PLEASING PEOPLE OR GOD?
Approval from our peers is a powerful motivation for most people. We are social creatures, and the desire to be accepted by others is very strong. But sometimes the opinions of people can lead us away from God. In life we are often faced with either pleasing people, or pleasing God. If we choose the latter, there may be times when we have to walk with God alone.
The desire for peer approval starts at a very early age. This desire will drive young people to wild and risky behavior. Teenagers will do things that are even dangerous to gain acceptance by the group they associate with.
In the 1960’s, my father owned a 1958 Jaguar XK-150 sportscar. It had been in a wreck, and my dad bought it for a great price and I helped him restore it.
When I was fifteen, I also saw it as an opportunity to gain fame with my friends. I would take the car out on joyrides with my friends when my parents were gone at work— no driver’s license of course. On occasion, I drove it out of town and took it way over the speed limit to see what it could do. It all stopped when my mom saw me coming around the corner on her way back from work, the car stuffed with kids in both front and back seats.
Serving God with pure motives
Pleasing and gaining the approval of people is an unconscious motivation when we’re young, but also as we grow older. In the church, people focus much of their time on fellowship and activities with friends. We like to be accepted and loved, which is natural. But with time, this can also draw us away from our purpose and ministry in the church. We may start to do our acts of service out of a desire to be accepted and approved by people, rather than God. And we may eventually prefer to be with our own friends more than reaching out to others that have no friends.
Jesus knew all about the tendency for people to seek approval and addressed it in his teaching.
“Be careful not to do your “acts of righteousness” before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-8)
Pleasing people and not God
If our motivation is to gain the approval of people, then we are not really serving God. We are actually serving our own interests. Paul’s admonition to the Galatian church illustrates this.
“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10)
Jesus had many followers when he ministered on earth. The twelve disciples followed him, and were committed to going with him wherever he went. They were willing to accept both praise and condemnation for their commitment to him. A number of others followed him and were not ashamed of associating themselves with him. But many of these followers eventually left him after he taught things they didn’t understand or like.
The importance of a public faith
Many of the religious leaders also believed in him, but most were not comfortable in making their faith public. Why was that? The Apostle John tells us why.
“Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess their faith, for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.” (John 12:42)
What an indictment! They were the religious guides for the nation of Israel, yet they loved the praise from men more than the praise from God! Although they believed in Christ, they still feared the criticism of the ruling religious leaders, and desired their approval. Following Christ was not popular among the ruling class at that time, so these leaders were afraid to confess their faith publicly. They were not good followers of Jesus—they were secret believers. Instead of letting their light “shine before men,” they “put it under a bowl.” (Matthew 5:15,16)
Compromising our relationship with God
Pleasing and serving other people is a good thing, when we do it out of love and service to God. But when we make no effort to please God, we then fulfill our need for approval by seeking it from other people. When we are attracted to praise from the world, our love for God wanes. We try to please others, but at the expense of our relationship with God.
Throughout church history and even today, some Christian leaders have succumbed to seeking approval from people in their church, other leaders, and even from worldly people. But in the process, they have compromised their faith and dishonored God, valuing fame and prestige over the Lord. Jesus scolded the religious leaders of his time about this.
“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 5:44)
On another occasion he implied that their popularity with the people was a sign, not of success with God, but of false teaching.
“Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)
The prophet Jeremiah spent many long hours in isolation because of his calling from God and rejection by the people he was sent to.
O Lord, You know; Remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors. In Your enduring patience, do not take me away. Know that for Your sake I have suffered rebuke. Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart; For I am called by Your name, O Lord God of hosts. I did not sit in the assembly of the mockers, Nor did I rejoice; I sat alone because of Your hand, For You have filled me with indignation. (Jeremiah 15:15-17)
Out of his loneliness Jeremiah at times gave in to despair and bitterness, and God had to correct him. In such times, we would do well to stay close to our Lord’s side, and not give in to hatred or a desire for revenge.
Seeking worldly fame
In a discussion about the love of money, the Pharisees scoffed at Jesus’ teaching. He then told them,
“You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” (Luke 16:15)
These leaders got to the point where their whole value system was misaligned. They valued money, possessions, and prestige, and used their leadership position to acquire them. James’ condemnation of this behavior is severe:
“You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
An enemy of God opposes God’s work, whether he realizes it or not. A person who gets to this point needs to stop any forward motion in this direction, and reverse course. He needs to repent: to turn around and go in God’s direction.
We are accountable to God for our time
We are all accountable for our time and actions here on earth. If we love God, our desire should be to please him in everything we do.
“So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:9-10)
Unfortunately, on that Day, the Lord may find that much of what we accomplished was out of a desire for acceptance and approval from people. And if so, these works will not have any eternal value, but will be burned up.
In these difficult times, Christians need to be focused on God more than ever. We need to shine his light in the midst of darkness, and show the world who he is and where to find the answers to life’s difficult questions. And we need to unashamedly confess our faith with confidence and humility.
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:15)
We also need to reject the temptation to seek worldly prestige, and unpretentiously serve God in lowliness and humility. This may mean ministering to those less fortunate than us. In any case it will mean serving God with people different than us and with whom we disagree on some things.
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ that you are serving.” (Colossians 3:23-24)
There is no greater joy in life than serving and pleasing God. But in living for the Lord and seeking his approval, we will find ourselves out of the mainstream, and possibly rejected by others who don’t understand or know him. We may find ourselves alone in our service to God— just us and God. But God will nevertheless be pleased, and he assures us that such service to him will not go unrewarded.
Lord, may our love for you grow so that we desire your approval above that of anyone else.