Desperately Seeking Approval

1 Cor. 5:9: “We make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be pleasing to Him.”

Everyone loved Terri. An attractive young woman who was active in her church and eager to serve, Terri was unusually generous with her time and energy.  She always managed to give extensive help to friends and acquaintances who asked for it, despite the stresses of her own job and family life. Anyone who needed an extra set of hands could depend on Terri to help, from church people to work colleagues to family members – everyone knew that she would never refuse their appeal. Terri was like an ATM machine– key in your request, and out would come the help you needed.  She prided herself on being a faithful friend, one who would never say “no”, and was always available when needed. Not surprisingly, Terri eventually found herself in a crisis, physically and emotionally exhausted. While in counseling (at the advice of her pastor), Terri learned something about herself:  on the surface she appeared to be a “super –saint”, always sacrificing for others. However, Terri soon discovered that her motivation for doing so was truthfully not that honorable – she was desperately seeking approval from others, not necessarily from God.  Suffering from feelings of unworthiness and insecurity, Terri was craving respect and admiration from others. The complimentary words filled her “emotional tank” temporarily, but it never lasted. While she always received appreciation for her good deeds, she reluctantly admitted  to her counselor that it was “never enough”. One complaint or slight criticism would throw her into the depths of despair, and begin the pleasing cycle all over again.

Terri, unfortunately, has a lot of company in the Christian community. Whether many of us wish to admit it or not, our feelings of worth are often based on an emotional state. We feel significant and loved as long as people like us and agree with us or support what we are doing. However, if criticism or rejection comes our way, we often follow in Terri’s footsteps, believing that our perceived failures by others simply prove our inherent unworthiness. Perhaps women are more prone to this tendency than men, due to their relational nature. While most men might shrug off a friend’s disapproval, it is likely that a woman will analyze it, brood over it or confront it, in order to resolve the conflict.

It is essential that believers in Christ understand the concept of approval. We all need and want the love, support and respect of our church, friends and community. However, it is the mature Christian who will honestly examine her own heart and determine whose approval she is actually seeking in this life – God’s or man’s. This is not an easy challenge and usually requires another party, such as a wise counselor, to provide Biblical guidance, balance, and wisdom.

When God fashioned man, He designed him with a powerful need for relationships, such as marriage and family. In God’s creation, this community was good.   It is natural and healthy to want to belong to a group, living together and working in harmony. However, this desire can become harmful when one becomes unusually afraid of disappointing people and is unable to balance or handle others’ dissatisfaction. It is likely that those that struggle with this are afraid that not pleasing others will result in their no longer being a part of that particular group.

In 2 Cor. 5:9, the apostle Paul expressed a very important principle in regard to this topic: “We make it our aim, whether present or absent to be well pleasing to Him.”

The context of this Scripture is Paul’s explanation of the judgment seat of Christ. Someday we will each appear before Him and give an account of our lives. Therefore, we must always remember that our highest calling is to please God, not others. With this concept firmly in mind, it is helpful to observe a few other points from Scripture that reinforce this principle.

First, we must acknowledge that people are fickle – one minute they can be roaring approval and the next shouting condemnation. The most obvious example is Jesus, entering the city of Jerusalem, on the week of the Passover. He was greeted with cries of “Hosanna” and the waving of palm branches, which indicated His royalty. However it was only a few days later that the same crowd was swayed by those who were conspiring to put Him to death. In Pilate’s courtyard, those that had shouted “Hosanna” now shouted “Crucify him!” In light of human nature, it is clear that man’s approval can be very tenuous as well as temporary.  Parenthetically, this example also indicates that seeking approval from others can lead to some very poor decisions, as Pilate eventually realized. It is dangerous to base one’s actions on the whims of public opinion – due to man’s capricious nature, those opinions can change drastically in a moment.

Another point Scripture makes in regard to man’s approval versus God’s approval is found in John 12: 42-43: “Even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue, for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” This is a sobering explanation, given by the apostle John. Many of the religious leaders were devout servants of God, truly loving Him according to the commandments. However, their reluctance to identify with Jesus was due to their greater desire to please man rather than God.  Proverbs 29:25 states this truth succinctly, “The fear of man brings a snare...”

