People-pleasing is not a virtue many of us strive to cultivate. People-influencing or people-winning maybe, but not people-pleasing. The phrase itself sounds like duplicity, like pretending, like compromise — like we are acting against our will to satisfy the desires of someone else. No one wants to be a people-pleaser.
And yet the apostle Paul can say, “I try to please everyone in everything I do” (1 Corinthians 10:33). Everyone in everything. What did he mean? We should want to know because in the very next verse he writes, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Evidently, striving to please people is not as bad as we may have assumed. The apostle, imitating Christ himself, devoted himself to pleasing people. To please people, then, is to pursue holiness, to mature into Christlikeness, to be like God.
“Christians must persistently strive to please people, and we must passionately avoid striving to please people.”
But before we completely throw ourselves into people-pleasing, the same apostle also says, “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). What did he mean? Isn’t this the same man who said he strives to please (same word) not just man, but every man, and in everything? Evidently, striving to please people may be even more dangerous than we suspected. In this case, to try to please people is to reject and even oppose Christ. To please people, then, is to indulge in sinfulness, to abandon obedience, to defy God.
So, according to Paul, we must persistently strive to please people, and we must passionately avoid striving to please people. As with so many issues in the Christian life, wisdom and holiness come through our seeing, by the Spirit, how a sentence like that is not a contradiction.
The dangers of people-pleasing may be more obvious to most of us than its virtues. Without even defining the terms, our association is negative. We wish to see it less in ourselves, and grow suspicious when we see it in others. We know we are to live and work as unto the Lord, “not as people-pleasers” (Ephesians 6:6; Colossians 3:22).
Some of us are almost totally (and reluctantly) captive to the desires of others. In any situation, this sinful impulse tempts us to do or say what we think others want us to do or say. We meticulously, even if unconsciously, calculate how each person will respond to each decision, and then do what will make the most people the most happy (or at least, the least unhappy). This kind of people-pleasing becomes an exhausting treadmill of micromanaging situations, conversations, and relationships.
And because we cannot possibly make everyone happy, the treadmill only leads to relational stress, discouragement, and self-pity. “There may be no more powerful argument to persuade you to stop seeking the approval of man,” Lou Priolo writes, “than that of the profound folly, futility, and utter impossibility of trying to please all of the people some of the time” (Pleasing People, 83).
And God despises it. As Paul said, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10; see also 1 Thessalonians 2:4). No one can serve two masters. We ultimately either live to please Christ, or we live to please someone else — and living to please anyone else leaves us at war with Christ. We cannot live peacefully with Christ while we submit first and foremost to the desires and demands of others.
We also, however, cannot follow Christ and not strive to please others. As we saw above, Paul sought to please all he met, but in a very different way than we are often tempted to please one another.
Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1)
“We ultimately either live to please Christ, or we live to please someone else.”
In this specific context, Paul was addressing whether believers should eat meat that may or may not have been sacrificed to false gods (1 Corinthians 10:25). We do not often find ourselves in this particular situation, but these verses still give us several valuable tests to determine if our pleasing of others is Spirit-filled love along the narrow path that leads to life or self-gratifying, pride-indulging sin that blinds us to love and leads to death.
1. How concerned am I with me?
The kind of people-pleasing that pleases God is not a self-serving need for love or approval. Paul says, “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage . . .” As he laid down his life for others, doing all he could to please them, he wasn’t subtly angling for some selfish gain. He wasn’t hungry for more approval. This striving comes from fullness, not emptiness; from love, not pride; from a desire to serve, not to be served.
As we weigh what to do or say, we should ask, How concerned am I with me?
That is a remarkably effective test for people-pleasing. Is our striving to please people, at its deepest level, a striving to please ourselves — to garner some praise, to make ourselves look better, to put somebody in our debt, to earn some new opportunity or promotion, to be loved? Or is it a striving to freely serve someone else because of how we’ve been served by Jesus? Would we still love in this way if we got nothing in return — if no one but God ever knew what we had done?
