Whoever you are, wherever you live, in whatever age you live, you either live to please man or you live to please God. And if you think it’s possible to serve both, you’re likely living to please the former, not the latter.
God is rightly and lovingly jealous for our first and fullest devotion. And every meaningful relationship we have will vie, whether overtly or subtly, to dethrone him. That’s why Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Sin has a way of making the love and approval of people seem more thrilling and fulfilling than the love and approval of God.
The apostle Paul knew the seduction of the fear of man, and he had learned that no man could serve two masters.
Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)
“If we live to have the praise, approval, and acceptance of others, we cannot belong to Jesus.”
The dichotomy is as striking as it is frightening: we cannot strive to please people and still serve Christ. Now, of course, even Paul himself can say, “I try to please everyone in everything I do” (1 Corinthians 10:33), but only because that love is an expression of his greater allegiance to pleasing God (1 Corinthians 10:31, 33). If we, however, live to have the praise, approval, and acceptance of others, we cannot belong to Jesus.
So do we recognize this deadly temptation in our relationships? Have we, like Paul, died to the approval of man? His letter to the Galatians gives us a tour of the battlefield and some weapons for the fight.
Well-Acquainted with People-Pleasing
Paul can talk personally and intimately about the fear of man because he had once pursued the approval of others. These are the confessions of a former people-pleaser:
If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. . . . For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1:10, 13–14)
His former life illustrates just how destructive the fear of man can be. As he persecuted the church violently — mocking, attacking, imprisoning, even killing believers in Jesus — he garnered a little more attention, a little more approval, a little more praise than his peers. Of course, he would have said he was only striving to please God, and he maybe even thought he was striving to please God, but he sees his hidden motivations more clearly in hindsight.
When Paul says, “If I were still trying to please man. . . ,” the still really matters. He had served the god of people-pleasing, for years and years, and he found him to be a cruel master, a stealer of life and love and joy, a dead end. And in Galatians, he writes to a church tempted to serve the same god.
God of Looking Good
How specifically was people-pleasing infiltrating the church in Galatia? False teachers had crept in, teaching the Gentile believers that they needed to practice the Jewish laws to be saved. We learn, however, that their real concern was not for the church, but for themselves.
They wanted to avoid the Jewish persecution that might come if the Galatians confessed Christ but refused to practice circumcision, dietary regulations, and other distinctly Jewish laws. They also wanted the recognition and praise of the Jewish authorities for converting Gentiles to Judaism. In other words, they feared the rejection and hostility of certain people, and craved their approval and applause. Paul explains,
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. (Galatians 6:12–13)
Their duplicity is evident. They don’t even keep the law themselves, but they require it of others, because the compliance of others makes them look good. And looking good is their real god.
First Trap: Flattery
Knowing the temptations firsthand, the apostle recognized the influences that were corrupting and undoing the church in Galatia. The false teachers, who were themselves enslaved to the fear of man, were now preying on the Galatians’ desire for acceptance and affirmation. Watch carefully as Paul describes their strategies, because they’re the primary strategies of an awful lot of what we see and hear in the world today.
They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. (Galatians 4:17)
They begin with flattery, an effective tactic in persuading people-pleasers. As warm as flattery may sound and feel at first, though, flattery is always selfish and always destructive. It distorts reality, erodes trust, and indulges itself at the expense of someone else (Proverbs 26:28). “They make much of you, but for no good purpose.” They sweeten their words to win you without any real concern for you and your good.
The gospel says, “You are worse than you realize, but God’s grace is greater than your sin.” Flattery says, “You’re better than you think, and you’re certainly better than those other people.” If we live for the approval of man rather than God, we make ourselves all the more vulnerable to flattery. People will be able to influence and manipulate us by gratifying our thirst for affirmation.
One way to discern this danger in our personal relationships might be to ask, Do the people who affirm me also regularly challenge me? If they are eager to praise me, are they also willing to correct me?
Second Trap: Rejection
The false teachers used two very different strategies to prey on the Galatians’ fear of man (which reveals how subtle and complex this war can be). Both strategies seize on insecurity, but in opposite ways.
Yes, the Judaizers fawned over these Christians with flattery, but notice how they also threatened to exclude those who didn’t comply. They tried to convince these new believers that they had to adopt certain Jewish laws to be in God’s inner circle. “They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them” (Galatians 4:17). They’re trying to establish a special and exclusive group of “true” believers. They lure you in by making you feel left out. Did we think cancel culture was new with us? Satan knows that as much as people-pleasers crave the approval of others, they often fear their disapproval even more.
So where are we vulnerable to this fear of exclusion? One way to test ourselves would be to ask, What Christian beliefs are we tempted to hide — about abortion, about sex and sexuality, about ethnicity, about whatever — to fit in with the crowd whose approval we crave? (Note: This could be a crowd in the world or a crowd in the church.) Does our desire for acceptance make us ashamed of anything God says in his word?
Flattery preys on our craving to be admired. This second pressure preys on our fear of being excluded, of being left behind — ultimately, of being alone.
The World Died to Me
So how do we escape these twin traps that the fear of man lays? Having broken free himself, Paul charts a course for those similarly tempted. Freedom from unhealthy people-pleasing requires two great deaths:
[The false teachers] desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:13–14)
First, the world must die to me. What does that mean? When Paul was converted, and left behind his people-pleasing ways, nothing changed in the world. All the same pressures tried to intimidate him into conformity. All the same social expectations rose up around him. All the same risks threatened to isolate and afflict him (or worse). And yet he can still say that one day he met Jesus and the world died before his eyes. The world — all the worldly opinions, desires, applause, and criticism of mere humans — suddenly lost its power over Paul. It was if everything that once controlled him had been nailed to a cross and left there to die.
“For the world to lose its power over us, we have to surrender our craving to please the world.”
How does the world lose that kind of power over us? Through a second, more painful death: I must die to the world. For the world to lose its power over us, we have to surrender our craving to please the world. To follow the crucified Son, we have to crucify our former master (whatever sin had its hold on us). To experience the joy of life in Christ, Paul had to first die to being admired and praised by his peers. He couldn’t enjoy both. “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” So he refused the master that bred fear while stealing life, that increased guilt while decreasing peace, that amplified insecurity while muting love. He chose the better master.
Choosing to live for the approval of God, and not of man, will be costly in this life. Paul was hunted, beaten, robbed, imprisoned, and stoned nearly to death for his choice. And yet he could say, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Not worth comparing. That is the key to overcoming the fear of man. We will die to the comforts of people-pleasing when we realize, with Paul, just how much more satisfying it is to suffer for pleasing God.