Say "No" to People Pleasing

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I hate this feeling.

My son had been late, so the school office called about his forgotten tardy slip. It was only a short conversation—a five-minute phone call, yet I could feel the anxiety rising in my heart.

Why are we so bothered by what other people think or care so much about the opinions of strangers? Why do we put up with demanding bosses or commit to unhealthy levels of responsibility? Why are children so rambunctious at home, but awkwardly silent in public? Why do followers of Christ often shrink from speaking of him with others? Relationship “experts” call this low self-esteem or codependency. Pop culture calls it peer pressure. Yet the Bible calls it the fear of man, people-pleasing, or loving the approval of others (Proverbs 29:25; Galatians 1:10).

We struggle with this fear of man whenever we view the people in our life as bigger than our God. For example, when Jesus stood accused before the Jewish Sanhedrin, Peter hung about in the courtyard, anxious for his Master (John 18). Yet as he loitered in the shadows, Peter three times denied his Lord (vv. 15-18, 25-27). He grew ashamed of his friend and Master because he feared what man might do to him. Then there was that Samaritan woman with a history of five ex-husbands who lived with a man to whom she was not even married (John 4:18). She drew water from the village well in the heat of the day because the other women had rejected her. Unwelcome and despised, she was shocked that Jesus even spoke with her: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (v. 9). This woman hid from others to keep her sin and shame from being openly exposed.

Application Insight: You might be a people-pleaser if you expect others to be your source of honor, respect, significance, or love. You might hide out of fear that they will expose your sin, shame, and shortcomings. You might avoid anyone who will ridicule you or threaten your emotional well-being. Yet at the heart level, your fear of man idolizes their approval and controls your life by your desire to please them. You have placed yourself in bondage to whomever will offer the affirmation you think you need.

The Samaritan woman thought she could find significance in the men who claimed to love her, so she sacrificed her purity and her reputation trying to please the perfect man. Peter wanted to avoid social rejection and possibly a gruesome death, so he tried to escape the crowd’s displeasure by keeping his distance from the man they hated. Yet by doing so, Peter rejected his Lord and Savior—the only Person who would receive him without condemnation (Romans 8:1). Likewise, every one of us, each day of our lives, will seek the approval of others. We must therefore learn how Jesus said “No” to people-pleasing and to the fear of man. Jesus never sought to please the crowd because he only desired to please his Father (John 8:28-29). The account in John 6 displays Christ-like principles for saying “No” to people-pleasing.

Know the Nature of Man (John 6)

First, we must understand human nature. God’s Word teaches that we were all made in the image of our Creator (Genesis 1:27). Yet fallen sinners do not reflect God rightly. Though many people do good works, we all are flawed by sin (Romans 3:23). So when we fear what man may do to us, we acknowledge rightly that fellow sinners in a fallen world are bound to hurt us. We accept the fundamental truth that this world and its inhabitants are never fully safe. Peter knew that the crowd could quickly turn on him because he had seen them turn on Jesus. His Master had been arrested by an angry mob and put on trial in the dead of night (John 18:12). The Samaritan woman knew all too well the sting of being rejected by the women in her village and the loneliness each time a lover left her with an empty bed. Likewise, the middle schooler may fear the ridicule of unkind classmates. An abused wife might refuse to leave her husband because she fears his retribution if she tries. Christians also shrink from bold evangelism because not everyone will share our love for Jesus. We are surrounded, and often paralyzed, by the fear of man. Yet this must not surprise us that people are inherent sinners (Romans 3:10-12). Even the best of them are capable of doing harm, so our fears are not unfounded. How then can we conquer our fear of man in a fallen world?

Application Insight: A true understanding of human nature should not drive you to fear other people, but rather to show compassion for those who are like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34). Fallen sinners need a Savior and you cannot lead the lost to Jesus if you live in fear of them.

In John 6, Jesus had the chance to please a multitude of people. He was already well into his ministry, so his name had become known all over Galilee. “And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick” (v. 2). They desired his miracles and to watch him heal the sick. They were astonished by his teaching and amazed when he fed five thousand with a few barley loaves and two small fish (vv. 5-13). “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’ . . . They were about to come and take him by force to make him king” (vv. 14-15a). The crowd believed that Jesus must be their long-awaited Messiah. So they designated him as the Prophet greater than Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18) and were about to crown him the Davidic king who would rescue them from Rome. What then did Jesus do? “Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:15b). Instead of seeking the crowd’s acclaim, he slipped away to be alone with God, for Jesus, at this time, did not desire the accolades of men (Mark 10:45).

Application Insight: When you have trouble discerning between the will of God and the will of man, ask your Father for wisdom (James 1:5). Taking time to pray before you make decisions will remind you that your life has an audience of One. Such intimate conversations with your heavenly Father are the antidote to your fear of man (Proverbs 29:25) and they will prepare your heart to delight in his answer to your prayer (Psalm 37:4).

Even as Jesus withdrew, however, the crowd continued to seek him (John 6:24). So our Lord began to teach them what some have called the Bread of Life discourse:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (vv. 35-40).

Jesus tells the truth, then we see the people turn against him: “The Jews grumbled about him, because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They said, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’” (vv. 41-42). They doubted his deity, saying, “He’s just a man. We know his parents. We watched him grow up.” Despite his miracles and his compelling teaching, the crowd rejected Jesus. They disbelieved his claim to be the Son of God.

In such a hostile environment, many of us might have tried to please the crowd by toning down our message. Instead, Jesus amped it up: “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (vv. 43-44). Jesus not only claimed to be from heaven and commissioned by the Father himself, but he also promised to raise the spiritually dead as the only means of their salvation: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53). Instead of tickling their itching ears (2 Timothy 4:3), Jesus turned many of them away: “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’ . . . After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (vv. 60, 66). Jesus was more concerned with saving people than pleasing them.

Application Insight: Although gospel messengers must avoid unnecessary offense, the gospel message is offensive by nature (1 Corinthians 1:18). Therefore, as followers of Jesus, be winsome with your words and your behavior, but do not alter the good news God has given you to proclaim (Romans 1:16; Jude 3). Do not be ashamed of Christ today or he will be ashamed of you when he returns in glory (Mark 8:38). So may it be your aim to always please him (2 Corinthians 5:9).


4/4/2022 7:56:28 PM
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  • Tom Sugimura
    About Tom Sugimura
    Tom Sugimura is a pastor-writer, church planting coach, and professor of biblical counseling. He writes at tomsugi.com, ministers the gospel at New Life Church, and hosts the Every Peoples Podcast. He and his wife cherish the moments as they raise their four kids in Southern California.