Good people-pleasing versus bad people-pleasing: there’s a difference. So how do we know the difference? We need to figure it out. And we will today, thanks to yet another excellent email question from a listener, this time a listener named Nathaniel. “Pastor John, hello! I need your help on something. How do I quit seeking to please every person in my life and focus on pleasing God? I want to apply Galatians 1:10 to my life. Can you walk me through what this means? I’m unable to discover God’s plan for me because I’m constantly making decisions based on how it pleases or displeases everyone around me. Thank you!”
People-pleasing is a great problem for many people — I would say probably for most people, because nobody likes to be criticized. Nobody likes to be rejected. We want to be affirmed and admired and accepted. And therefore, everybody is vulnerable to this temptation. When we don’t get victory over this temptation of people-pleasing, it can become a very unhealthy, controlling neediness that keeps us in bondage rather than liberating us to do God’s will with joy.
The first thing I think we need to do is to clarify what aspects of pleasing others are good, and what aspects of pleasing others are harmful. Nathaniel, who asked this question, has his eye on Galatians 1:10, where Paul 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.”
Paul says the same kind of thing elsewhere. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 2:4, he says, “As we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” And he tells slaves in Ephesians 6:5–6, “Obey your earthly masters . . . not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” And people said of Jesus in Mark 12:14, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God.”
“If you live to please other people, you will not live for the sake of the truth.”
So clearly, Paul and Jesus put a high premium on not being controlled by what other people think. Both of them say or imply that if you live to please other people, you will not live for the sake of the truth, which clearly means you won’t live for the sake of the will of God. The opinion of others will become your god and will lead you around as if you had a hook in your nose, and you will not be authentic, and you will not be obedient, and you will not be able to fulfill God’s purpose for you on the earth, which is to glorify him rather than to esteem the opinion of others so highly.
However, having said all that against people-pleasing, that’s not the whole story when it comes to pleasing others. Paul said in Romans 15:2, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” And in 1 Corinthians 10:32–33, he 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, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”
Now, here’s the reason those two sets of teachings about people-pleasing are not contradictory. The efforts to please people in both Romans 15 and 1 Corinthians 10 are not to curry the favor of others, nor are they to avoid criticism. This effort to please in those two texts is not self-exalting, and it’s not self-protecting. It is entirely in the service of doing good to others, not enhancing one’s own position or protecting oneself. In the one text, Paul says he pleases others to build them up, and in the other he says he pleases people in order that they may be saved.
This is not evidence of an insecure, unhealthy person who needs the approval of others. This is evidence of a very healthy, strong, loving person who lives for the good of others. Sometimes he’s able to commend the gospel by pleasing people; other times he must defend the gospel by displeasing people. And in both cases, his own identity remains constant. He’s not a chameleon, changing colors in order to fit in for the sake of his own enhancement or protection. He’s living for others, whether that calls for displeasing them or pleasing them.
Three Remedies for Fearing Man
So what needs to happen if we find ourselves in bondage to the opinion of others?
1. Get a big vision of God.
The first thing that needs to happen is that our God needs to become bigger in our lives, and in our minds, and in our hearts. God must increase, and people must decrease. Ed Welch wrote a whole book called When People Are Big and God Is Small. That’s a great title. That’s the basic problem. People and their opinion loom large in our minds and hearts, while God is a distant, scarcely discernible influence on what we feel and do. That has to change.
“God is infinitely greater, more glorious, more satisfying, more rewarding than all the people in the world put together.”
So, by prayer and study of God’s word, we should focus on the majesty and glory of God in all his attributes and all his ways. We need to preach to ourselves that there really is no comparison between knowing God and knowing people, between pleasing God and pleasing people, between treasuring God and treasuring people. God is infinitely greater, more glorious, more satisfying, more rewarding than all the people in the world put together. So, that’s our first task: pray and study the greatness of God into our hearts and minds.
2. Find a firm identity in Christ.
The second thing that needs to happen — and it happens by means of the first — is that when God becomes big, our identity in relation to God becomes secure, firm, glorious. If the Creator of the universe is your Father, and you are an heir of everything he owns, how could the opinion of, say, a million people — a million mere humans — control your sense of destiny, your sense of who you are?
Listen to Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 3:21: “Let no one boast in men.” Now, remember what was happening. Some were saying, “I’m of Christ,” “I’m of Apollos,” “I’m of Peter,” “I’m of Paul,” meaning, “I’m getting my strokes and my identity from lining up with the really famous guy, this really good guy.” These are needy people. “So let no one boast in men,” Paul says, “for [here’s the argument] all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21–23).
What an argument. The fact that Christians own everything (“all are yours”) as the children of God, and that it’s only a matter of time until we come into our inheritance, shows how utterly foolish it is to boast about famous people that we know, or whose favor we have obtained. It’s ridiculous. It’s a sign that we don’t really believe who we are as the children of God.
3. Look to your reward.
And third, which is simply an implication of the first two, we need to be deeply persuaded that our reward is great in heaven, very great, precisely because we incur the displeasure of other people in our faithfulness to Jesus. Listen to Jesus in Matthew 5:11–12: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice . . .” You can’t do that if you’re a people-pleaser. “Rejoice and be glad.” Why? “For your reward is great in heaven.” So instead of being depressed or controlled by the rejection and the disapproval of others, Jesus says, “If you’re walking in obedience to me, that very rejection will result in a great reward.”
We need to believe that. We need to believe that our reward in heaven is great. I get so sick of people talking about “pie in the sky by and by,” having no relevance for this life. Good grief — what could be more relevant in Jesus’s argument here? If you have the resources to rejoice in the face of being scorned, persecuted, reviled, rejected, you have resources to love your enemy like crazy. We need to believe that our reward is great in heaven, a lot better than pie.
Free to Please God
So those are my three steps toward being set free from the bondage of people-pleasing. May God make your identity as his child, who will inherit everything, firm. May he make your identity as his child stable, firm, deep, unshakable. And may you realize how great your reward is while walking in obedience to Jesus, precisely because you incur the displeasure of others, not because you avoid it.