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People Pleasers

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Leaders Don’t Live to Be Liked

By Ed Rowell

There are very few people who truly don’t care what other people think about them. Someone asked comedian Bill Cosby to define the secret to success. “I don’t know the secret to success, but I do know the secret to failure—trying to please everyone.”

Roots of People-Pleasing

We learn as small children that pleasing others brings rewards. If I clean up my plate, Mom will praise me and give me dessert. If I bring home good grades, I may be rewarded.

That cause-and-effect behavior carries over to adulthood. If I stay late and finish a report on time, the boss will remember my dedication come promotion time. If I help my wife with the dishes or bathe the kids, she will be more relaxed and inclined toward intimacy at bedtime.

At some point, a healthy desire to see people we love experience joy gives way to something unhealthy. We all are tempted at some point to do things we know are wrong in order to be liked. A child steals, drinks, or smokes to gain approval from her peers. A pastor neglects his family to please his parishioners. An ad executive approves a commercial that blatantly misrepresents the product in order to please a client.

It’s often a question of motive. The same action can be right or wrong, depending on the motive behind it. Working overtime can be a necessity of any job from time to time. But it can easily become an alternative to going home to a tense atmosphere where a marriage is slowly choking to death. Working overtime can also be a means of seeking praise from my peers or my managers in order to satisfy my insecurities. Or work can even become an obsession or addiction, in which case enough is never enough.

How can I know the purity of my motive? To some extent, I never can. And yet, if I earnestly desire to know my motives, God is faithful to reveal them. I can begin by asking myself some hard questions:

Am I motivated to do this more by my own insecurity than by a desire to serve another person?

Am I afraid of being rejected if I say no?

Am I expecting to receive something in return?

Did I determine my course of action based on what is popular, not what is right?

Pleasing those we love is rewarding, and this may not be wrong in and of itself. But pleasing God is a higher calling and much more fulfilling. We are headed for trouble when our desire to please people and gain their approval becomes as important as pleasing God and sensing his approval.

Perils of People-Pleasing

¨      Being a people-pleaser will affect your relationship with God.The Bible is full of illustrations of what happens when pleasing people becomes our focus. Jesus warned us of the danger of wrong motives.

“I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?” (John 5:41–44).

Paul echoed those words when he wrote the church in Galatia: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10).

God has required absolute fidelity from his people. Our response to that requirement comes easily when we keep focused on the extent of God’s love for us. When our insecurities drive us to seek the approval of others, we lose sight of all he has done on our behalf.

¨      Being a people-pleaser will affect your ability to make good decisions.  Every parent has known the tension of having to say “no” to an activity their child desperately wanted to attend. A sleepover at a home where adult supervision will be lacking, attending a concert that may contain inappropriate material, wanting to take on one too many extracurricular activities—telling your children they cannot participate in any of these will lead to their disappointment and even anger. Parents who are prone to people-pleasing will find themselves compromising their own good judgment just to keep their children happy.

Business leaders can face the same dilemma—make the right call that is best for the overall health of the company, or make the easier decision that will make the influential people happy.  It happened to a biblical leader: “Then Saul [first king of Israel] said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned. I violated the LORD’S command and your instructions. I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them’” (1 Sam. 15:24).

¨      Being a people-pleaser can make people uncomfortable around you.An overeager personality craves an inordinate amount of feedback. Every task, no matter how small, demands a response.  “Did I do this OK? If it isn’t the way you want it, I can do it again. Just let me know.”

A spouse who needs constant affirmation because of his insecurity will slowly but surely stifle his marriage. An “I love you” becomes not a declaration of affection but the prompt to hear the other say, “I love you too.”

¨      Being a people-pleaser will wear you out.I shared in an earlier chapter about a fellow pastor who found great freedom when he discovered “it wasn’t my job to keep everyone happy anymore.” Whether you are a pastor, a manager, a mother, or a small group leader, there are few burdens heavier than that of carrying the responsibility for everyone’s happiness.

The Antidote

The people-pleaser must eventually come to terms with two truths:

¨      Not everyone will love me.  I’ve struggled to understand this truth in my own life. Yet I’ve discovered that some people will instantly dislike me because I’m a pastor. Others find I remind them of someone they don’t like, so they don’t like me either.  The reasons are many and are often irrational. Romans 12:18 has helped me understand that I can only do so much: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If I’ve done my part to maintain a healthy relationship, I let go of any expectation on the part of another person.

Those who do love me will never love me the way I crave to be loved.  Human love is multifaceted, and it is a wonderful thing to experience.  And yet it is imperfect and often falls short of the biblical ideal of unconditional love. What the people-pleaser longs for is unending acceptance and affirmation. No person can feed that insatiable appetite. But God can.

The only real freedom for people-pleasers comes from understanding and experiencing security in our relationship with God and who we are in Christ.

The Implications of That Relationship

¨      People-pleasers live in fear that others will learn of their past failures, mistakes, and shortcomings and therefore will choose not to love them. We are all haunted occasionally by a painful episode from the past that humiliates and embarrasses us. If only we could wipe the slate clean and become something more than our lifetime accumulation of sin and failure.

The truth is that we have a clean slate from which to go forward with life. Since we are God’s children, all that is his becomes ours. We have all the resources of God’s kingdom available to us. And as Jesus’ friends, we have the possibility of developing the greatest relationship we can ever know. Ephesians 1:7–8 summarizes what this means: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.”

Once we are secure in our relationship with God and understand the implications of that relationship, we seek to know how we can please him. Jesus explained to his disciples that loving God was demonstrated by obeying God (John 14:21).

The Worship Connection

I’ve struggled to know God’s love, emotionally not intellectually.  I believe the Bible, and the message of God’s love for us is the Bible’s dominant theme. God’s love is the heart of the gospel that I preach. I know this both intellectually and through faith.

My struggle and the secret struggle of many Christians is not with the head but with the heart. God’s love had to become experiential before I could give up people-pleasing.

God’s love became tangible for me through worship. By worship, I do not mean singing religious songs in a church meeting, though worship can certainly occur there. Our church defines it this way: “Genuine worship is responding in love with all that I am—mind, emotions, will and body—to all that God has done and said in the past, and is doing and saying today.” Our goal is to lead people to transcendent encounters with God. Those transcendent encounters have virtually liberated me from the need to impress others. It’s ironic that while expressing my love for God, I have most experienced God’s love for me. And nothing satisfies more.

The ancient Irish hymn Be Thou My Vision is one of thousands of songs that speak of the joy of putting God’s favor ahead of all else.

Riches I heed not, or man’s empty praise,

Thou mine inheritance, now and always:

Thou and thou only, first in my heart,

High King of heaven, my treasure thou art.

That’s the song of my heart as well.

Go The Distance

According to Ed Rowell, failure is often nothing more than a few simple errors in judgment, repeated consistently over time. But real success is the implementation of simple disciplines into our routines and practicing them consistently over time. However, these disciplines lead to the authentic success we all seek only when they are focused on our God-given purpose. Our errors steer us away from that purpose. The net effect of our disciplines and our judgments will lead us either to achievement or failure.

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