From as far back as I can remember, I've been the kind of person who feels a strong desire to please people. I want their approval and praise for the things I do. Sometimes I've even wondered if I have a kind of addiction to the brain chemicals that come with receiving affirmation and acclaim! Mark Twain famously said that he could “live for two months on a good compliment”; I'm not sure I could last that long, but I can certainly relate to the sentiment.
The Bible warns us in many places against the dangers of this type of attitude. It's a complicated issue, of course; affirmation and approval are nice things to get, and it's not wrong to enjoy them. Luke is not making a criticism of the early church (or of Jesus himself!) when he says that they experienced the ‘favour’ of the people (Luke 2:52, Acts 2:47). And there is a sense in which trying to please everyone is exactly what we ought to be doing as Christians as part of seeking their good and ultimately their salvation, as well as the glory of God (1 Cor 10:33).
But to live for the approval of others—to seek it as if it was a basic need—to be addicted to it—is a dangerous mindset that almost inevitably ends up overshadowing and displacing the desire to please God. (See, for example, the warnings and reminders in passages like John 5:44, John 12:43, 1 Cor 4:5, Gal 1:10, 1 Thess 2:4 and Eph 6:6.)
Recently I found myself thinking about my desire for human approval and the way that I feel the pull to be a people-pleaser more strongly in some relationships than others. It's partly, of course, about the status and position of the other person; our sinful human hearts value the praise and approval of the powerful, beautiful and popular more than we value the praise and approval of the nobodies. But even when I've made a generous allowance for that variable, I think there are still some people whose approval and disapproval I worry about more than others.
As I analyzed the reason for this, it set me wondering whether there was something in the way those people related to me that contributed to me feeling that way, and whether I, in turn, might be relating to others in the same way. The phenomenon I noticed was how full some people's speech is with the language of approval and disapproval—how instinctively and habitually some people seem to set themselves up as arbiters, adjudicators and evaluators of those around them. In some cases (though not always!), I buy right into their expectation, and start responding like a performing seal in the hope that they'll throw me a fish or two from time to time. This, in turn, encourages them to keep throwing fish, and so the cycle rolls on.
When that dismal and dangerous pattern begins to assert itself, what do I need to remind myself of? Here are a few thoughts I've had, just for starters, but I'd love to hear your additions to the list:
- I need to remember that God is the judge; it is his praise and approval that matters. He is the one whose ‘well done’ is what really counts (e.g. Matt 25:14-30, 2 Cor 5:9), and I am absolutely secure in his ‘beloved one’ Jesus, in whom he is well pleased (e.g. Luke 3:22, Eph 1:3-14).
- I need to remember not to put all the blame for my own sinful thought patterns on the approval and disapproval-giving behaviours of others—especially since (in some contexts, at least) judging, punishing and commending is exactly what people are called to do as part of the job God has given them (e.g. Rom 13:3).
- I need to watch my own speech, repent of the times when I talk, glorifying myself as if I have been appointed as some sort of talent show judge over the performances of other Christians (1 Cor 4:5). I need to practice the God-glorifying arts of loving rebuke and sincere thankfulness (e.g. Gal 6:1, Eph 1:16, 5:4, Phil 1:3, Col 1:3).
Any other ideas? And any suggestions for us parents about how to train our children well without making them addicted to our own approval?