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By John Piper — 12 months ago
Good people-pleasing versus bad people-pleasing: there’s a difference. So how do we know the difference? We need to figure it out. And we will today, thanks to yet another excellent email question from a listener, this time a listener named Nathaniel. “Pastor John, hello! I need your help on something. How do I quit seeking to please every person in my life and focus on pleasing God? I want to apply Galatians 1:10 to my life. Can you walk me through what this means? I’m unable to discover God’s plan for me because I’m constantly making decisions based on how it pleases or displeases everyone around me. Thank you!”
People-pleasing is a great problem for many people — I would say probably for most people, because nobody likes to be criticized. Nobody likes to be rejected. We want to be affirmed and admired and accepted. And therefore, everybody is vulnerable to this temptation. When we don’t get victory over this temptation of people-pleasing, it can become a very unhealthy, controlling neediness that keeps us in bondage rather than liberating us to do God’s will with joy.
The first thing I think we need to do is to clarify what aspects of pleasing others are good, and what aspects of pleasing others are harmful. Nathaniel, who asked this question, has his eye on Galatians 1:10, where Paul says, “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 says the same kind of thing elsewhere. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 2:4, he says, “As we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” And he tells slaves in Ephesians 6:5–6, “Obey your earthly masters . . . not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” And people said of Jesus in Mark 12:14, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God.”
“If you live to please other people, you will not live for the sake of the truth.”
So clearly, Paul and Jesus put a high premium on not being controlled by what other people think. Both of them say or imply that if you live to please other people, you will not live for the sake of the truth, which clearly means you won’t live for the sake of the will of God. The opinion of others will become your god and will lead you around as if you had a hook in your nose, and you will not be authentic, and you will not be obedient, and you will not be able to fulfill God’s purpose for you on the earth, which is to glorify him rather than to esteem the opinion of others so highly.
However, having said all that against people-pleasing, that’s not the whole story when it comes to pleasing others. Paul said in Romans 15:2, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” And in 1 Corinthians 10:32–33, he says, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”
Now, here’s the reason those two sets of teachings about people-pleasing are not contradictory. The efforts to please people in both Romans 15 and 1 Corinthians 10 are not to curry the favor of others, nor are they to avoid criticism. This effort to please in those two texts is not self-exalting, and it’s not self-protecting. It is entirely in the service of doing good to others, not enhancing one’s own position or protecting oneself. In the one text, Paul says he pleases others to build them up, and in the other he says he pleases people in order that they may be saved.
This is not evidence of an insecure, unhealthy person who needs the approval of others. This is evidence of a very healthy, strong, loving person who lives for the good of others. Sometimes he’s able to commend the gospel by pleasing people; other times he must defend the gospel by displeasing people. And in both cases, his own identity remains constant. He’s not a chameleon, changing colors in order to fit in for the sake of his own enhancement or protection. He’s living for others, whether that calls for displeasing them or pleasing them.
Three Remedies for Fearing Man
So what needs to happen if we find ourselves in bondage to the opinion of others?
1. Get a big vision of God.
The first thing that needs to happen is that our God needs to become bigger in our lives, and in our minds, and in our hearts. God must increase, and people must decrease. Ed Welch wrote a whole book called When People Are Big and God Is Small. That’s a great title. That’s the basic problem. People and their opinion loom large in our minds and hearts, while God is a distant, scarcely discernible influence on what we feel and do. That has to change.
“God is infinitely greater, more glorious, more satisfying, more rewarding than all the people in the world put together.”
So, by prayer and study of God’s word, we should focus on the majesty and glory of God in all his attributes and all his ways. We need to preach to ourselves that there really is no comparison between knowing God and knowing people, between pleasing God and pleasing people, between treasuring God and treasuring people. God is infinitely greater, more glorious, more satisfying, more rewarding than all the people in the world put together. So, that’s our first task: pray and study the greatness of God into our hearts and minds.
2. Find a firm identity in Christ.
The second thing that needs to happen — and it happens by means of the first — is that when God becomes big, our identity in relation to God becomes secure, firm, glorious. If the Creator of the universe is your Father, and you are an heir of everything he owns, how could the opinion of, say, a million people — a million mere humans — control your sense of destiny, your sense of who you are?
