People-pleasing is a well-worn scheme and trap of Satan. If we think people-pleasing began with self-esteem training, the tolerance movement, or social media, we have underestimated how interwoven this temptation has been with humanity. The sin of people-pleasing is as old as people. Since the fall, we have been tempted to live for the praise and approval of others. Man has always fallen into the fear of man.
Our stubborn, often subtle weakness for the esteem of others has roots that stretch far and wide — in society, in history, and too often in us. And God hates people-pleasing. The apostle warns, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). No one can ultimately serve both God and man. And God knows whom we really serve (1 Thessalonians 2:4), whose pleasure we crave the most.
Jesus put his finger on the ancient fear of man when he confronted the proud people-pleasers of his day: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). People-pleasing had blinded them to Jesus. Unchecked, it will cover our eyes as well. “They loved the glory that comes from man,” John 12:43 tells us, “more than the glory that comes from God.” That preference is the essence and danger of people-pleasing.
How to Kill People-Pleasing
So, how do we expose our proneness to people-pleasing and begin putting it to death? Paul confronts this particular temptation head-on in two remarkably similar passages, Ephesians 6:5–9 and Colossians 3:22–25, both of which are specifically addressed to bondservants:
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters . . . not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers. (Ephesians 6:5–6)
Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers. (Colossians 3:22)
The apostle calls servants to relate to their masters in countercultural ways, despite what they may be suffering and enduring. His admonitions, however, apply far beyond masters and servants, to bosses and employees, husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and neighbors. The two passages are a several-sentence textbook on how to resist people-pleasing in any relationship, including at least five important lessons.
1. Love with fear and trembling.
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling. (Ephesians 6:5)
The antidote to the fear of man is not fearlessness but a better, healthier, more life-giving fear: the fear of God. To avoid people-pleasing, we must love people with fear and trembling toward God. Much of our captivity to the feelings and desires of others stems from our relative indifference to the eyes and heart of heaven. We’ve developed a devastating allergy to trembling — the vital tremors any healthy soul feels before the awe-inspiring wonder of God (Psalm 96:9).
Paul makes the same point in Colossians 3:22: “Obey in everything . . . not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” How many of us fear the disappointment or disapproval of others far more than we fear displeasing God? Subjecting our fears of one another to a greater fear of God will, over time, clarify and purify our motivations in relationships. Instead of constantly worrying what others might think or how they might respond, we need to spend more time meditating on the holiness, justice, and mercy of God.
2. Always do what God says to do.
[Obey] not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. (Ephesians 6:6)
This lesson and exhortation may seem too simple to be practically helpful: Resolve to do what God says to do. “Do the will of God.” The people-pleaser desperately chases the wills of other people; the God-fearer focuses on discerning and pursuing the will of God. Well, yes, but how do we know what the will of God is in any given situation?
Paul answers that question with surprising clarity and simplicity: “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). The will of God for you is that you be sanctified — that you steadily and progressively become more and more like him. When confronted with a decision, one good question to ask is, What choice will make me more like Jesus? What would make me rely most on God (2 Corinthians 1:9; 12:9)? What would help bring others closer to him (1 Peter 3:18)? What would bring him the most glory (John 17:4; 12:27–28)?
Many decisions, however, are not as black-and-white as we’d like. Typically, there isn’t a manifestly Jesus path and a manifestly sinful path. So, beyond the simplicity of our pursuing sanctification (holiness), Paul also says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). God-fearers listen as carefully as possible to all that God says in his word, meditating on his law day and night (Psalm 1:2), and then they strive to obey to the best of their knowledge and ability.
None of us will know all that God wants and commands at all times, but we can commit to do, at all times, what we do know he has said to do.
3. Sacrifice the safety of superficiality.
Obey in everything . . . not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart. (Colossians 3:22; Ephesians 6:5)
The sin of people-pleasing, almost by definition, presumes duplicity. If we’re constantly angling to do what pleases others, it is almost impossible to remain consistent or maintain integrity (especially if we’re trying to please several people at once). That means one way we battle people-pleasing is to prize and protect sincerity.
Do we alter ourselves before certain people in order to make or keep them happy? Do we act or speak a certain way to fit in with one crowd, and then transform ourselves to fit in somewhere else (perhaps in neither place being honest about who we really are)? Insincerity camouflages weaknesses and embellishes strengths. It hides secret sins and parades virtues. It’s self-protective, self-congratulating, and always projecting.
The call to sincerity is the call to put off and forsake all superficiality. No one, believer or otherwise, wants to be known as superficial, so why do so many still fall into its trap? In part, because superficiality makes us feel safe, important, successful. If we can project the image to others we love and admire, then we will be loved and admired, we think. The problem, of course, is that we (and God) know who we are behind all the elaborate costumes and performances. And so, whomever the people love, it is not really us.
Sincerity, not superficiality, is the surer path to peace, love, purpose, and freedom.
4. Obey God in public and in secret.
Obey . . . with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service. (Ephesians 6:5–6; Colossians 3:22)
This test may be the most immediately enlightening: “not by the way of eye-service.” Or, not only when others are watching. Especially the particular people whose approval or praise we crave. This point overlaps with the previous one, but presses on the differences between our public self and our secret self — who we are when we are all alone. One of the surest ways to forfeit our souls is to use God merely to garner attention and applause for ourselves.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them,” Jesus warns, “for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). The hypocrites, he says, announce themselves when they give to the needy, or pray, or fast “that they may be praised by others.” We hear the sobering severity in his next words: “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2). People-pleasers may enjoy the pleasure of earthly praise for a time, but if that is what they live to have, that is all they will ever have. A few more trophies at work, a few more compliments from friends, a few more likes on social media, a few more smiles and pats on the back — and then they lose everything.
To be done with people-pleasing, we have to see the shallow, shortsighted, ultimately empty rewards of people-pleasing. And we have to come awake to the enormous, never-ending, ever-escalating prize of pleasing God regardless of whether anyone else sees or not.
5. Seek your reward from God.
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. (Colossians 3:23–24; Ephesians 6:8)
People-pleasers may enjoy the pleasure of earthly praise, but only at the expense of a heavenly reward. Every time we prefer the glory of man to the glory of God, we believe the terrifying lie that the stray crumbs of human praise will be more satisfying than the wedding feast that awaits us (Revelation 19:9). Against the tragedy of people-pleasing hypocrisy, Jesus encourages us,
When you give to the needy [or pray or fast or love one another], do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:3–4)
We cannot measure the worth of this reward. For those who live to please him, God will not withhold any gift or pleasure. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Whatever we receive and experience in the new world God gives to us, no reward, accomplishment, or approval could ever have made us happier (Psalm 16:11). We starve the craving for the praise and approval of people by striving for what we can get only from God.
Please God, Love People
Now, pleasing God does not mean despising people. The Son of God himself “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He counted others and their interests more significant than his own (Philippians 2:3–5) — imagine that! He said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Pleasing God does not release us from relentlessly and sacrificially loving people. It does release us from the tyranny of needing their praise or fearing their rejection.
So, please God and love people, like Christ. “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits,” worrying about how well he will be received or remembered by men, “since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Timothy 2:4). Do all that you do before his loving, watchful, fearsome eyes. If we learn to rejoice and tremble before him (Psalm 2:11), the seduction of people-pleasing will wither and wane.