Gospel Wisdom for Approval Junkies
Podcast listener Victoria writes in to say: “Hello Pastor John! I often wonder, how would you counsel someone who is addicted to approval, always fearful of what people might think of him/her, and always concerned over the slightest apathy from others, fearing rejection?”
I would say the same thing to Victoria that I would say to me. This is a totally universal problem. This is not a small segment of people who are wrestling with this isolated, little problem.
There is a paradox, an irony in all of us in this regard. We crave approval from others, and we fear rejection by others. Which means that on the one hand we desperately want to be somebody, but on the other hand, by our craving and by our fear, we admit we are dependent on others for the somebody that we want to be. There is a built in irony here.
Or here, put it another way. We want our worth, our strength, our beauty, our accomplishments to be validated by others, and in the very moment of our insecure craving and fearing we are admitting we don’t have much strength to be validated. But instead, we are weak and we need to be propped up by validation. What an irony. And there is going to be an incredible lesson here.
In one sense this craving for approval and this fear of disapproval is both an indictment of the sin of pride and an expression of hope that if we are willing to admit it, we already know that pride is a hopeless way forward. We already know this. We are giving evidence to it every day. And we really need help from outside. And it isn’t the affirmation of other people. It is God. We are trying to convince ourselves that we are okay without help from outside, ironically by seeking validation from people outside, who are all trying to do the same thing.
But the real way to deal with this craving and this fear of not getting it, this not getting the affirmation, is to humble ourselves and to admit that our real security, our real identity, our real stability, our real joy comes from way outside ourselves; namely, from God. And our problem is that we have replaced God-centeredness with self-centeredness and God-focus with self-focus and God-regard for self-regard.
As I was thinking about this, the quote from C.S. Lewis came up into my mind where I think this is in one of his letters. I didn’t write down the location. I think it is a letter where he says this:
The pleasure of pride is like the pleasure of scratching. If there is an itch, one does want to scratch, but it is much nicer to have neither the itch nor the scratch. As long as we have the itch of self-regard, we shall want the pleasure of self-approval. But the happiest moments are those when we forget our precious selves and have neither but have everything else: God, our fellow humans, animals, the garden, and the sky instead. (Collected Letters, 3:429)
Now that is a beautiful statement, because what he is saying is: If we would just give up our hopeless self-preoccupation, we would inherit God as our Treasure and the whole world thrown in for good measure. Self-regard is a hopeless way to live. If we are getting our pleasure from feeling self-sufficient, we will never be satisfied with others seeing and applauding our self-sufficiency. It will never work. And we will always be plagued by the fear that they have not seen it or they didn’t respond positively enough or what did a facial expression mean or why didn’t they call back or on and on and on. Oh, what a miserable life. We will always be second handers. Our meaning in life, our joy, our identity, our worth will be constantly dependent on other people. And that is a miserable way to live.
And so Jesus describes the Pharisees — boy, should this go home to all of us. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5). O, in this media-driven age of ours where you can tweet yourself out in a minute, how we need this. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others . . . and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi” (Matthew 23:5–7).
But evidently there is a void. There is a void in this so-called self-sufficiency. Why? Because the self was never designed to satisfy the self. It was never meant to be self-sufficient. We are only images of God. We are not God. We are not the ultimate thing. We are shadows. We are echoes. So there will always be an emptiness in our soul that struggles to be satisfied with the resources of self and constantly needs others to prop up the self, which can never happen because the self was never designed to be that for the self.
So here is the key problem and the way out. The empty craving for the praise of others signals the absence of faith in God’s future grace. The absence of a restful satisfaction in all that God is for us in Jesus, the absence of the outward look to God in Christ as our meaning and our identity and our security and our worth and our usefulness. And Jesus himself made the connection between faith in God or faith in Jesus and the opposite; namely, craving for human praise.
I remember years ago I was just powerfully impacted by John 5:44 where Jesus says this: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” Well, what is the answer? You can’t. You can’t believe. Itching for glory from other people makes faith impossible. Why? Because faith means being satisfied with all that God is for you in Jesus. And if you are bent on getting your satisfaction from scratching the itch of self-regard, people’s affirmation, you will turn away from Jesus, because you can’t serve two masters. But if you would turn from self as the source of satisfaction, which is what repentance is, and come to Jesus for the enjoyment of all that God is for us in him, which is what faith is, then the itch would be replaced by a well of water springing up to eternal life.
So my counsel to every Christian who struggles with the fear of man’s disapproval and the craving of man’s approval, which is all Christians, more or less, is this: Realize that in Jesus Christ, in a solid, God-chosen relationship with Jesus, man’s disapproval cannot hurt you and man’s approval cannot satisfy you. Therefore, to fear the one and crave the other is shear folly. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32) — free from the fear of not getting other people’s approval and craving it as though you just got to have it.
And the truth that set you free from that is: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). You don’t need to fear anyone’s disapproval when God almighty is for you. Think about it. Let it sink in. And the other truth is that knowing Jesus, looking outside ourselves to the glory of the Son of God in the gospel in the triumph for us over evil, looking to him is all-satisfying. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8).
So the itch is satisfied, not with successful self-regard, but with breathtaking Christ-regard.