of his master’s wishes this servant’s command, but the forecast of an inclination toward the possibility of some future wish is enough to get this servant hopping. Having a co-worker like this is just too much to bear.

And areskeia exercised toward humans, no matter how legitimate their human authority may be, is always bound to degenerate into sycophancy. In fact, Paul combines areskeia with the word for human, anthropos, to refer scornfully to an inferior kind of servanthood in Colossians 3:22: “man-pleasing,” anthropareskeia.

Of all this Paul is quite aware. But somehow he is capable of using “eager to please” (or “in all pleasingness”) in a solid, positive sense as well. What transforms the word is its object: the Lord. With such a Lord as Jesus Christ, how is a believer to “walk worthy?” By walking “in all pleasing,” with the eagerness to please which expresses itself in attentive devotion to the will of the Lord. Paul’s vision of Christian maturity, the completeness which he prays the Colossians would experience, rises above simply obeying individual commands as they come. It rises to the level of earnestly inquiring after the Lord’s will and being eager to please him.

While this positive sense of areskeia is not unique to the New Testament, it does make more sense in a Christian setting than in its pre-Christian uses. Before Christianity, who had a lord worthy of such obedience? A Greek lexicon from a previous generation, Herman Cremer’s Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek (4th edition 1895), is organized around “the language-molding power of Christianity,” tracing the way Greek words “received a new meaning, impress and a fresh power” from the Gospel. Cremer loved to trace the way the same words could mean such different things in the transition from pagan to Christian usage, as “the spirit of the language expands, and makes itself adequate to the new views which the Spirit of Christ reveals.” This is what happens with “eager to please.”

(Aside to Professor Nietzsche: Yes, yes, we know all about the genealogy of Christian morals and the dark workshop where these values are forged. And we also know about the darker workshop where you carried out your transvaluing. If all the Christians you ever met were toadies (and I’m not sure I trust your testimony on this score, given your interesting relationship to truth), that does not prove that they invented a lord to truckle up to. Perhaps they had in fact a true Lord but served him unworthily, with an obsequiousness they learned from human relations? They stand condemned on that ground. But in that case there is a standard against which to judge them, and yourself.)

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