This truth should be explored a step further. Due to our sinful nature, we are all vulnerable to this temptation. It is easy for us at this point in time to criticize the Pharisees or those who rejected Christ, but Scripture also points out that even the most mature believers can fall into this “snare”. In Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, he addressed a very serious division that had developed in the early church. “Judaizers” had arisen, advocating a doctrine which said that one had to keep the Jewish law (circumcision, observing the Mosaic Law, etc) in order to become a Christian. They had accused Paul of watering down the gospel, making it too simple. He, then, accused them of compromising the purity of the gospel message by erroneously emphasizing the law. He begins his argument in Galatians 1:10, “For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ.”  Here Paul clearly indicates the choice one has to make in order to fully follow Jesus – to please Him or to please men. This is further illustrated in Gal. 2: 11-16, in the account of the serious confrontation at Antioch between Peter and Paul, the two great leaders of the early church.  Paul publicly rebuked Peter, blaming him for succumbing to “peer pressure” or desiring the approval of men rather than standing for the truth of the gospel.  Peter had shared meals with the gentile Christians, clearly approving of their authentic conversion, due to his vision and experience at the home of Cornelius. However, when men from James (or Jerusalem, meaning the Judaizers) arrived at the same meeting, Peter separated himself from the gentile Christians, “fearing those who were of the circumcision”. If that wasn’t bad enough, Peter’s influence on the other believers was so strong that even Barnabas and the others “played the hypocrite” (vs. 13). Paul challenged Peter with a stinging criticism for his duplicity, following it up with a magnificent summary of justification by faith (vs. 14-21).

This incident illustrates that no believer, no matter how mature or how strong in the faith, is beyond this temptation – all are vulnerable, and all are probably guilty at some point. So we see that our friend Terri fell into the same trap that many believers have struggled with through the years. She, too, sought the approval of man and was inevitably disappointed. While Terri genuinely wanted to please God, she discovered that what she really craved was approval that fed her own ego and soothed her feelings of insecurity, at least temporarily. What do we do about this conflict? There are three thoughts in conclusion that will help us think Biblically about this topic, using Paul’s challenge in 2 Cor. 5:9.

First, we must be sure that we are aiming for the right target. What does this mean for the Christian? What is our target? It is the goal of ordering our lives according  Biblical standards, our lives being characterized by God’s Word.  This is surely easier said than done. We live in a day of such complex lifestyle choices and multiple distractions. Nevertheless, the target we aim for is a life focus - our goals, our decisions, all of these must be in the context of obedience to Scriptural principles and admonitions. In an honest evaluation, we must look what our actual lives reveal, not just what we profess to believe. In other words, where do we spend our money? Our time? Our energy? These are the true measurements of what we claim to believe and value. Paul expressed this principle in Phil. 3:14, where he said, “I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” To fulfill the call of God on his life was his goal – his decisions, his preaching, everything he did validated that call.

We also should understand that this aim to please God encompasses all aspects of our life. It is not only found in tithing, church attendance, charitable giving and all the other “spiritual” things in which we participate. Rather, all of our life is to characterize our desire to honor God and please Him. 1 Cor. 10:31, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” There is no division between the sacred and the secular to the true follower of Christ. All aspects of our life are to reflect our obedience to God’s Word. A believer who truly grasps this finds much greater joy in God receiving glory than herself.

Finally, we must all understand that we can not do this in ourselves. Let the weary soul rejoice! We can only accomplish this lofty goal through the power of the Holy Spirit.

In Col. 1:10, Paul prays for his fellow believers at the church in Colosse, that the Spirit would enable them to be “filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding: that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God…” According to this Scripture, one is able to fully please God, when filled with the knowledge of His will due to wisdom and spiritual understanding.

This, then, is the “bulls-eye” of the target, the object of our aim – to fully please God in every good work, bringing honor and glory to Him, not to ourselves.

Susie Hawkins has served in various aspects of women’s ministry for over thirty years. She is a ministry wife, as well as a Bible study teacher. She holds a MA in theology from The Criswell College, Dallas, Texas.

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