Author’s Note: This article comes to us by way of The Jesus Film Project. We are sharing it in its entirety because it is well-considered and thought-provoking.
International (JFP) — On some level, we all struggle with people-pleasing. We want others to think well of us. When people spread rumors or malicious gossip, we want to defend ourselves and set the record straight. We bristle when people don’t understand our motives or disagree with our behavior. We all want to be loved and appreciated.
For some, people-pleasing is so ingrained that they’ll sacrifice their own needs or desires to court the goodwill of others. When someone is unhappy or frustrated with them, it sends them into a spiral of self-pity and frustration.
You don’t have to spend too long in the Gospels to realize that Jesus didn’t have this problem. He loved people, but He wasn’t overly worried about pleasing them. He didn’t avoid confrontation. He didn’t work too hard to ensure others had the right impression of His behavior or motives. And He didn’t capitulate to authority figures to avoid friction.
What are the dangers of people-pleasing?
It’s almost impossible to be a principle-oriented people pleaser. If we aim to avoid conflict and ensure everyone is happy with us, we’ll make little compromises to keep the peace. This means that people pleasers will struggle to be candid when it could mean upsetting others. The outcome is that the people around them never really know what they think or how they feel.
Since people pleasers often shy away from asking difficult questions, speaking hard truths, or setting firm boundaries, they can use service to manipulate others. Their “niceness” isn’t about being kind; it’s used to lubricate relationships and steer people in specific directions.
Ultimately, people pleasers spend so much time trying to make others happy, they can lose touch with themselves and what they actually need. They find themselves being attentive towards others’ needs while simultaneously resenting them. They’re frustrated that others can’t understand their boundaries and desires.
In worst-case scenarios, the people pleaser becomes somewhat untrustworthy. When we’ll do anything to keep others happy, people can’t be sure they’re getting the truth from us.
Jesus wasn’t worried about pleasing people
Jesus was principled, and His behaviors sprang from His convictions. He didn’t spend much time fretting about whether people agreed with Him or supported His goals. In fact, this behavior justified the Sanhedrin’s plan to have Him killed.
Jesus set healthy boundaries
Servanthood is a significant element of being a Jesus follower. For some personality types, it’s easy to use service to make people like and appreciate us. Jesus didn’t do that. While He did humble Himself and serve others—often in a self-sacrificial way, He knew where His boundaries were.
Sometimes Jesus would come into town and heal everyone of their illnesses, and sometimes He needed to get away to take care of Himself and spend time with His Father.
Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. — Luke 5:15–16
The fact that Jesus had to withdraw shows us that the demand was great, and people were always crowding around Him to receive something. Jesus knew when He needed to get away, which means there were probably people with expectations who left disappointed.
Jesus chose not to defend Himself
At one point, Jesus’ family is troubled about His growing reputation and popularity. Mark tells us that “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). A few verses later, Mark tells us that His mother and brothers showed up outside a home He was ministering to.
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” — Mark 3:31–35
Did Jesus love His mother and brothers? Of course. Did He abandon what He was doing at that moment to respond to their agenda? No. Most of us would feel responsible for defending ourselves and proving to our loved ones that everything is okay. Jesus didn’t feel the need to do that.
When John the Baptist was imprisoned and heard mixed messages about Jesus’ ministry, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if He was the Messiah or not. Jesus’ response was interesting.
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” — Matthew 11:4–6
His message to John is clear. If John looked at His ministry through an objective, Scripture-based lens, it would be obvious who He was. But unfortunately, John was watching Jesus through a first-century religious lens, and Jesus wasn’t meeting his expectations. Did Jesus feel the need to defend Himself and convince John of His legitimacy? Nope. He simply shared the lens through which John should be assessing His ministry.
Jesus didn’t automatically defer to authority figures
Humans are interesting. They have a tendency toward the “bandwagon effect” (adopting the ideologies of the people around them) and “authority bias” (attributing greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure). Jesus didn’t fall victim to either of these.
When the Pharisees and Sadducees tried to entrap Jesus, He turned the tables on them with questions of His own. He wasn’t afraid of challenging them in public. And when Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, questioned Him to decide whether He was worthy of capital punishment, Jesus didn’t beg for lenience or ingratiate Himself to the ruler.
