John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.
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By Marshall Segal — 1 year ago
Whoever you are, wherever you live, in whatever age you live, you either live to please man or you live to please God. And if you think it’s possible to serve both, you’re likely living to please the former, not the latter.
God is rightly and lovingly jealous for our first and fullest devotion. And every meaningful relationship we have will vie, whether overtly or subtly, to dethrone him. That’s why Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Sin has a way of making the love and approval of people seem more thrilling and fulfilling than the love and approval of God.
The apostle Paul knew the seduction of the fear of man, and he had learned that no man could serve two masters.
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. (Galatians 1:10)
“If we live to have the praise, approval, and acceptance of others, we cannot belong to Jesus.”
The dichotomy is as striking as it is frightening: we cannot strive to please people and still serve Christ. Now, of course, even Paul himself can say, “I try to please everyone in everything I do” (1 Corinthians 10:33), but only because that love is an expression of his greater allegiance to pleasing God (1 Corinthians 10:31, 33). If we, however, live to have the praise, approval, and acceptance of others, we cannot belong to Jesus.
So do we recognize this deadly temptation in our relationships? Have we, like Paul, died to the approval of man? His letter to the Galatians gives us a tour of the battlefield and some weapons for the fight.
Well-Acquainted with People-Pleasing
Paul can talk personally and intimately about the fear of man because he had once pursued the approval of others. These are the confessions of a former people-pleaser:
If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. . . . For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1:10, 13–14)
His former life illustrates just how destructive the fear of man can be. As he persecuted the church violently — mocking, attacking, imprisoning, even killing believers in Jesus — he garnered a little more attention, a little more approval, a little more praise than his peers. Of course, he would have said he was only striving to please God, and he maybe even thought he was striving to please God, but he sees his hidden motivations more clearly in hindsight.
When Paul says, “If I were still trying to please man. . . ,” the still really matters. He had served the god of people-pleasing, for years and years, and he found him to be a cruel master, a stealer of life and love and joy, a dead end. And in Galatians, he writes to a church tempted to serve the same god.
God of Looking Good
How specifically was people-pleasing infiltrating the church in Galatia? False teachers had crept in, teaching the Gentile believers that they needed to practice the Jewish laws to be saved. We learn, however, that their real concern was not for the church, but for themselves.
They wanted to avoid the Jewish persecution that might come if the Galatians confessed Christ but refused to practice circumcision, dietary regulations, and other distinctly Jewish laws. They also wanted the recognition and praise of the Jewish authorities for converting Gentiles to Judaism. In other words, they feared the rejection and hostility of certain people, and craved their approval and applause. Paul explains,
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. (Galatians 6:12–13)
Their duplicity is evident. They don’t even keep the law themselves, but they require it of others, because the compliance of others makes them look good. And looking good is their real god.
First Trap: Flattery
Knowing the temptations firsthand, the apostle recognized the influences that were corrupting and undoing the church in Galatia. The false teachers, who were themselves enslaved to the fear of man, were now preying on the Galatians’ desire for acceptance and affirmation. Watch carefully as Paul describes their strategies, because they’re the primary strategies of an awful lot of what we see and hear in the world today.
They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. (Galatians 4:17)
They begin with flattery, an effective tactic in persuading people-pleasers. As warm as flattery may sound and feel at first, though, flattery is always selfish and always destructive. It distorts reality, erodes trust, and indulges itself at the expense of someone else (Proverbs 26:28). “They make much of you, but for no good purpose.” They sweeten their words to win you without any real concern for you and your good.
The gospel says, “You are worse than you realize, but God’s grace is greater than your sin.” Flattery says, “You’re better than you think, and you’re certainly better than those other people.” If we live for the approval of man rather than God, we make ourselves all the more vulnerable to flattery. People will be able to influence and manipulate us by gratifying our thirst for affirmation.
One way to discern this danger in our personal relationships might be to ask, Do the people who affirm me also regularly challenge me? If they are eager to praise me, are they also willing to correct me?
Second Trap: Rejection
The false teachers used two very different strategies to prey on the Galatians’ fear of man (which reveals how subtle and complex this war can be). Both strategies seize on insecurity, but in opposite ways.
Yes, the Judaizers fawned over these Christians with flattery, but notice how they also threatened to exclude those who didn’t comply. They tried to convince these new believers that they had to adopt certain Jewish laws to be in God’s inner circle. “They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them” (Galatians 4:17). They’re trying to establish a special and exclusive group of “true” believers. They lure you in by making you feel left out. Did we think cancel culture was new with us? Satan knows that as much as people-pleasers crave the approval of others, they often fear their disapproval even more.
