In the Broadway musical, Hamilton, Aaron Burr is depicted as a master in the art of people-pleasing. Always adapting to his environment, he avoids controversy and climbs all the way to the Senate. Early on, he encourages the fiery, opinionated, bullheaded Hamilton to “talk less, smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” Had Hamilton shared Burr’s people-pleasing mindset, he’d have made fewer political enemies. But he also wouldn’t have served America as well as he did.
Though it’s hard to admit, many of us adopt Burr’s philosophy. We’re insatiably hungry for human approval. The problem is, people-pleasing only wins us superficial peace that will change with society’s whims. When we adapt our beliefs, practices, and choices to gain the most smiles, likes, or amens, no one will know who we are. More importantly, no one will know whose we are. In Christ, we’re freed for something far more fulfilling than people-pleasing.
Free from Seeking Human Approval
We can’t please everyone, and the sooner we learn that, the better. Our efforts to make everyone happy and never offend others with our convictions or choices are as exhausting as they are futile. If there’s one good outcome of today’s toxic cancel culture, it’s that we might finally realize this. We simply cannot win everyone’s approval—and we need to stop trying.
People-pleasing is a prison. It keeps us from speaking truth to our friends because we’re scared to offend. It prevents us from preaching the gospel to those who oppose it. It tempts us to compromise our convictions and adhere to man-made rules to avoid judgment. It makes us more devoted to fitting in our various subcultures than to being shaped by the infallible Word of God.
When we’re stuck in the trap of people-pleasing, we forget that God’s approval has already been given to us in Christ. As those accepted by God, we’re called to walk in freedom (Gal. 5:1). Rather than being enslaved to others’ opinions and expectations, we get to joyfully follow and obey a God who leads us with gentleness, patience, and love. When we find our security in his approval, there’s no need to chase after anyone else’s.
Free to Make Enemies (as Long as We Love Them)
Anyone belonging to Christ is bound to face opposition. If the world hated him, it will hate us too (John 15:18–20). We follow a Savior who was despised and rejected by men. Though he was full of grace and truth, he was slandered and accused. Though he healed many, he was hated by more. Though he was innocent, he was condemned to die on a cross. Though he preached good news, he was mocked for it.
Should we expect something different when we follow him?
Winston Churchill once said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Of course, it’s crucial that we make enemies for the right reasons. This isn’t a pass to be arrogant or proud or judgmental. As those called to bear the fruit of the Spirit, our lives should be marked by love, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23).
If we faithfully love truth in a world of relativism, seek justice in a world of oppression, and show mercy in a world of callous individualism, we will inevitably make enemies. Yet God’s redemptive purposes offer reassurance. He blesses those who are hated for his sake—no trial or tribulation will separate us from his love.
Free to Serve
Even as we’re freed from seeking approval from others, we’re called to sacrifice for others. However, it’s important to distinguish between serving others in love and being enslaved to their approval.
If we serve as people pleasers, we’ll run ourselves ragged. We’ll constantly worry about what others think of us, try to make everyone happy, and overextend ourselves to meet demands we simply aren’t equipped for. Our service may start as others-centered, but when we slip into people-pleasing it becomes riddled with self-preoccupation.
Though it seems counterintuitive, freedom from people-pleasing is actually what frees us to serve others best. It allows us to serve out of joy instead of fear, to be imitators of Christ instead of strivers for recognition.
Paul took different approaches to how he engaged Jews and Gentiles. He wrote to the Corinthians, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22–23). What’s going on here?
At first glance, by “becoming all things to all people” it seems like Paul is on an exhausting people-pleasing quest. But he’s not. Paul knows the freedom he has in Christ. He isn’t conflating biblical principles with cultural practices to make himself “acceptable.” He isn’t worried about whether the Jews and Gentiles approve of him. Rather, because he is free, he chooses to adapt his behavior to mitigate barriers that could distract from the gospel or the glory of Christ.
When Christ accepts us as his own, he gives us new and better priorities than people-pleasing. He invites us to live for his glory, not our own, to enjoy his approval instead of chasing someone else’s. He frees us to serve him, worship him, and enjoy him forever.
Author’s note: This article was first published at The Gospel Coalition.