Written by Natalie Hanna Tan, Singapore
I have always been a people pleaser. I know that I can please someone by doing exactly what they tell me to do.
Growing up in church, I did just that. I was cautious whenever I spoke to guy friends face-to-face or in text messages, because my leaders discouraged me from doing so. I stopped posting about “happy” things—meals and meet-ups with friends—on social media when they told me it could evoke feelings of jealousy. I refrained from wearing shorts when they hinted that it could potentially stumble the guys.
Over the years, I tried to follow these “rules”. There was certainly wisdom in following some of them (and I’m glad I did), but I just never understood some of the others. I followed them only because I wanted my leaders to have a good impression of me.
I was trying so hard to please them that eventually, discipleship meetings filled me with dread. I hated the feeling of being judged and being made to feel like I’d done something wrong. I always had to be careful whenever I was in church or around specific leaders. I felt that they had too many opinions and standards I couldn’t understand. Going to church and living the Christian life became tiring and burdensome, as I never could match up to their “perfect” standards.
And yet, when I became a leader myself, I did the same thing to my younger members. It is the “right” thing to do, I often told them, even though I didn’t actually agree with the “rules” and was just keeping and teaching them to gain approval. I wanted my leaders to see that I was teaching the “right” things and that I was a good leader. I also began judging friends who were “doing wrong”—according to these standards—and that strained quite a few of my friendships.
It was only when I attended another church when I went abroad to study that my perspective on church changed. I saw many devout Christian friends post happy pictures on Instagram. No one got jealous or upset. Friends simply “liked” them and celebrated their blessings and successes. I saw friends wear make-up to church and adorn tops with different sleeves’ lengths—no one spoke behind their backs or made them feel like they were “sinning”. I also saw the beauty of how guys and girls could be close friends and maintain platonic friendships. This church no longer felt like a place of “rules”, but a place of genuine and uncomplicated relationships, free of judgement and hypocrisy.
A few months into university, a new friend and I had a conversation about the different convictions and values that churches had. I shared about the rules I had grown up with and what I honestly thought about them. What she said struck me hard: “You can’t just follow others’ convictions blindly to make them happy. You can’t live your life for them.” Those words began my search for my own convictions. All this while, I had been prioritizing the approval of men above that of God.
Galatians 1:10 says, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” I realized then that I had made my leaders my god—trying to please and seek their approval when all I needed was God’s approval. That ought to have been enough for me.
I headed back to my flat that day, thinking hard about the various convictions I had. I checked the Bible, searched the Internet, and asked my parents and close friends back home. Sure, the Bible lists some things in black-and-white: don’t get drunk, don’t be sexually immoral, don’t lie or steal . . . but what about things that aren’t specifically mentioned? The Bible doesn’t say anything about social media and the sort of things I can or cannot post. Neither does it list explicit rules about relating with the opposite gender, or the length of my skirt.
God looks at my heart—the motives behind my actions rather than the actions themselves. For example, it’s fine to wear a tank top (that isn’t revealing, of course!) as long as I know that it does not stumble others and is not a means to attract attention. It’s fine to post pictures on social media when I know that the number of likes or followers I have does not reflect my self-worth. And I can certainly cultivate good and godly friendships with guys which keep healthy boundaries and do not stumble the other party.
This realization took a whole load of pressure and expectations off my back. For the first time in many years, I felt free. I saw boundaries and rules as liberating, and not as constricting.
Having said that, I also recognize that this is not a licence or excuse for us to live as we please. God has given us His laws in the Bible to protect us from danger. He has also called us to lead pure lives (Psalm 24:4) of high standards (Ephesians 5:1-6) because He Himself is holy and righteous.
For things that aren’t specifically written about in the Bible, we have the leeway to develop our own personal convictions and preferences. God gives us freedom to decide what we’re comfortable with and what we’re not. He has also given us the Holy Spirit to guide us to discern what is wise and what isn’t. Our convictions can be shaped from wise counsel, from personal experiences, or from the environment we live in.
Here are some questions we can ask ourselves as we think about the various personal convictions we have:
1. Is it in accordance to God and His Word?
Search the Bible to see what God says about it. If it is clearly against the Word of God or against God’s character and values . . . you have your answer.
2. Am I doing it with pure motives and intentions? Or am I doing it just to gain men’s approval?
Ask God to search your heart and reveal any ungodly motives and intentions you may have (Psalm 139:23-24). Be honest as you reflect on whether you’re doing (or not doing) something to gain men’s approval or to fit in.
For instance, I know that drinking isn’t bad—Jesus changed water into wine and even served wine at the Last Supper. But I’m not comfortable with drinking when it comes to alcoholic beverages like beer or liquor, not just because I dislike the taste, but also because of the negative connotations of drunkenness and wild behavior. After committing this to God and talking it through with my parents, I decided that I would not drink. This is a personal conviction and I don’t judge friends who do.
3. Does it stumble people around me?
I’ve come to realize that different cultures have different tolerances for various things. Take drinking again, for example. In my first year of university overseas, I couldn’t understand why the church I attended brought in bottles of wine for our church dinner gatherings. Initially, I thought that everyone was “sinning” but later on, I learned that drinking is culture-dependent. In that culture, it is normal for friends to meet up and drink a glass or two. But if I were to drink in church back home in Singapore, I would have stumbled those who may be more conservative on such things.
No culture is wrong or “worse” than the other, they are just different. And our actions ought to respect the practices of different cultures.
4. What does my wise counsel say about this?
God does still speak and correct through the wise counsel around us, and we should consider their advice carefully. While we ought not to simply take what they say as pure truth, it doesn’t mean we should completely close our ears to what they have to say. If we disagree with a “rule”, a good practice is to take time to pray about it and check with other mature Christians before deciding what our stand is.
Ultimately, our goal in life is to please God in all that we do. Rules and boundaries can guide us towards that, but God’s word and His spirit is our ultimate guide. As we walk closely with God, He will prompt us to do what is right. If we love God, we will naturally pursue the things that He delights in.