So where are we vulnerable to this fear of exclusion? One way to test ourselves would be to ask, What Christian beliefs are we tempted to hide — about abortion, about sex and sexuality, about ethnicity, about whatever — to fit in with the crowd whose approval we crave? (Note: This could be a crowd in the world or a crowd in the church.) Does our desire for acceptance make us ashamed of anything God says in his word?
Flattery preys on our craving to be admired. This second pressure preys on our fear of being excluded, of being left behind — ultimately, of being alone.
The World Died to Me
So how do we escape these twin traps that the fear of man lays? Having broken free himself, Paul charts a course for those similarly tempted. Freedom from unhealthy people-pleasing requires two great deaths:
[The false teachers] desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:13–14)
First, the world must die to me. What does that mean? When Paul was converted, and left behind his people-pleasing ways, nothing changed in the world. All the same pressures tried to intimidate him into conformity. All the same social expectations rose up around him. All the same risks threatened to isolate and afflict him (or worse). And yet he can still say that one day he met Jesus and the world died before his eyes. The world — all the worldly opinions, desires, applause, and criticism of mere humans — suddenly lost its power over Paul. It was if everything that once controlled him had been nailed to a cross and left there to die.
“For the world to lose its power over us, we have to surrender our craving to please the world.”
How does the world lose that kind of power over us? Through a second, more painful death: I must die to the world. For the world to lose its power over us, we have to surrender our craving to please the world. To follow the crucified Son, we have to crucify our former master (whatever sin had its hold on us). To experience the joy of life in Christ, Paul had to first die to being admired and praised by his peers. He couldn’t enjoy both. “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” So he refused the master that bred fear while stealing life, that increased guilt while decreasing peace, that amplified insecurity while muting love. He chose the better master.
Choosing to live for the approval of God, and not of man, will be costly in this life. Paul was hunted, beaten, robbed, imprisoned, and stoned nearly to death for his choice. And yet he could say, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Not worth comparing. That is the key to overcoming the fear of man. We will die to the comforts of people-pleasing when we realize, with Paul, just how much more satisfying it is to suffer for pleasing God.
By Leland Ryken — 1 year ago
From the early days of my teaching, I have enacted a ritual to introduce poetry into a course. I ask the class, “How do you know that God intends for you to understand and enjoy poetry?” Inevitably, the class stares at me as though I had just arrived from Mars. Then I ask in a slightly more menacing tone, “How do you know that God intends for you to understand and enjoy poetry?”
It is gratifying to see how quickly someone comes up with the correct answer. That answer is that approximately one-third of the Bible comes to us in poetic form.
My purpose is to convince you that your life will be enriched if you set aside just a little time for poetry. For some, this will be an encouragement to keep a current practice going; for others, it will be a resolve to give poetry a try.
World of Poetry
Poetry already has a place in our lives, though we may be unaware of this fact. In addition to the poetry of the Bible, let me introduce hymns into the discussion. Hymns and songs are a form of poetry, possessing all the qualities of the poems I teach in my literature courses. Whereas much of the poetry in the Bible is relatively complex and difficult, the poetry of hymns and songs is poetry for the average person.
“There are occasions when poetic speech conveys truth more effectively than literal prose.”
Additionally, we all speak an incipient poetry during the course of a typical day. We speak of the sun rising and of game-changers, of killing time and juggling our schedules. Each of these is a metaphor. Why do we resort to poetic language like this? Because we intuitively realize that poetic speech often conveys truth more effectively than literal prose.
People who do not find a place for poetry in their lives incorrectly believe that poetry is beyond the reach of the common person. Some claim that although people living before the modern era knew how to handle poetry, people living today are different. I regret to say that I even hear stories of Sunday school teachers and preachers being pressured by congregants to leave the poetry of the Bible untouched because of its alleged inaccessibility.
There is no chronological factor in regard to the accessibility of poetry. People are not less educated today than they were in previous centuries, but the reverse. Furthermore, poetry is compressed and makes use of images (words naming concrete objects and actions) as its basic language. What is more characteristic of our day than its preference for brief units of communication and its reliance on visual images?
