The People-Pleasing Trap

Pastor Craig Carter

This spring we have been attempting to answer life’s most important question, What on Earth Am I Here For?

We have looked to God’s Word for the reasons the Lord created us in the first place and have discovered that we were made for worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and mission (or evangelism). Pastor Rick Warren describes each of these activities in his bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life.

In the final chapters, he identifies two “traps” Christians often fall into that prevent them from fulfilling their God-given reasons for being. Last week, we looked at the first one – the comparison trap that suggests, “I must be like you to be happy.”

The flip side of it is the people-pleasing trap that says, “I must be liked by you to be happy.”

The Bible claims, “It is dangerous to be concerned with what others think of you.” (Proverbs 29:25 GNT). The New Living Translation puts it this way: “Fearing people is a dangerous trap.”

In this post we’ll explore why that is true and how we can avoid the people-pleasing trap so we can live a purpose driven life. 

Let’s start with some familiar words found in the Old Testament book of Hezekiah: “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…” 

Ok, I lied … that passage is not found in Hezekiah since no such book of the Bible exists. Instead, those lines were penned by William Shakespeare in his comedy, As You Like It (Act II, Scene 7, Line 139) and there’s no doubt he was on to something. 

Our lives are never-ending performances in which we take on a variety of roles. Not just over a lifetime, but even in a single day. 

Think about the life of a wife and mother. She is a drill sergeant, short order cook, chauffeur (or race car driver), counselor, psychic advisor, judge and jury, veterinarian, theologian, warden, and cleaning lady. All of us are actors in a similar drama, comedy, or tragedy, and as the acts and scenes change, we assume different parts. 

“All the world’s a stage and [we are all] merely players!”

That being true, an intriguing question logically results: “Who is our audience?” 

Pastor and author John Claypool poses that question in his book, The Light Within You. In a chapter by that name, he makes a keen insight into human behavior that he gained by observing his own reaction to reviews of his work. Some negative critiques did not bother him at all. They came from people he didn’t see “eye to eye” with, persons whose opinions he considered unimportant. Other evaluations were a different matter altogether. Their words of approval warmed him and their criticism cut him deeply. 

Claypool suggests each of us has a select “audience” before whom we play out the drama of our lives. It may be individuals or groups of people, but their opinions exert almost “god-like” power over us. Our emotions rise and fall based on their reactions to us. 

Jesus dealt with the same sort of issue in His Sermon on the Mount. In it, Christ describes a Kingdom lifestyle which is, essentially, a purpose-driven life. But in chapter six He suggests we can do the right things, but for the wrong reasons:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4 NIV)

In this passage and the verses that follow, Jesus issues a word of warning to His followers. In particular, He asks us to consider why we do the things we do and who we’re doing them for. Using Rick Warren’s language, Christ suggests we can easily fall into the people-pleasing trap

Jesus has two things to say about the audience we each have:  

1) It should not be OTHER PEOPLE.

In Jesus’ day, there were three important activities for all good Jews to follow – giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. One would assume these acts are done for God and God alone. 

But in His usual, discerning way Jesus identified the real, intended audience. First of all, He pointed out that giving to the needy was done with great fanfare. 

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others.” (Matthew 6:2 NIV)

This could mean one of two things. Givers were accompanied by trumpeters who announced their donations. Or, more likely, it described huge amounts of change being dumped into trumpet-shaped receptacles. At a minimum, they “tooted their own horns” in order “to be honored by others.”

In verse 5, Jesus pointed out how many met their obligation to pray three times per day: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” (Matthew 6:5 NIV)

Instead of praying in the privacy of their own homes, they did it in full public view “to be seen by others.”

Finally, Jesus mentioned that many Jews had allowed fasting, rather than being a means for focusing their attention on God, to become an end by focusing attention on them. 

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” (Matthew 6:16a NIV)

In other words, these people were saying to those around them, “Yes, I know I look awful. It’s because I’m not eating and sacrificing for the Lord.” 

Again, the real audience was “to show others” what they were doing. 

Notice that in each case, Jesus called persons who behaved in such ways, hypocrites. Hypocrite literally means “actor.” So Jesus said many so-called religious people were just playing a role, or acting a part.  

The indictment that Jesus leveled is that these activities, which were designed to please God, were simply being done for “show.” The main interest was not helping others or honoring God, as it appeared, but to make a good impression on others in order to win their applause and approval. 

This must have been a startling and embarrassing revelation for Jesus’ listeners as they were confronted with the truth about the identity of their real “audience.”

But I have to admit, Jesus’ observation makes me a little bit uneasy as well. 

How much of what you and I do is influenced by those around us?

How much do others affect our freedom in worship?

How much of our church involvement is a matter of habit rather than a matter of the heart?

Do we read the Bible to become informed students or transformed disciples?

Do we perform acts of service because we really care about those in need or because we care about looking good to those around us?

How often do we miss out on witnessing opportunities because we don’t want our family or friends to think we’ve become complete fanatics?

Like the Jews in Jesus’ day, our real audience tends to be other people. We’re always considering: What will they say? What will they think? How can I win their approval and avoid their condemnation?

Are we really living the purpose-driven life or just playing the role?

Even as adults, we’re not much different from the teenagers we harp on for giving in to peer pressure. As we’ve observed earlier in this study, God created us with a need to be loved and accepted by others. But our God-given “longing for belonging” has evolved into a “disease to please.”

