We all crave acceptance by others. Babies are socialized by learning to read the cues from those they want to please and adjusting their behaviors accordingly. However, when we seek most of our validation and self-worth from the opinions of other people, we are on the wrong path. Popular opinion changes like the breeze, and when we place too much importance on it, we are setting ourselves up for an endless string of disappointments. As long as we pursue popularity as a means to happiness, we are flirting with idolatry. When we find our personal worth in anything or anyone besides God, we are creating an idol. An idol is whatever or whomever we use to meet deep, heartfelt needs that only God can meet.
The desire to be popular is more than merely wanting others to think well of our character—we should desire to have a good testimony in the world (Philippians 2:15). A focus on popularity is an obsession with self. The craving for popularity is part of the “pride of life” mentioned in 1 John 2:16. It feels good to the ego to consider ourselves popular, and we tend to bask in that feeling rather than deal honestly with ourselves about our own weaknesses. This leads to pride. Pride inflates our view of our own importance and blinds us to our sins and failings (Proverbs 16:18; Romans 12:3). Even when the choice to please others does not involve open disobedience to God, pride is always at the heart of the desire for popularity. And God hates pride (Proverbs 8:13; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).
Popularity is an elusive god that many have chased to their own destruction. King Herod was basking in popularity at the very moment of his ghastly, public death (Acts 12:19–23). False teachers are always popular with the “itching ears” crowd (2 Timothy 4:3). A sad example of choosing popularity over God is found in John 12:42–43: “Many even among the leaders believed in [Jesus]. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God.” Everyone who desires to be popular will have to choose many times between the approval of others and the approval of God. God’s plan for us is often in conflict with the world’s plan for us (1 John 2:15). To be “popular,” we must choose the world. But doing so means Jesus is not Lord of our lives; we are (Luke 9:23).
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.” According to this verse, we cannot consistently please both God and the world. The desire for popularity is rooted in our old sinful nature. When we give in to it, we are living “according to the flesh” (Romans 8:5, 12). Even Christian leaders can fall prey to this seductive desire. Teachers or preachers who become intoxicated with their own popularity are at risk. Unchecked, a desire to be popular can lead them to become men-pleasers, teach heresies (2 Peter 2:1), and design their ministries to please the most people (2 Timothy 4:3) rather than remain true to the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
Jesus is our model. He was a favorite with both God and man as he grew up (Luke 2:52). But there was never a contest in His mind about which He would choose, and He proved that over and over again (John 8:29; Mark 1:11). He did not let temporary popularity influence Him or dissuade Him from His purpose (John 6:15). He never shied away from the hard truths, even when it meant rejection (John 6:66), threats (John 11:53–54), and, eventually, death (John 19:16).
Jesus gives us a perfect example of the way He wants us to relate to others. We are not here to make a name for ourselves. We are here on assignment from our Heavenly Father (Acts 1:8; Matthew 28:19). People may love us, or they may hate us, but our commitment to our purpose should never waver (Hebrews 12:1–3). When we choose to allow God to define our value rather than other people, we free ourselves to follow everything Jesus calls us to do. He knew it would be hard, but He gave us the best counsel when He said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:11–12).