Recently, I was reading a commentary on Galatians by co-founder of the Center for Pastor Theologians, Todd Willson. Chapter 3 of the commentary (dealing strictly with Galatians 1:10) is titled “People-Pleaser or Servant of Christ?”1 As the title suggests, Wilson is setting those two concepts in opposition to each other. Either we are good servant’s of Christ or we are people pleasers.
I am someone who would describe themselves as having a people pleasing tendency, thus Wilson certainly got my attention here (he also confesses to have this trait), as I do not always consider people pleasing to be a negative thing. Isn’t people pleasing a way to love our neighbor as ourself? Isn’t it a way to become “all things to all men so that [we] may by all means save some”? (I Cor. 9:22) Doesn’t the Apostle Paul “people please” when he circumcises Timothy?
In some ways that we use the term people pleasing, I would say yes to all of these. Nevertheless, Wilson’s critique has caused me to consider if people pleasing is really the best way to think of these positive actions stated in the questions above. After all, the dichotomy is not original to Wilson, but to Paul. For Wilson is dealing with Paul’s words in Galatians 1:10 when he says, “For 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.”
Clearly, Paul recognizes a sharp difference between people pleasing and Christ serving behavior. Obviously, we ought to credit Paul with more than living in contradiction to his own standard. So where do we best find the distinction between seeking to please man versus seeking to serve Christ?
Ultimately, the best way to understand it, is to look at the underlying motivation of our actions. In our actions towards others, who are we really doing them for? How do we even know? The best way to know, is to ask ourselves: if I do this action, let’s call it an act of service toward another’s known desires (or believed desires), whose judgment am I ultimately concerned with? That is, if this person does not kindly receive my action or they are indifferent or they simply do not respond in the way I was anticipating, am I truly disappointed in what I have done? Do I have any regret at having done it?
Think about it, if we give someone a compliment, if we go out of our way for them, if we cater to their desires, if even a measure of our self is sacrificed for their wants or needs, can we not rest knowing that what we have done is right and good in the eyes of God? No matter how we are received by man, when our actions are undergirded by a heart that is seeking to please God, are we able to have peace knowing that we have his assurance of a ‘well done’?
And if this is the case, ought we to think of these kinds of actions, this kind of “people pleasing,” more as Christ serving than people pleasing? Servants of Christ will seek to please people, from family and friends, to strangers and enemies. But, service offered to Christ never rests on the judgements of men, but on God alone. Sure, we don’t want to be oblivious to how our actions are received, maybe the criticism we are receiving from man is warranted! But fundamentally, when we search our hearts, who are we really longing to hear the words “well done, my good and faithful servant” from? From our friends, neighbors, and enemies? Or, from Jesus Christ?
If the former, we will never find rest for, “People are fickle, and so are their judgments of us. If we’re always working hard to curry favor from other people and to do what they think we should do, we will eventually work ourselves into a state of exhaustion and despair.”2 But if our service to others is not contingent upon their approval but on Christ’s, then we shall learn that, “God’s judgments are far kinder than man’s.”3
God is far from fickle. He searches the heart. He knows the soul. He sees the service rendered in His name. Not even a cool glass of water is given in vain. Why seek so hard to please man, when God’s yoke is so easy? His burden so light? Ironically, by seeking first to be servants of Christ, we might just end up pleasing men.
- Todd Wilson, Galatians: Gospel-Rooted Living (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 35-41
- Ibid. 41
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio