Friday, June 24, 2016

Confessions of a Recovering People-Pleaser

...We endeavor—by His grace—to live not as "people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart." (Eph 6:6)

...We are not trying to please people, but God, who tests our hearts. (1 Thess 2:4)

I have spent a good deal of my life struggling with people-pleasing. I have wanted people to like me, to accept me, to approve of me. I have wanted the people around me to be happy. At times, I have even gone along with things that I was uncomfortable with in order to keep the peace or avoid disappointing someone. I don't like rocking the boat. I don't want to upset people. I hate discord.

Some of this may have to do with my childhood (at risk of sounding hackneyed). Like many of us, I was teased, and sometimes even bullied, as a child. I had an idiosyncratic, quirky personality. I was a perpetual dreamer. I was painfully shy. These things combined to make me an easy target. And as things generally go with school children, a number of kids took aim. Because my daydreaming caused me to be scatterbrained and accident prone, when anything went wrong in the classroom—like a poster falling off the wall or something—all 26 kids would chant my name in unison, joking that everything was always my fault. To them it was funny, to me it was collective shaming.

For years, I felt like a misfit and a mistake. These experiences likely contributed to my childhood eagerness to please others and to fit in. And during my teens this desire gave rise to a whole series of sin issues as you can imagine.

Now in my 40s, I am less insecure than in my teens and 20s. By God's grace my confidence, being rooted in Christ, has grown. By God's grace, I am happily married with three kids. By God's grace, I've distanced myself from negative, judgmental, over-critical people and have been blessed with edifying relationships—with friends and family who encourage me and build me up in Christ while allowing me to do the same for them. This doesn't mean everything is perfect (far from it!), but it does make for a healthier spiritual environment. And for this answer to prayer, I am very, very thankful.

But every now and then, the fear of condemnation and disapproval still sneaks in. I still struggle with the people-pleasing urge from time-to-time. And I've noticed that it's when I start making things more about me, and less about Him that the niggling temptation creeps back in.

As a recovering people-pleaser, I especially dislike posting an article that I know a number of people will be offended by, or won't agree with...but then the Holy Spirit pricks my conscience and I am still prompted to publish it. I pray over it, I post it...and then I wince.

I wince because writing on the Christian worldview, apologetics, and matters of biblical discernment will always ruffle some feathers and touch some nerves. I wince because I know it's not likely to be a popular point of view. I wince because...well...I am still in recovery, after all!

And in our anything-goes culture of relativism in which the "just do you" mantra carries way more weight than the "die to self" one, biblical discernment is not a trendy topic. It requires humility, raw honesty, and vulnerability—all things that are challenging for a recovering people-pleaser like me. And all things that are currently not en vogue in our post-modern culture (don't get duped by those humble braggers on social media!).

Suffice it to say, it's hard to go against the cultural flow when you're a recovering people-pleaser.

The thing is, the Christian worldview is offensive. This is because the Bible is offensive...and what Jesus said was offensive...and what the apostles wrote, and stood for, was offensive. For, "as it is written, 'Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.'" (Rom 9:33).

As the above verse illustrates, the gospel is essentially both loving and offensive at the same time. For, "this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (1 John 4;10). In other words, the slaughter of God's own Son illuminates both the magnitude of His love for us as well as the seriousness of our sin—sin that can only be ransomed by Jesus' death on the Cross. The gospel, then, shows us that we’re more loved than we ever could have dreamed, yet we're more sinful than we ever imagined. And the latter can be an unpalatable, repugnant thing to the post-modern palate. Especially when the world constantly tells us otherwise...

While the world might whisper sweet nothings in our ear, however, remember that godly love—pure, divine love—is not of this world. And so the world does not recognize it. Therefore, if you are speaking the truth in love, then you may find that you are pegged as hateful or judgmental in a world that is hostile to Christ—sometimes even by other Christians.

While this is unfortunate, it should not be surprising, however. As Jesus said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Matt 10:34). The doubled-edged sword of God's Word will separate bone and marrow and cut to the heart. And so, God's truth may hurt at times. It can be tough to hear, just as it can be tough to profess. But in the end, it's all about pleasing God, not people.