Another misconception is that poetry is unrelated to everyday life. This is false in two ways. First, the actual language of poetry stays close to the everyday experiences of life. For example, biblical poets keep us rooted in a world of water and sheep and light and pathways. Second, the subject of poetry is universal human experience. Stories are a window to the world of human life, and so is poetry. One title of a book about poetry captures the essence of both poetic language and poetic content: Poetry and the Common Life.
Helps for Reading Poetry
In the remainder of this article, I have organized my pep talk for giving poetry a try (or continuing to keep a good thing going) under the rubric of what you need to know about poetry in order to succeed with it.
First, while poetry is accessible to anyone who gives it a genuine try, this does not mean that poetry is anything less than a unique form of discourse. Poetry is different from the informal language that we use in everyday life. Whether we see this as an advantage or disadvantage depends on the attitude that we bring, and my goal is to encourage the Christian public to embrace poetry not in spite of its difference from everyday uses of language but because of that difference.
We will not make room for poetry if we blame it for not being like everyday discourse. Instead, we can welcome poetry as a break from the routine. The Bible speaks of poetry as a new song (Psalm 33:3; 40:3; 96:1). The novelty of poetry can become a welcome adventure if we embrace it as such.
Poets speak a language all their own, and we need to know what that language is. The basic unit of poetry (but not its only ingredient) is the image, broadly defined to mean any word that names a concrete object or action. The words house and mountain are images, and so are walking and hiding.
Sometimes these images are straightforward and literal. A nature poet, for example, typically aims to paint a physical picture in our imagination: “The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted” (Psalm 104:16). These are “straight images”: the trees are literal trees, and the water is literal water.
But more often, poetic images are part of a comparison or analogy, as when the psalmist declares God to be “a sun and shield” (Psalm 84:11). God is not literally a sun and shield; these metaphors assert that God is like a sun and shield.
Verbal Energy Drink
What is the advantage of this poetic language of images and figures of speech? Poetic language overcomes the flatness and cliché effect of the ordinary and overly familiar. By contrast, the unfamiliar leads us to take note and makes us participants in the conversation.
“Poetic language overcomes the flatness and cliché effect of the ordinary and overly familiar.”
A comparison in the form of metaphor or simile activates us to determine how one thing is like something else to which it is compared. Poetry is akin to a riddle. When the poet asserts that the person who trusts in God “will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day” (Psalm 91:5), we need to figure out what the terror of the night and the arrow that flies by day are — and further, how they exist in our own lives.
Of course, this kind of interpretation requires what I call a “slow read” as opposed to a speed read. This is one of the most important tips I can offer for reading poetry with pleasure: we need to take the time to unpack the meanings of poetic images and comparisons. This can be a pleasurable activity if we simply give ourselves to it.
The kind of poetry I am discussing in this article is lyric poetry, meaning short poems. Lyric poems tend to be either meditative or reflective on the one hand, or affective or emotional on the other. In a reflective poem, the poet shares a thought process on an announced subject. In an affective poem, we learn about the poet’s feelings on the topic that is the focus of the poem. Psalm 1 is a meditation on the blessings that come to a godly person, as contrasted to the misery of the wicked. A praise psalm is an effusion of godly feelings.
The short length of lyric poems makes the contemplative and analytic way of reading that I have been describing entirely possible and feasible. Poetry gives more “bang for the buck” — more meaning per line — than expository prose does. Perhaps we can think of poetry as a verbal energy drink. Even if we take ten or fifteen minutes to give a poem a complete analysis, that is less time than it often takes to read an essay or chapter in a book.
Awakening the Heart
Thus far, I have talked about the form or technique of poetry. What do we need to know about the content of a poem? The purpose of poetry is not to convey new information. Its purpose is to express the shared experience of the human race and the believing community. A lyric poem holds before us thoughts, feelings, and experiences, with the intention that we will stare at them. Poetry gives us knowledge in the form of right seeing.
Additionally, the purpose of poetry, said John Milton, is “to set the affections in right tune.” Affections is an old word that overlaps with our word emotions. Poetry tends to be an affective form of writing that awakens proper feelings. The kind of poetry I am commending enables us not only to see an aspect of experience clearly but also to feel the right way about that experience. Reading good poetry can help us to feel rightly about reality.
Of all the activities that have made up my half-century of teaching literature, the one that gives me most pleasure is explicating short poems. Explication is simply the literary term for close reading, or staring at a text. And I commend staring at poetry, allowing it to awaken your affections, give you new eyes to see the world, and hopefully, offer new glimpses into the beauty of our triune God.
By John Piper — 5 months ago
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