A loaded term; pregnant with meaning and clothed with irony. People-pleasing in our culture is most often understood as a desire to gain the approval or affections of others by making them happy, comfortable, or satisfied.
But, what if I told you that the problem of people-pleasing is actually not about “other” people at all? And, what if I told you that the Bible describes “people-pleasing” as far more egregious (Gal. 1:20) than you and I have come to know it today?
The Hidden Danger of People-Pleasing
If you are like me, you have struggled with people-pleasing. Like a subconscious, internal game of tug of war. The old man (Col. 3:9, Eph. 4:22) and the new man (Col. 3:10, Eph. 4:24), on opposite ends, pulls until one desire gets forcefully dragged over the central line of your will (Gal. 5:16-18). There was a time (even as a believer) that I never sought to walk in victory over people-pleasing (1 John 4:4), because I had not come to truly understand my willing defeat (Gal. 5:1). What was causing my defeat? It’s what I fear may be causing your same defeat—an inability to see sin for what it is (John 8:32). So, how exactly has the struggle of “people-pleasing” manifested itself in my own life?
- Consistently finding myself overcommitted
● Giving compliments out of obligation
● Shading the truth; refusing to state my true feelings
● Not setting clear boundaries with others
● Avoiding conflict; failure to call a brother or sister out in sin
● A constant concern or obsession with how I appear or come off to others, self-preservation
Can you relate to any of the following? What do you presume might be the common denominator when we add up each factor? See, before you and I can solve the problem of “people-pleasing,” we must understand the common denominator. And, spoiler-alert, the answer is not “other” people (Gal. 1:20).
What People-Pleasing Is Not
Despite what you or I might have heard, the core of people-pleasing is not the fear of men, a desire to make others happy, fear of rejection, nor is it worship of other people. These are simply the hanging fruit that stems from the root issue of people-pleasing, which at its core is––you. The sin of “people-pleasing” is about you––your comfort, admiration, plans, honor, and if I could be so bold as to say it…your worship. To “people-please” is to simply be zealous for your own personal worship. How is my people-pleasing a worship of self?
Worship comes from the words worth and shape. To worship means that we not only ascribe worth to “it” but also that we allow “it” (that which you ascribe worth to) to shape us—our decisions. So, if what I value most is my comfort, honor, and adoration, this is what will shape the decisions I make, which involves my interactions with others. Take a second and scroll back up and look again at the list—do you see how it surrounds “me––my comfort, honor, etc?” See, when I refuse to tell someone the truth, it’s not simply because I want to please them by not hurting their feelings. No, it is because I desire my own comfort, and I dread the thought of being uncomfortable or inconvenienced by their reactions. Similarly, when I am constantly obsessing about what others think of me, it’s not because I want them to feel good. No—I want to appear good enough to be admired. And, this truth, my friend, is both the irony and danger of people-pleasing (Gal. 1:20, Phil. 2:3-4).
While it may appear that I am seeking to please other people, in reality, I am seeking to please…well, me. Paul speaks to this in Ephesians 6:5-7, “Obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ” (ESV). In this verse, Paul uses people-pleasing to describe one who works to promote self-welfare rather than honoring others or God. One who works with not merely the “eyes” of another in mind but “I––self” in mind. Thus, the danger of people-pleasing is––we have set our kingdom against the Kingdom of God and the worship of God (Ex. 20:3-6, Jer. 2:13, Matt. 6:33).
Is God Always Opposed to People-Pleasing?
Many of us, including myself, wrestle with this answer. Paul tells us in Romans 12:10, to “be devoted to one another in love; give preference to one another in honor” (NASB). So, does the Bible contradict itself? No. The context of this passage and others alike (1 Cor. 10:31–3, Rom. 12:10) is worship, offering oneself as a living sacrifice to God, pleasing to Him (1 Cor. 10:31, Rom. 1-2, 2 Cor. 5:15). Our service and honor of others is to be an outflow of our worship to God and desire to please Him alone (Col. 3:23). We have been made alive to Christ that we might give our lives over to Christ (Col. 1:16, 2 Cor. 5:15). Thus, God is not only our source, but He is also the object of our service (Rom. 12:1,1 Pet. 2:5).
With this hopeful truth in mind, here are two ideas to stay on guard against “people- pleasing”:
1). Ask it out loud. One of the ways Jesus was able to help others see their heart motives was by asking unconventionalquestions. Similarly, we must allow the Spirit to search our hearts through asking ourselves questions that reveal any idolatrous pursuits.
Here are some questions to ask either before making a decision or to counsel your heart after your decision.
- Who am I seeking to serve/benefit most in this moment? The welfare of that person or the aftermath of admiration and/or benefits I will receive?
- How would I respond if my attempts to serve someone goes without gratitude or unnoticed?
- What might be pleasing to the Lord, even if it causes me to be uncomfortable or lose something?
- How does knowing that God is the only one to whom I will give an account to (Matt. 25:23) free me from the need of approval or satisfaction of another?
2). Tell it to those closest to you: Along with regularly asking ourselves questions, invite those closest to you to hold you accountable, by asking the hard questions (James 5:16). They know the sin that besets you and will both challenge and remind you of the truth—that it is only God to whom you and I must give an account.
My prayer for you is one I often pray for myself—that we might truly believe that our deepest fulfillment will only come from seeking to please One—the One for whom you and I were created for (Jer. 2:13).
OGHASA IYAMU received her Masters of Divinity degree from Southwestern Theological Seminary in May of 2018. She is a full-time minister who is passionate about racial harmony and growing the next generation through biblical teaching. Oghosa continues her studies in the area of biblical care and counseling.