2. What do I want most for this person?
The kind of pleasing Paul encourages has one driving purpose: “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” Paul is striving for people to be pleased in Jesus — to trust Jesus, obey Jesus, enjoy Jesus. With everything he does and says, he wants to draw people to Jesus, so that they might be saved.
How much of our wrestling with temptations to please others begins with how little we’re concerned about their spiritual condition? We are often more anxious about whether they will like us than about whether they believe in Jesus or not, whether their sins will be covered or not, whether they will see heaven or not, whether they will walk away from sin and grow into spiritual maturity or not.
We need to ask, Is my desire to please these people a desire for them to be saved by Jesus, or a desire to be the saving one? Am I willing to be overlooked or forgotten, even despised or mocked, if it might mean this person finally sees or grows in Jesus?
Even among believers, we can worry far more about the approval we receive from one another than we do about the approval we receive from God. Does God approve of this decision or conversation? Is my Father pleased with the way I loved my neighbor? What does it say about some of us that we lie awake, unsettled by social media likes and comments, but almost never tremble over what the Creator and Judge of the universe might think?
“The kind of people-pleasing that pleases God is not a self-serving need for love or approval.”
Do you want to please people — really, deeply, enduringly please people? Then help them find themselves, more and more and more, in Jesus. That ambition gives Paul’s love and ministry a flavor not of himself, but of Jesus. This is not self-promotion; this is not the posturing of pride; this is not worldly capitulation or compromise; this is soul-winning, at any cost. We want everyone to be as pleased as possible in Jesus, and we want to do everything we can to encourage that pleasure, that love, that faith into fuller maturity.
3. Am I content to get out of the way?
This question comes at the first two issues, but from a slightly different angle. Paul says, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do” (1 Corinthians 10:32–33). In other words, strive not to offend people. This may seem strange coming from the apostle who says, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12). Paul was certainly not afraid to offend, so what does he mean here?
He means give no unnecessary offense, specifically an offense that might get in the way of someone being saved. In the case of the Corinthians, don’t eat meat if that might drive them away from Jesus (and don’t abstain from meat if that might unnecessarily keep someone from Jesus). To the best of your ability, don’t let something you say or do be the reason someone rejected or walked away from Jesus. Many will be offended by him — what he says, who he claims to be, and what he demands of us — but let them be offended by him and not you. As far as it depends on you, let them be pleased with you and confronted by the cross.
To be clear, the call to righteous people-pleasing comes with a call to righteously offend. We cannot consistently herald the truth and not be hated for it. Jesus himself warns, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you” (Luke 6:26), and, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matthew 10:22). Offense will often be an evidence of faithfulness to Christ. But the offense should ultimately be with him and not with us. We’re called to bless those who curse us, to love and serve our enemies, to overcome evil with good, to please everyone in everything, while telling them the wondrous truth of all that God has said and done — a truth many will find insulting, abusive, and repulsive.
4. Who gets the glory?
The real distinction between ungodly people-pleasing and God-honoring people-pleasing is about glory. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do” — pleasing everyone in everything you do — “do all to the glory of God.”
Is the driving burden of our love a desire to glorify God, or is it a desire to be glorified? To the degree that we are seeking our own glory, to that degree our people-pleasing is traitorous. But to the degree that we are seeking his glory, to that degree is our people-pleasing faithful, even beautiful. And freeing. As Richard Baxter writes, “If you seek first to please God and are satisfied with that, you have but one to please instead of multitudes; and a multitude of masters are harder to please than one” (Pleasing People, 97).
We all are called by God to please everyone in everything we do — to do whatever we do to the glory of God — and we are warned not to live as people-pleasers — not to subtly treat people as opportunities for our own glory. The path is narrow. But the Father we find on that path is infinitely wise, infinitely loving, infinitely discerning, and he promises to help us find our way.