Listen to Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 3:21: “Let no one boast in men.” Now, remember what was happening. Some were saying, “I’m of Christ,” “I’m of Apollos,” “I’m of Peter,” “I’m of Paul,” meaning, “I’m getting my strokes and my identity from lining up with the really famous guy, this really good guy.” These are needy people. “So let no one boast in men,” Paul says, “for [here’s the argument] all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21–23).
What an argument. The fact that Christians own everything (“all are yours”) as the children of God, and that it’s only a matter of time until we come into our inheritance, shows how utterly foolish it is to boast about famous people that we know, or whose favor we have obtained. It’s ridiculous. It’s a sign that we don’t really believe who we are as the children of God.
3. Look to your reward.
And third, which is simply an implication of the first two, we need to be deeply persuaded that our reward is great in heaven, very great, precisely because we incur the displeasure of other people in our faithfulness to Jesus. Listen to Jesus in Matthew 5:11–12: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice . . .” You can’t do that if you’re a people-pleaser. “Rejoice and be glad.” Why? “For your reward is great in heaven.” So instead of being depressed or controlled by the rejection and the disapproval of others, Jesus says, “If you’re walking in obedience to me, that very rejection will result in a great reward.”
We need to believe that. We need to believe that our reward in heaven is great. I get so sick of people talking about “pie in the sky by and by,” having no relevance for this life. Good grief — what could be more relevant in Jesus’s argument here? If you have the resources to rejoice in the face of being scorned, persecuted, reviled, rejected, you have resources to love your enemy like crazy. We need to believe that our reward is great in heaven, a lot better than pie.
Free to Please God
So those are my three steps toward being set free from the bondage of people-pleasing. May God make your identity as his child, who will inherit everything, firm. May he make your identity as his child stable, firm, deep, unshakable. And may you realize how great your reward is while walking in obedience to Jesus, precisely because you incur the displeasure of others, not because you avoid it.
By John Piper — 2 years ago
We open the week with a pretty raw email from a hurting man — a hurting dad. He’s sad over the brokenness of the world. And that brokenness hits home for him. Here’s his story, sent in as an anonymous email.
“Dear Pastor John, to be totally truthful and honest with you, I struggle to believe the Lord is completely ruling his world today. It’s impossible to believe simply because of the state of the world today — or, I should say, his world today. Not only has our nation gone down a slippery road of immoral self-destruction, but our economy is faltering. National debt is skyrocketing. The unborn are massacred daily. Murder rates in America are swelling. In Chicago the crime rate has escalated to such a high degree that I’m beginning to believe it is safer in Iraq or Afghanistan than it is in the South Side. Most children sleep under their beds in fear they may become victims of gun violence.
“The struggles hit home for us, too, a family of four. We have a son born with ADHD, and this has created a life of pure frustration, pain, sorrow, and sometimes even despair. One night while attempting to do his school homework across the kitchen table, he told me, ‘Dad, I hate going to school. Even the teachers make fun of me. I hate ADHD and this medication that makes me sick to my stomach.’ Pastor John, if God is in charge, why is there so much suffering all around?”
Well, the most grievous thing this dear man says is “It is impossible to believe.” And so I’ve been praying — I pray now — that God might perhaps use something I say to make it possible again. We’ve tried to address this question many times at Desiring God and in Ask Pastor John. But when I saw the question, I thought, I really do want to address this again.
World of Pain
I feel the gut-wrenching pressure of the problem, not just because of the way this man so effectively articulated it, but also because a while back, Noël and I watched a three-part documentary called Pain, Pus, and Poison. And in the second episode, about the history leading up to the discovery of penicillin and the emergence of antibiotics in the twentieth century, I was almost overwhelmed with the thought of how many thousands of years the world languished horribly under the most horrific diseases with no medical defense whatsoever — and in fact, with medical procedures that often made matters worse.
For example, the night before George Washington died, they bled four pints of blood from his body. Four pints. That’s almost 40 percent of his blood. That second episode showed pictures of people dying of horrible open infections and little children covered with smallpox sores as I watched their mothers fanning the flies off of them just waiting for their children to die. When I saw them, my wife looked away. She couldn’t look. And I just felt myself gasping, saying, “No! What if I were there? What if I were the parent fanning this horribly deformed child, hideously covered with smallpox sores, and just waiting for a miserable death?” And that happened millions of times in the history of the world.
