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New Horizons

The Problem with People-Pleasing

Jonathan L. Cruse

In an episode of his hit podcast, Revisionist History, journalist Malcolm Gladwell provocatively claims that we could all improve our lives if we were more disagreeable. His theory, drawing from psychological research, is that success in life is inversely proportional to one’s level of agreeableness: the less agreeable you are, the more successful you will be. By “disagreeable,” Gladwell doesn’t mean being obnoxious but rather “not being dependent on or particularly interested in the approval of others.” He demonstrates how this quality can be extremely valuable. For example, mathematicians claim that the losing team in hockey would have a far greater chance of a comeback victory if coaches would simply pull the goalie earlier and more often. But coaches don’t, because they are afraid that their fans will think that they are crazy and quit buying tickets. They are too agreeable.

I think Christians could learn a lot from this secular observation of agreeableness—not in order to be more “successful,” but in order to grow and mature in our faith. How many setbacks do we face in our Christian living that stem from being too agreeable, from craving approval, from equating our purpose or identity with what others think of us?

This is not a new problem. Jesus warned his disciples to “beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matt. 6:1). Similarly, in Colossians, we are commanded to accomplish our work and service in this world “not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (3:22). Perhaps most striking is the opening of Galatians, where Paul says that people-pleasing and Christianity are in direct opposition to one another (1:10). Here are a few reasons why people-pleasing is so dangerous.

People-Pleasing Distorts Love

Most forms of idolatry happen when we take something good and elevate it to the status of God. People-pleasing is no exception. It’s an idolatry in which we have perverted the God-honoring command to love others. The Bible certainly wants us to please our neighbors. We are to love them as ourselves, care for them, be kind, compassionate, and considerate to them. If we gave no attention to the feelings or needs of others, we would be committing a grave sin. But people-pleasing connotes something different. We have gone from being attentive to other people’s needs to needing other people’s attention. As Ed Welch says, “The problem is when we want to be loved more than we want to love” (What Do You Think of Me? 25).

People-Pleasing Silences Truth

If I am overly concerned with what others think about me, I will not say or do anything that will upset them—even if that means compromising God’s commands. I will not push my friend on some sin in his or her life since it might make things awkward between us. I will not decry wrongdoing or injustice in the public square since it might mean being ostracized. “These are the things that you shall do,” the prophet Zechariah instructs us. “Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true” (8:16). This is an impossible command to keep when my worth or identity is found in what others think of me.

People-Pleasing Kills Evangelism

If I am worried about potentially embarrassing myself in front of others, or perhaps making someone feel awkward, I will never share the gospel. Why steer an otherwise pleasant conversation about the weekend or the weather into something of a more eternal (and uncomfortable) nature? Isn’t it easier to just let people enjoy their coffee, or perhaps their view out the window seat, than venture into the unsafe territory of religion?

When we don’t have the proper amount of sanctified disagreeableness, we will never step out of our comfort zone, much less ask other people to step out of theirs. But the gospel is uncomfortable. It calls people out of the comfort of themselves by revealing the hideousness of their sin, yet it also offers free forgiveness and everlasting life. If we can’t do the uncomfortable business of pointing out sin, we can never do the comforting business of pointing to Christ.

People-Pleasing Doesn’t Work

People-pleasing might seem to be our comfort zone, but, as most of us know from experience, it is no easy task. Trying to win the approval of your spouse, coworkers, boss, family, friends, neighbors—and the list goes on—is like trying to balance a hundred spinning plates. Maybe two hundred during the hectic and unforgiving Christmas season!

Even if we are able to keep all the important people happy—for a few moments, at least—we quickly realize that it’s an exhausting task. We don’t feel satisfied or fulfilled after all that work. Rather, we feel spent and empty. We are too worn to even enjoy the fruit of our labor. That’s because there actually is no fruit. People-pleasing is all labor, no rest. It’s an industry of 24/7/365 shifts with no pay, no benefits, and nothing to show for it. We can never rest in our pursuit to please others, because people are constantly in flux. What might have made someone happy today could have them irritated tomorrow, and we are so overly agreeable that we will be up all night worrying about it. We’re always on our toes, ready to do whatever it takes to make people think highly of us, always trying to keep the plates spinning. It is slavery.

The Freedom of God-Pleasing

This is where we learn that God hates people-pleasing, not only because it robs him of his glory, not only because it stifles the truth and paralyzes outreach, but also because it harms those who do it. God wants us to be free, fulfilled, and fully satisfied, but he knows that can only happen by glorifying him. Therefore, we are told that “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward” (Col. 3:23–24). That’s an important point Paul is making: God is the one who rewards, not our fellow man (see also Matt. 6:1). When we please God, there is a reward, there is satisfaction and fulfillment, there is fruit from our labor, and that fruit is preeminently his divine approval!

A sign of approval from our parents, a word of affirmation from our spouse, or even a promotion at work can certainly be of real spiritual encouragement to us. These moments can mean something, but they can never mean everything. We’re in tragic error when we find our identity and purpose in something as fleeting as a congratulatory remark or a pat on the back. Maybe the feeling of achievement will last for a few sweet seconds, maybe even for years, but it won’t last forever. Only those who work unto the Lord receive the inheritance—one that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1 Pet. 1:4). Only God can pronounce that eternal benediction: “Well done, good and faithful servant…Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).

Pleasing the God of the universe likely sounds more intimidating than pleasing people. But here’s the good news of the gospel: we don’t please God by doing things, we please God by resting in that which is already done in Christ Jesus. The only way we can hear those sweet words “well done” is if we are found in Jesus Christ. For what is God’s declaration about him? “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, we are brought into such a vital union with our Lord that we are seen by God as well-pleasing sons, too! We are “fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17).

What a freeing thing it is to be found in Christ! To be in the well-pleasing and perfect Son means we already know our evaluation. God has brought forward the final judgment and declared us to be pleasing in his sight. We don’t need to be constantly striving to win his approval. We don’t need to be worried about what he might think about us. We already know the answer. So why try to be a people-pleaser when instead you can find your identity in the one who has, once and for all, pleased the ultimate Judge?

When you have that kind of perspective on things, you will find that you might just become a bit more disagreeable. Not obnoxious, you’ll remember, but not enslaved to others’ opinions, either. You have the opinion that actually counts, after all—God’s. This frees you to do what is right, not what is necessarily comfortable. It frees you to work with purpose, not for vain praise. You will be freed to do what you know is best for your neighbors, loving them in word and deed. You’ll be able to speak the truth of God in whatever setting you find yourself, because you are not worried about what other people will think. You know what God thinks, and that’s all that matters.

And being now fully satisfied in him, being fully content in his gratuitous reward and approval, and knowing that we have been entrusted with his Word and will, in thankful obedience, “we make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9). 

The author is pastor of Community Presbyterian (OPC) in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of The Christian’s True Identity (2019). New Horizons, December 2019.

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