I read a book a number of years back by Edward Welch called When People Are Big and God Is Small. The book was a timely reminder of our human tendency to want to please people which results in co-dependency, the fear of man, and causes us to give in to peer pressure.
Reading the book was like looking into a mirror. I saw myself written all over the pages. Truth be told, people pleasing and fear of man is an issue that I have dealt with my whole life. By God's grace it has gotten better over the years, but I will still find myself giving into it at times.
I know that I am not alone in this.
I talked with a leader recently who I really admire and he mentioned to me that people-pleasing was one of the things that he had to work on as he rose higher in leadership. As a Christian, I think that this issue has added difficulty because we are called to love and serve people. Sometimes, I wonder if people-pleasing is the result of well-intentioned Christians simply trying to love and serve others. The line can be blurry at times.
It is interesting to me that the concept of people-pleasing is mentioned a variety of times in the New Testament. Paul understood this issue (perhaps even struggled with it himself at some point) and mentions it in at least three key places.
First, he mentions it in Galatians 1:10:
For 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.
Paul was strongly opposed by the Jewish leaders and others for the Gospel that he preached. Yet, in Galatians he argues that he will not stop preaching nor compromise his message. To do so would be to give in to the fear of man. Rather, Paul asserts that he will continue doing what he knows God has called him to do.
Second, Paul mentions people-pleasing in Ephesians 6:5-6:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, no by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart
Paul encourages the Christians at Ephesus to do their work not in the spirit of a people-pleaser, but in the spirit of one who is working for Christ. The word "people-pleaser" in the Greek is anthropareskos, and it means to study to please or court the favor of man. Can you get a visual of what this looks like? Imagine living your life constantly thinking about how you are going to be seen by other people, obsessing over how your actions or words are going to make you look. This does not sound enjoyable at all, and yet many Christians find themselves living this way.
Paul suggests a more freeing alternative - do your work with a heart to please God.
Third, Paul mentions people-pleasing in Colossians 3:22-23. His words are almost exactly the same as those found in Ephesians 6:5-6:
Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.
Paul does not discount the need to obey and honor those who have been put in authority, but Paul challenges the Christians in Colossae to have a motivation to obey out of a heart to please God.
As I think through my own struggle with people-pleasing I recognize that my desire to please people comes from a desire to be liked and have a good reputation. The thought of someone not liking me or being mad at me does not feel good. But this fear can have a crippling effect causing man's approval to become the idol that I seek.
I think this is what Paul is challenging in these Scriptures - the idol of approval. When the approval of man becomes the thing I am fixated on I have crossed a line and have sacrificed the pleasure and will of God for the approval of man. When this happens, the unfortunate reality is that people become Big and God becomes small.
Lord, keep me from seeking the approval of people. Help me to live and lead with a heart to please you. Help me to be obsessed with your approval not man's. Help me to remember that I will only find true freedom and satisfaction when I am pursuing your favor.