Written by Joanna Tan, Singapore
Even though I’ve always been familiar with the term “people-pleaser”, I’ve never thought of myself as one. Perhaps it was because I had never truly reflected on my actions and motivations, but I saw people-pleasers as ones whose lives completely revolved around other people—something that I did not think applied to myself.
What Would They Think (of Me)?
However all this changed in the course of a Bible study series I did last year, where I was deeply challenged by what Luke 9-16 teaches about being a disciple of Jesus.
During one of the sessions, we started out by talking about things that brought us joy. The questions about joy stuck with me even after the study. It made me realise that our joys shape our pursuits in life—and that most of the things we found joy in contrasted with the images of joy we read later on in the Gospel of Luke, such as, rejoicing in salvation (Luke 15:7) and obeying God (Luke 6:23). I realised that instead of finding joy in obeying Jesus, what gave me joy was making other people like me.
Although I recognise that my relationships with people are a gift from God, American preacher and writer Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods helped me see that I did not just cherish these relationships; rather, I had been pursuing their love and acceptance. Whenever people accepted me, it made me feel significant; it gave my life value and meaning. For a long time, this desire for acceptance shaped how I live and the choices I made.
In fact, my desire to obey God has often been overriden by my desire for others’ approval. I’ve avoided talking about why I did or valued certain things differently as a Christian for fear that people would see me less favourably because of it. I just wanted to fit in.
For instance, I love being in church and taking part in bible studies, but I often downplay what they mean to me before unbelieving friends and peers who perceive them as boring. There was also a time when I went through a difficult injury, and became convicted of God’s goodness and love towards me through that experience. I am grateful to God for the suffering I went through because it deepened my need and trust for Him in a way I would not have known without the injury. Yet I still struggle to speak up for God before others whenever people chime in their thoughts on my suffering when they see my scar.
However, a few painful relational struggles led me to realise that man’s approval is transient. Following an unfortunate turn of events last year, I ended up parting ways with a best friend of 15 years. I also faced rejection from my childhood friends when I returned to Singapore. Even though I had prioritised these relationships, these disappointments showed me that basing my worth on people’s acceptance of me would always be futile. I always have to be chasing after the next thing to be of value and worthy of acceptance—be it success, possessions, or relationships.
It doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped investing in relationships (I still do!), only that I’ve realised the foolishness of pursuing people’s acceptance at all cost, especially if it came ahead of God’s approval of me. Whenever I’m tempted to please others first before God, here are three antidotes that have proven helpful for me:
1. Meditate on the gospel
As a Christian for many years, I’ve understood the gospel in my head, but it does not always permeate and transform aspects of my life. I’m thankful that my church constantly preaches that the gospel—the good news of what Christ has done for us—should be at the centre of our faith and is fundamental to how we interpret the Bible. This has helped me be increasingly in awe of the gospel and reminds me to constantly allow it to shape my life more and more.
And the gospel is simply this: Jesus Christ gave Himself for me even when I was (still am) undeserving of it. I did not have anything—whether in my job, achievements, popularity, health (or anything else)—to prove that I am desirable or worthy. But by giving up His life for me, He has given me a worth and value that is secure in Him.
I must keep going back to the gospel to know that I am valued, saved, and accepted by God even at my worst. Therefore, I can live to please the King—not to become deserving of His grace, but to delight Him who has given all for me.
2. Keep my eyes on Jesus’s authority
As I study the Bible and learn more about who Jesus Christ is—His authority and everlasting dominion, I am increasingly convicted to trust Him, fear Him, and live in accordance to His ways (Isaiah 9:7). And His authority extends not only to my life on earth but also to my life beyond this earth, and so His approval of me should be my utmost priority.
I need to be conscious that Jesus will come back again (and soon!). What matters at the end of the day is not what others think of me, but how I am accountable to God—in the way I use my time, gifts, and resources for His kingdom.
Now, whenever I am afraid to reveal more about my faith to others, I remind myself that my confidence is not in myself but in God. Even if others do reject me for my beliefs, I am still loved and accepted by God. This gives me the courage to take risks in my relationships and to take opposition or rejections in my stride.
3. Remember the futility of self-indulgence
As important as it is to avoid making decisions based on others’ judgement of me, I also have to be wary of pursuing only what I want or what pleases me. Experience has taught me that the happiness that comes from selfishly pleasing myself has always quickly faded or become meaningless, and in worse cases, led to wrong decisions that brought pain and regret.
As a people-pleaser, I know that living for the audience of one—that is God—will always be a constant battle for me. Even when I’ve set my heart and mind to purposefully “live for Jesus”, to turn away from my sinful ways even when it is unpopular, and to love others even when it’s unseen and unappreciated, I know I may still be tempted to desire man’s approval—for instance, when I serve at church or bring someone to Christ. But as Jeremiah 17:5-7 puts it:
This is what the LORD says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the LORD.
“He will be like a bush in the wastelands; he will not see prosperity when it comes. He will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.
“But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him.”
Being aware of my sinful tendencies to please man reminds me to always turn to God for help. I need to keep going back to the Bible to know who God is, why I obey Him, and to desire His delight more than anything else—so that my confidence and trust may be fully placed in Him.