The best emails we get are questions that put concrete words to what otherwise floats in the back of the mind as an abstract question. Here’s a question today about whether being popular and well-liked are crucial to our gospel witness, and it comes from a listener named Jacob. “Pastor John, am I wrong if people around me don’t like me? Does being unliked by others make me a bad representative of Christ? We can’t be people pleasers all the time or we will be pushovers. And at what point has our seeking to be accepted by people compromised our faithfulness to God?”
I think what might be helpful is to illustrate for Jacob how he might answer his own question from Scripture. I hope in doing it this way that I can answers a hundred questions of this nature (and lots of other natures) in the sense that people will realize all John Piper does to get ready for these little ten minute talks is to open my Bible and find some Scriptures that come close to relating to the issue and think about them and then put my thoughts down.
Frankly, I think most people who listen to APJ could do this if they were encouraged to actually work at it. That’s what I’m doing — I’m encouraging you. You could do this. You could have your own little APJ or APP or whatever. I’d like to empower you to do that, so just watch for now.
The first thing I did was to type the word please into Logos because we’re talking about when is it right to please people or when it is not right to please them. There are probably a lot of different tools out there. I happen to use Logos.
“Sometimes being a faithful servant of Christ, when the gospel is being corrupted, will require harsh words.”
I typed it into my Bible computer search, and I told it to find all the places where please or pleased is used in Paul. I knew a bunch of places in Paul were there that I couldn’t think of where he dealt with this very issue of sometimes pleasing people and sometimes not pleasing people. Boom, there they come, a whole bunch of uses of please. Not all of them relevant. I picked out the five that were relevant and I isolated them and I began to read them.
As I read them, I circled and I underlined and bolded words that seemed relevant for answering the question. Now, when is it right to please people? When is it wrong to please people? Is Paul tipping me off in these verses as to when he does it or when he doesn’t do it? I assume Paul is not contradicting himself and so, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m just going to read you these five verses and show you what I saw because I think you could see it. Then, you wouldn’t have to write in to APJ. I want to empower people to go to the Bible and find God and help them not be dependent on me.
Here we go. First is Galatians 1:9–10. Paul has just said some unbelievably harsh things about those who are bringing a different gospel. He says, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9).
Now, those are not pleasing words to the false teachers, I daresay. Should Paul worry about that? He has just displeased somebody — big time. My guess is lots of contemporary readers don’t like it either. So, he says in Galatians 1:10, “For 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.”
The least we can conclude from these words is that sometimes being a faithful servant of Christ, when the gospel is being corrupted, will require harsh words. We should not let that stand in our way that these are displeasing to some people.
Second is 1 Thessalonians 2:4–6, where he says, “Just 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. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed — God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others.”
“The issue is, Are you self-serving or are you others-serving?”
Now, that seems to me to be really helpful because Paul mentions three things, at least, that he is trying to avoid in pleasing other people in the way he talks. He’s trying to avoid flattery. He’s avoiding giving a pretext for greed. And he is avoiding trying to get glory from people.
In other words, what Paul was opposed to was trying to please people by buttering them up in the hope of getting money or getting praise and glory. The key issue here in 1 Thessalonians 2 is not primarily whether somebody likes what you say or doesn’t like it. The issue is, Are you self-serving or are you other serving? Are you manipulating the relationship to try to say what they want to hear because you want money, you want glory, or you want something that they don’t expect you to want given what you’re saying?
Third is Colossians 3:22, where we read, “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.”
It seems to me that what Paul means by eye service is that the goal is really not the goal. If somebody talks with eye service or acts with eye service, it does not go any deeper than what meets the eye. Which is why Paul contrasts it with sincerity of heart and with fearing the Lord. In other words, pleasing someone might be just fine if it was not insincere and if it didn’t compromise fearing the Lord.
The two passages that say he does try to please people are 1 Corinthians 10:31–33 and Romans 15:1–2. In Corinthians Paul says, “So, 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.”
Romans 15:1–2 says, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. When Paul is trying to please others, he says five things about it that make it good:
- I’m not seeking my own advantage.
- I’m seeking their advantage.
- I’m trying to bring them to salvation.
- I’m seeking their good.
- I’m seeking to build them up, that, is in faith and holiness.
In summary, I think the answer to Jacob’s question about when it’s right and when it’s wrong to please people would go something like the following. All I’m doing now is trying to summarize. This didn’t come out of nowhere. I’m just trying to summarize what we’ve seen in those verses.
If you are not motivated by flattery and not motivated by trying to manipulate people to get money for yourself or glory or praise for yourself — if you are not speaking or acting insincerely but in the fear of God, if you are seeking their advantage and their good and their salvation and their upbuilding — if all those things characterize your behavior and your speech, then yes, seek to please people. Your effort to please them will be protected from sin, and it will be used for righteousness and for the glory of God.