The truth is, people-pleasing is motivated by pride. It's fueled by a desire to feel needed, to be liked, to be popular, to gain worldly significance, or to advance a personal agenda. In essence, it's an insidious form of idolatry, which places the love of oneself before God.

As a recovering people-pleaser, then, I constantly need to check my motives... Am I speaking, writing, working, serving, etc., for my own self-determined ends, or for God's glory? Am I speaking, writing, working, serving, etc. with my love for God and for people as my motivation? Or is it all about me?

Here's what I find I need to keep reminding myself: love and truth cannot be separated. God is love, just as He is truth. (1 John 4:8; John 14:6). He cannot be divided. In this vein, if I am seeking to love God and love people, I need to be truthful—I need to hold fast to God's Word.

It is selfless love, then, that urges us to speak truth—with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). For, you can't claim to love and follow Jesus, while rejecting or distorting His Word

In light of this, here are twelve suggestions for recovering people-pleasers, like me, who endeavor to speak truth in love:

1. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will pray first, and be sensitive to the Holy Spirit in discerning when we should speak and when we should remain silent. Sometimes, I have found that holding my tongue with regards to a friend's sinful pattern of behavior and praying for him has born more fruit than if I had confronted him right then and there. And we should certainly err on the side of showing grace to someone who is suffering from clinical depression or mental illness. (Prayer, support, and healing should come before truth in these cases). We will have compassion (Col 3:12), be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19).

2. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will be humble and patient. It's easy to tip the balance from speaking the truth in love to nagging people or chastising them. I know how it feels to be the recipient of a judgmental attack instead of gentle admonishment out of love. In my life, I have needed to be nudged in the direction of righteousness, but when this was done gently, I did not feel under attack.

3. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we should also live by example. If we are truly humble, we will have a teachable heart ourselves and allow others the same freedom to speak truth to us when needed. Speaking the truth should go both ways! We have to be willing not only to give it but to receive it as well!

4. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will be sure to check our motive: is it to prove we are right about something, or to point that person, church, or ministry back to the gospel from which they've strayed? Is speaking the truth in this situation necessary to guard against false teaching? Are we holding a friend accountable, with gentleness and humility, for their own good or is it more about venting our personal grievances? If it is for their good, or the good of the Kingdom, then we must speak up. (And if there is no repentance, 1 Corinthians 5 provides a biblical model for how to confront immorality in the church).

5. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will treat the sin of unbelievers differently from the sin of Christians (1 Cor 5:12-13). Unbelievers are not held to the same standards as those who are born again, because they are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit and have not yet been made new in Christ. We cannot hold unbelievers to biblical standards that they don't yet believe in or are not yet aware of. We should love them, pray for them, and witness to them about the hope that is in Christ—not focus on their sins before they have been given new eyes to see.

6. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will draw a distinction between sin in our culture and the sin of an individual, standing firmly (but not always loudly) against the former, and showing grace towards the latter—being unwavering in the truth always. We will handle hot-button, controversial issues like homosexuality and transgenderism with humility, dignity, and conviction. We will speak out against societal and cultural sin, defending the sanctity of marriage—but we will not lambaste the gay community by taking to the streets with signs around our necks or ranting hatefully. That is truth without love. The end goal of speaking the truth in love is not to criticize, condemn, or win an argument. It is to point others to Christ. You can't berate or picket someone into that.

7. On the flip-side, if selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will not sugar-coat God's Word, dilute it with touchy-feely emotionalism, downplay the seriousness of sin, or turn a blind eye to false teaching. These are forms of people-pleasing. Doing these things may respectively earn you popularity, garner more Facebook likes, create a comfortable atmosphere, or cobble together some semblance of unity. But what is unity without Christ at its center? What is comfort without hope? And what is popularity in a temporal world?

8. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will be compelled to contend for the faith. For example, the Apostle Paul, an expert apologist, debated in the synagogues to save souls. Jude urged believers to contend tirelessly for the faith (Jude 1:3). Peter admonished us always to be ready to give an answer as to why our hope is in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). Paul exhorted us to guard our doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16). Unequivocally, it is our duty to defend and uphold Biblical truth. And it is our love of God and His Word that will fuel this. John Piper puts it this way, "There are truths about God and Christ and man and the church and the world which are essential to the life of Christianity. If they are lost or distorted, the result will not be merely wrong ideas but misplaced trust. The inner life of faith is not independent from the doctrinal statement of faith. When doctrine goes bad, so do hearts. There is a body of doctrine which must be preserved."

9. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will promote unity in Christ. We will uphold biblical truth to strengthen the Church (as Ephesians 4:15-16 illustrates), even though there may be those that fall away as a result. While we will defend the doctrine of salvation, however, we will also remember that Satan wants to cause unnecessary division among believers. Some Christians get all wrapped around the axle about peripheral matters like whether or not to have a Christmas tree due to its "pagan origins" or whether or not to let our kids believe in Santa, and then lambaste other Christians who don't have the same perspective. But these minor issues distract us from what really matters. We can also be over-critical of our fellow believers, obsessing over each other's differences and flaws, which can lead to pride, hatred, and division. If we are selfless, we may not win the peripheral argument, but we will glorify God.

10. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will speak up when it comes to matters of salvation. Jesus did not beat around the bush when it came to this. He mentioned hell 23 times as is recorded in the Gospels. When Jesus went to dinner at a Pharisee's home, for example, He told the Pharisees, "Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering." (Luke 11:52). Not exactly cordial dinner conversation! Jesus was far more concerned with speaking the truth to them than sparing their feelings and sticking to safe topics of discussion. The disciples came to Jesus and told Him the Pharisees were offended by what He had been saying (Matt 15:12). But, Jesus answered that the Pharisees’ failure to see the truth right in front of them would be their downfall and He continued to uphold the truth, even when it offended people.

11. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will be truthful even when interacting with the rich and powerful. When a rich young ruler ran up to Jesus and fell on his knees before Him, asking “Good teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17), Jesus spoke forthrightly and told him to leave everything he had and follow Him. The man went away sadly because he had great wealth (Mark 10:22). But the Bible also tells us that, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” (Mark 10:21). It was because Jesus loved the man so much that He spoke the truth to him. By speaking the truth to Him, Jesus did not try to win him over right then and there. He didn't tell him what he wanted to hear in order to gain a new follower, even an influential, wealthy one. Likewise, if we really love someone selflessly, we too will be truthful with them—even if they run away because of it.

12. If selfless love is our motive for speaking truth, we will fearlessly defend the weak and the oppressed. By faith we are called to be administrators of justice (Heb 11:33) and to correct oppression (Isa 17:1). We will advocate for the widow and the fatherless. We will pray for, and raise awareness about, the persecuted Church. We will speak up on behalf of those who cannot do so for themselves—including the unborn.

...Ultimately, people-pleasing isn't loving or serving others. It's temporary convenience without conviction. It's temporary happiness without hope. It's temporary popularity without promise. It's temporary status without soul.

When Paul rebuked people-pleasing in his first letter to the Thessalonians, he was evidently aware that it perpetuates the human desire to be cozy in the world, gives rise to false teaching, enables sin, and usurps the authority of God.

As a recovering people-pleaser, (who still backslides from time-to-time), I know that writing on matters of discernment (which the Bible itself emphasizes!) will likely gain me more enemies than friends. Despite this, however, I would rather seek to please God who tests my heart, not people!  I would rather cling to Christ in a world that has rejected Him, whether it's offensive to others or not.

...even if I still wince once-in-a-while!

1 comment:

Glennardo said...

As a retired clinical social worker and hospital chaplain, and as a progressive and liberal Christian, I am finding these words to be very helpful and encouraging. Thank you! I study deeply the work of the English Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, and was thinking while reading your words how close you are to the spirit of her work. I hope this piece enjoys a wide readership.