We were designed to fear God, but many of us are consumed by a fear of others. You see, the flip-side of people-pleasing and winning their approval is the fear of disapproval. Think for a minute about the worst thing that could happen to you…

As a child, perhaps it’s to make a mistake and be laughed at. 

As a teenager, it might be to wear hand-me-down clothing or be considered “uncool.”

As an adult, maybe it’s to have a good job and lose it or have an “out of control” child.

What Jesus said about folks in His audience 2,000 years ago is just as pertinent to us today. We all have an audience before whom we play out our lives and, for most of us, it’s other people whom we want to please at any cost (even if it means compromising our morals). 

While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked, this tendency can prevent us from reaching our God-given potential as we conform to other people’s standards. Whoever’s opinion matters most to us becomes our audience or “god.”

But let’s remember, the Lord made us, so we need to look to Him for meaning, significance, and purpose. 

2) It should be OUR HEAVENLY FATHER.

Jesus made this point through a series of contrasts involving “rewards.” In order to help us understand what Jesus was saying, we first need to understand what He meant by a reward. 

Oftentimes, a so-called reward has nothing to do with the action it follows. For example, parents may offer their a teenager a new car if she passes biology. That’s not a reward, it’s an incentive designed to influence her behavior. In actuality, it’s little more than a bribe. 

Another type of reward is inexorably linked to the action. In this case, the parents tell their teenager that by passing biology she will gain knowledge that will provide her with future educational and vocational opportunities. These kinds of rewards are realistic predictions of what will happen if someone chooses a particular course of action (i.e. natural consequences). 

This is the type of reward Jesus referred to in His Sermon on the Mount. 

Armed with this knowledge, let’s look at what Jesus had to say. First of all, for those who give to the poor, pray, or fast for others to see, Jesus contended, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (Matt 6:2b; cf. 5b, 16b NIV). The NLT states it as: “all the reward they will ever get.”

This phrase employs technical language for a receipt stamped “paid in full.” If you and I make other people our audience and live to please them, we can expect a certain payoff. If you want their praise, you’ll get it. If you want to be seen by them, they’ll see you. If you want to show folks how much you’re sacrificing for the Lord, you’ll receive their admiration. But, that’s all you’ll get – nothing more, nothing less. That’s your “reward in full.”

And guess what? It ain’t all it’s cracked up to be! 

A pastor friend named Jim Dannelly once told me that early in his ministry he loved to stand in the back of the sanctuary and receive the compliments of the congregation, but he soon learned that he always craved one more or wondered why one person didn’t say anything. Jim told me, “Craig, if that’s what you’re living for, you’ll never get enough!”

That’s exactly what Jesus was talking about here. Picking other people as our audience always means being limited by what they have to offer. People are pretty fickle and their cheers can quickly turn into boos. 

The truth is: you and I can’t please everyone on every occasion. As Rick Warren points out in his book, “Even God can’t please everybody. Only a fool would try to do what even God can’t do.” 

But making God our audience makes life a whole lot simpler and we obtain a whole different set of “rewards.”

“Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:4b; cf. vv. 6b, 18b)

What are some of the possible rewards or consequences of seeking to please God?

First of all, we cannot deny the eternal benefits received in the life hereafter. Note the future tense (i.e. your Father…will reward you”). 

It’s the “treasures in heaven” that Jesus talks about later in the chapter and that are “stored up” for those who follow the ways of the Lord. They are not necessarily tangible objects, but rather the priceless intangibles of salvation, eternal life, and fellowship with God. 

While recognition from others fades away, our relationship with God is everlasting. One day, it won’t matter what other people think or say about me. The only thing that will be important is that I please my Heavenly Father and hear Him say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant…Let’s celebrate together!” (Matthew 25:21 NLT)

In addition, when we make the Lord the focus of our lives, we enjoy a similar “reward” in the here and now. Like Jesus experienced at His baptism, we can receive our Heavenly Father’s words of praise, “This is my beloved son [or daughter], with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17 ESV)

Nothing beats hearing God say, “That’s my boy…That’s my girl!” 

Looking to any other person for their approval to make you happy will eventually lead to disappointment. Nobody here on earth has the capacity to meet all of our needs and keep us constantly happy because everybody has issues of their own. Only God can supply all our needs out of His abundant riches in glory (see Philippians 4:19).

The Apostle Paul grasped what Jesus taught and it helped him live a purpose-driven life. He realized, “The only approval that counts is the Lord’s approval.” (2 Corinthians 10:18 CEV)

So, “our purpose is to please God, not people.” (1 Thessalonians 2:4b NLT)

Shakespeare was right: “All the world’s a stage. And [we are all] merely players…” That being true, we have to ask ourselves, “Who is our audience?”

Jesus says if you and I are living for anyone but God, it’s a trap that keeps us from fulfilling His purposes for our lives. People-pleasing demands a great deal from us, but provides very little in return. We may get some applause, but that’s our reward in full (and it is short-lived). 

But by making God our audience of One, we receive rewards that will stand the test of time.  

In this life: joy, peace, contentment, satisfaction, and meaning. In the next: eternal life and fellowship with our God and Creator. 

So, in answer to our original question, “What on earth are you here for?” To live a purpose driven life that pleases and honors the One who made you. 

To God be the glory!