Most of us in the West have been spared any immediate contact with the most gruesome, ghastly, repugnant forms of infection and disfigurement and writhing pain. And I felt the force of the question, “God, what does this mean about you? What are you doing? What are you saying?”
And I’m aware from this man’s question, and from thousands of others, that such experiences of unimaginable suffering and hideous disfigurement have confirmed countless people in unbelief. They would say, as he does, “It’s impossible, Piper. It’s just impossible to believe anymore, simply because of the state of the world today.” That’s his quote — only I’m saying the problem is worse. It’s horribly worse, because between 1900 and 1977, 300 million people died of smallpox. Then, with a massive global vaccination effort in 1977, it was gone — and today, nobody. Think of it: from 300 million to nobody. Nobody gets smallpox. Nobody gets polio.
The problem with suffering is not that the world has gotten worse. Oh yes, it’s plenty bad, and he documented its badness. It’s plenty bad. But the worst problem is that for thousands of years, the world had it so much worse than it is today in terms of horrific suffering. So how do I, John Piper, stay a believer when the little suffering that I have been exposed to, directly and indirectly, takes my breath away? Here’s my witness. I think I’ve got three thoughts here.
Scripture Is Not Naive
One, the first thing that grips me is the absolute realism of the Bible. I spent several years writing a book on providence, and month after month I was stunned at how candid and open and blunt and even gory the Bible is in presenting God’s judgments upon the world, especially his own people. Just a taste from Deuteronomy 28:
The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. . . . And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth. . . . The Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed. The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind . . . because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God . . . because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things. (Deuteronomy 28:22, 25–28, 45, 47)
“The Bible doesn’t shrink back from any horror or injustice in this world.”
Now, my point here is simply that our objections to God’s ways are not because we have seen things more clearly or honestly than the Bible sees them. The Bible doesn’t shrink back from any horror or injustice in this world. That’s my first step. I can’t throw away the Bible because it’s naive or deceptive or a whitewash of the miseries that God himself ordains.
Suffering Witnesses to Sin
Here’s my second step: I would say that the physical horrors in the world can make sense to us and have meaning and eventual righteous resolution only if we come to embrace the biblical reality that sin against an infinitely wise and just and good God is a moral outrage greater than the physical outrage of centuries of global suffering. Let me say that again, because it is the heart of the matter, and it is very difficult for people without the Holy Spirit’s massive work to embrace: the physical horrors of suffering in this world can make sense to us and have meaning and eventual righteous resolution only if we come to embrace the biblical reality that sin against an infinitely wise and just and good God is a moral outrage greater than the physical outrage of centuries of global suffering.
I’m not saying that each experience of suffering corresponds to each person’s particular sins. If that were true, we’d all be in hell. As far as I can tell, and as far as the Bible reveals, there is no clear correlation between the extent of an individual’s suffering in this world and the extent of their guilt. What I’m referring to is what Paul means in Romans 8:20–23, when he says,
The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. [It’s like the earth is pregnant and screaming with birth pains.] And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
The universal groaning of creation, the agonizing of all creation in suffering, is owing to what verse 20 calls “subjection,” the creation’s subjection, and what verse 21 calls “bondage to corruption.” And this subjection and corruption is owing to the one who is subjected it “in hope” — namely, God.
This is what I’m referring to when I say that the sin that came into the world through Adam and spread to all people is a moral outrage greater than the physical outrage of suffering, which means that seeing and believing the goodness and justice of God assumes a Copernican revolution of our mind and heart. If we’re going to see God as good and just and wise, we have to undergo such a profound mental and spiritual Copernican revolution of mind and heart so that God ceases to be a planet circling the sun of humanity and becomes the massive, blazing, glorious sun at the center of the solar system of all things. God becomes supreme reality. His being becomes the supreme worth and treasure of the universe.
“All human suffering is a screaming witness to the greater horror of human sin.”
Only in this way will the moral outrage of sin be seen as worse than the physical outrage of suffering, which means very practically that when I gasp at the hideous pictures in the documentary and find myself inevitably saying, “Oh God, oh God, what does this mean?” the answer I hear is “All human suffering is a screaming witness to the greater horror of human sin.”
Christ Died for Sinners
Finally, the third thing that keeps me believing is that God sent his Son into this world, sent his very self, to suffer a moral outrage greater than the outrage against his Father by all his people in their sin. For the infinitely pure and good and wise and strong and holy Son of God to descend to the degradation and torture of a Roman crucifixion is enough suffering, enough indignity, to cover all the outrage of all the sins of all who believe.