Jesus wasn’t rude or disrespectful, but He didn’t allow people in authority to override His inner compass. He wasn’t fawning over the more “important” people around Him. He understood His mission and wouldn’t compromise to please the people around Him—even if they could help promote His message or avoid trouble.
This characteristic would be a critical trait for the disciples to learn because they would find themselves swimming upstream when it came to dealing with authorities and cultural powers. Throughout Acts, we see the disciples respectfully responding to influential figures without compromising their principles or bargaining to get their way. If their path put them in conflict with authority figures, they clearly and plainly explained the gospel and accepted the outcome—no matter how dire.
What the Bible says about people-pleasing
No one would accuse Paul of being a people pleaser. At one point, he wrote a strongly worded letter to the church at Galatia. This church was beginning to abandon some of the principles it was founded upon, and when Paul heard about it, he was incensed.
His letter opens with these words:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!
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. — Galatians 1:6–10, emphasis added
Paul didn’t shy away from demonstrating his disapproval and speaking strong words. He opens by communicating his surprise that the church was being negatively influenced–and goes as far as calling the interlopers accursed. In fact, Paul’s so disinclined toward people-pleasing that he refuses to please angels, too. If an angel from heaven were to show up pushing a different gospel, Paul would also curse them, too.
And then, Paul clearly states the problem. People have come into the church to sow lousy theology, and the Galatians are so worried about pleasing them that they’re compromising on the truth. Paul lays this out in a simple dichotomy:
We can either focus on pleasing God or pleasing people.
And he makes it clear that being a servant of Christ means putting God’s pleasure first.
Putting our trust in the Lord
The challenge of people-pleasing isn’t new. As long as humans have had neighbors, we’ve worried about upsetting or displeasing them. The Bible often calls this trait “the fear of man.” It’s something to be avoided because it will ultimately push us to act in ways that make it hard to please God.
Proverbs is one place that addresses this issue:
Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe. — Proverbs 29:25
It’s apt to consider “the fear of man” to be a trap. When we worry about how others feel about us, we inevitably sacrifice God’s principles to protect those relationships. We end up stuck in a cycle of people-pleasing. This is why Proverbs tells us:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. — Proverbs 9:10
The Bible often talks about fearing God, and sometimes people struggle to understand that. God doesn’t want us to be scared of Him. We should see this through the people-pleasing lens. We can “fear” people (worry about how they perceive us and whether they’re happy), or we can “fear” God (worry about how God perceives us and whether He’s happy with our choices).
For Israel, fearing man meant fearing their stronger neighbors. Israel would be threatened by invasion, war and enslavement if they didn’t appease these nations. That fear could influence them to make concessions to other nations’ gods and lascivious behaviors. They would have never done these things if they feared God more than their neighbors.
On a smaller scale, we do the same thing when we worry about pleasing others.
The good news about being a God pleaser
Choosing to prioritize God’s pleasure doesn’t immediately sacrifice your ability to please others. Instead, when we decide to put pleasing God first, we act in ways that ultimately make others happy.
We’ll love others unconditionally. We’ll treat them with respect. We’ll demonstrate kindness, goodness and faithfulness. It just means we’ll please others for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. Our kindness will be an outward expression of our faith and not a tool we use to gratify and influence others. And we won’t shy away from the moments when loving others means telling them things they don’t want to hear.
The choice isn’t between making God happy or making people happy. It’s about prioritizing God’s pleasure. When we do that, we can know that we’re not only on the right track for ourselves, but we actually love people in a helpful way that genuinely benefits them.
A word of warning about this discussion
It’s vital to acknowledge that there are ditches on both sides of this street. We don’t want to fall into the ditch of people-pleasing, but we don’t want to overreact and end up in the ditch on the other side of the street. Becoming quarrelsome, hurtful and difficult isn’t proof that we’ve moved from being people-fearing to God-fearing.
If we truly want to please the Lord, others will see our humility and service. Christians don’t avoid conflict, but they don’t go around stirring it up either. Being disagreeable or difficult for others to be around is not a sign that you’re trying to please God.
When we put God’s needs first, we will treat others with the same love and respect that we expect.