On this day after Christmas, Pastor John, we have a question from Hope, a listener who wants to know how we should get praised rightly. That’s a great question. “Pastor John, hello! My question focuses on my struggle with needing to feel important by those in my church body. The Bible teaches that we should seek approval from God, not from man (Galatians 1:10). It also teaches that we should encourage one another in spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:11), and praise those who fear the Lord (Proverbs 31:30). I feel a strong desire within myself to hear words of affirmation from my ministry: to feel loved, valued, regarded, and needed. But these desires don’t feel holy. It feels like a need-to-be-seen rather than humbly giving Jesus the spotlight. How do I begin to put to death my need for recognition and cultivate a spirit of humble servitude? Can we distinguish between need for man’s approval and desiring brotherly encouragement?”
One of the benefits of this question is that it gives us a chance to lay out some of the paradoxes of Scripture that people sometimes stumble over, which I think is what’s happening in this question. And then I think we can see a single key that goes a long way to navigating these paradoxes without being double-minded or contradicting ourselves.
So here are four of the paradoxes I’m talking about. And what I mean by paradox — in case anybody wonders, “What are you talking about?” — is that two things (in this case two things in the Bible), sound like they don’t fit together, like they might be contradictory. But they really aren’t contradictory. They really do fit together if we just had the key to unlock the pathway that honors both sides of the paradox.
So here are four examples, quickly, from the Bible.
1. This is Jesus: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). The paradox on the other side is this: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Shall we want to be seen or not want to be seen?
2. Galatians 1:10: “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.” First Corinthians 10:33: “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” Well, Paul, do we try to please people, or do we not care about pleasing people?
3. Proverbs 22:1: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” Or Luke 6:26: “Woe to you, when people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” Well, do we seek a good reputation, or should we be wary of it?
4. Proverbs 31:30: “A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” — by people. Romans 2:29: “A [true] Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” Well, should we be glad when we’re praised by man, or should we consider that a dangerous sign?
So here they are, again, these four paradoxes, and we’re trying to steer a way through them that honors the intention on both sides:
- Desiring that your good works be seen, or desiring that they not be seen?
- Aiming to please people, or indifference to pleasing people?
- Desiring a good reputation, or being indifferent to our reputation?
- Glad when we are praised for some good, or concerned that gladness might be a signal of sin in us?
Now, I think there’s a key to navigating these paradoxes — a key that keeps us from rejecting the truth of either side of the paradox. And that key is experiencing such a change of our natural pride and selfishness that God himself — all that he is for us in Christ — becomes our supremely enjoyed, supremely treasured Savior and King and shepherd and Father and friend. Or to say it another way, when God is treasured more than the sinful possibilities of either side of these paradoxes, we will be protected from that sin and led in the right use of both sides of the paradoxes.
For example, if God is supremely satisfying to us, then we won’t crave the ego satisfaction of being seen for our good works. God is our greatest reward, not the praise of man. And if we think rightly that some good deed should be seen by others, then that will be motivated, not for our praise, but so that others can see that these deeds flowed from a heart satisfied in God. God will be glorified because we were so satisfied in him that the joy of knowing him overflowed in generosity. That’s spelled out in 2 Corinthians 8:2.
Or what about pleasing people? Paul said he doesn’t do it, and he said he does do it. Now, I think what he means is this: When people-pleasing is a way of manipulating a situation to satisfy your craving for human approval, you’re sending a message that God is not your treasure — human approval is your treasure. That’s the message you send.
“If God is supremely satisfying to us, then we won’t crave the ego satisfaction of being seen for our good works.”
But on the other hand, if you go through life or pursue your ministry thumbing your nose at other people’s feelings and hopes and expectations, with no concern at all about how other people may be offended by what you do or say, or how many unnecessary stumbling blocks you put in the way of the gospel, then you’re sending the message that it’s not God’s mercy and patience that has satisfied your soul and made you eager to win people rather than push people away. You’re just on an ego trip of exalting yourself. God is not in you creating the loving desire to draw people into the sweetness of your walk with him.
Or what about caring about a good reputation, or the danger of others speaking well of us? If we are living to magnify the worth of God by being satisfied in him, then we will sense the difference between wanting a good reputation for ego gratification or for getting rich versus a good reputation for the sake of showing the all-sufficiency of God in our lives. We will sense the difference between cowardly avoidance of people’s criticism, on the one hand, and courageous willingness to live and speak in a way that brings down the reproach of unbelievers, on the other hand.
And the key in both cases will be the condition of our own hearts. Is God the supreme treasure, or am I just pushing him aside because of how good it feels to have a good reputation and less criticism because of my biblical Christianity?
And finally, what about receiving worthy praise, like the woman in Proverbs 31 who fears the Lord, versus living for the praise of man rather than the praise of God in Romans 2:29? And I think the key again is this: When it says she fears the Lord, what that means is that she fears treasuring anything in this world more than God. God has become her greatest treasure, her greatest joy, and the only fearful thing in the presence of such a God is insulting him by treasuring anything above him. So when the woman is praised for her fear of God, it’s God who’s being praised, God himself who is praised overall. That’s not something to be rejected.
“The only fearful thing in the presence of such a God is insulting him by treasuring anything above him.”
The difference between that and Romans 2:29 is that Romans 2:29 underlines the fact that if there’s something in us that is praiseworthy about God, what matters most is that God see it and that God approve of it, not that man see it and approve of it. Above all, we want God to be pleased that he is supremely pleasing to us. If man finds this worthy of praise, so be it. That’s good. But it is quite secondary to God’s approval.
My answer to the question we were asked — “How do I put to death my need for recognition and cultivate a spirit of humble servitude?” — is this: devote the rest of your life to knowing God and all that he is for you in Christ, and seek to be supremely satisfied in him.