Therefore, all who believe will have eternal life; all who believe will have eternal joy. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). So I don’t claim that such faith is simple or easy. It is a gift, and I am simply bearing witness to how it is that I am still a Christian.
By John Piper — 2 years ago
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone — or, I guess, technically, happy Thanksgiving Eve. On this holiday built around gratitude we can learn a lot from the apostle Paul, a man who loved to celebrate God’s grace in others with heartfelt thanks. As we’ve seen several times on this podcast, Paul says learning to speak thanks is what cleans up the mouth — cleans it up from using crude and vulgar language. Thanksgiving has a powerful, cleansing effect on our lives. Paul’s life models gratitude. He mentions “thanks” about fifty times in his epistles, leading to one of my favorite quotes, a claim by New Testament scholar David Pao, who once wrote (quoting Paul Schubert), “The apostle Paul mentions the subject of thanksgiving more frequently per page than any other Hellenistic author, pagan or Christian” (Thanksgiving, 15). Wow. A high claim, but a claim that explains a text like 2 Thessalonians 2:13–14, where Paul writes,
But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, [why?] because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In this text, we see four truths that motivate our thanksgiving. Here’s Pastor John, at the end of 2001, to explain.
The first one is found in 2 Thessalonians 2:13. Paul says, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers.”
Now notice: that’s prayer — prayers in the form of thanks. He says we should do this, so it’s a duty: should implies duty. However, it’s the kind of duty that, if you experience it as burden, you haven’t experienced it yet. If you experience gratitude as a burden, you don’t know gratitude, because true gratitude is not an exertion of the will; it’s an overflow of a sense of being treated better than you deserve.
“Gratitude is the kind of duty that, if you experience it as burden, you haven’t experienced it yet.”
A kid who gets black socks for Christmas from his grandmother when he wanted a fire truck might be told by his mother, “Say thank you to your grandmother.” And he might say, “Thank you, Grandmother, for my socks.” He does not experience gratitude at that moment. The words “thank you” are a burden and a duty, and it feels like hypocrisy for one simple reason: the emotion is not there.
However, had he opened the fire truck first (maybe that’s coming next; Grandmother’s not done), he might exclaim, “Oh, yes, woo-hoo! Thank you, Grandma.” That’s not a burden. That’s not a burden. You don’t know gratitude yet if this should here lands on you like law. You need to know him. You need to come to the end of this year, and look back over this year, with all of its horror, and feel something really freeing about how good he’s been to you, way better than you deserve — and me.
Reason to Rejoice
So it’s a duty here, but look at where it comes from. Look where gratitude comes from in verse 13, when he says, “We ought always to give thanks to God.” Here is a prayer happening called thanks. But where does it come from? It comes from four reasons — which come from knowledge, which come from the word — about how God saved the Thessalonians.
You are “beloved by the Lord” (verse 13).
God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation, “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief” (verse 13).
“He called you through our gospel” (verse 14).
The aim of this call was “that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 14).
“True gratitude is not an exertion of the will; it’s an overflow of a sense of being treated better than you deserve.”
Do you see where his thanks are coming from? God loved them. God chose them. God called them. God will glorify them. That’s what he knows in his head, and it produces the emotion of, “O God, how good you’ve been to the Thessalonians.” It just bubbles up. “Look what you have done for the Thessalonian church. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” And that’s the way I feel about Bethlehem over and over again, for reason after reason. But there have got to be reasons. Why? So that God will get the glory, not the Thessalonians. God has chosen you. God has called you. God is going to glorify you. God loved you. Praise God! Thank God for you!
Spirit and Truth
And if you need to see where I got the essential structure of this sermon, look at verse 13 and notice the word Spirit and the word truth. God saves us, it says, “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” Now there you have Spirit and truth, Spirit and truth — Spirit and word brought together.
How do you get changed? How do you get changed? Everybody in this room needs to change — and ought to want to change to be more like Jesus, more like Jesus, more affections like him, more behavior like him, more attitudes like him, more change. “Oh, make 2002 change city.” How’s that going to happen? Answer: Spirit and truth. Spirit and truth. And prayer corresponds to our reliance upon the Spirit, and meditation corresponds to our faith in the truth, and so we will bring the two together.