People-pleasing is the motivational force that drives a person to make decisions based solely on the level of approval they believe they will receive. Related to people-pleasing are codependency and enabling; within a biblical framework, people-pleasing borders on idolatry.
People-pleasers have learned that it feels good to be liked by others, so they steer their words and actions in the direction that offers the most approval. On the surface, people-pleasers appear to be selfless, kind, and generous. However, beneath the surface, they are desperately insecure and believe that approval equals value. They eventually find that trying to please people all the time is not only exhausting, it is impossible. Some people-pleasers may start manipulating relationships and situations in order to gain the rush of satisfaction associated with creating pleasant responses in others. So the term people-pleaser is actually a misnomer. People-pleasers strive to please everyone because they are trying to please themselves.
Some people, by nature, are more prone to people-pleasing. Compliant, sensitive types are often keenly aware of the responses of other people, so they gauge words and choices to avoid negative feedback. Sometimes they view this trait as positive, comparing their people-pleasing with the selfless actions of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Acts 10:38). However, the difference between Jesus’ unselfish service and the actions of a people-pleaser is motive. Jesus lived to glorify and obey His Father (John 8:29). He loved, gave to, and served people, but He was also not afraid to say what needed to be said, even when people got angry. He often rebuked people in public for their hypocrisy and lack of faith (e.g., Matthew 23:15). He seemed to care little about how well His audience would receive His words. He spoke exactly what needed to be said, even when it led to His death (Mark 15:1–2; John 18:37). Jesus was the opposite of a people-pleaser.
We can take steps to stop a habit of pleasing people by first acknowledging it as sin. When our guiding force is popularity, we have switched gods, and that is idolatry. When we allow anything to control us other than the Holy Spirit, our hearts have erected a shrine to a competing god (Ephesians 5:18; Galatians 5:16, 25). Seeking praise from fallible human beings rather than seeking God’s approval is a slippery slide into error. John 12:43 tells us that, even in Jesus’ day, some people believed His message but refused to follow Him because “they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” People-pleasing can lead to eternal separation from God when we allow it to dictate our choices.
Once we recognize our people-pleasing inclinations as sin and repent of them, we must find an alternate motivation. First Corinthians 10:31 tells us that our motive in everything should be to glorify God. When we develop an intimate relationship with Him through saving faith in Jesus, He becomes our focus. We switch allegiance from self-worshiping to God-worshiping. Our goal is no longer pleasing ourselves but pleasing Him (Colossians 1:10). We find great freedom when we break the vise-like grip that people-pleasing has on our lives. Rather than trying to please a hundred voices, we need listen only to One (John 10:27). At the end of every day, only one question is relevant to a Christian: “Lord, was I as pleasing to you today as I know how?” When the answer is “yes,” we can bask in the pleasure of God. We find our validation in who He says we are.
Another important step in overcoming an addiction to people-pleasing is to guard our hearts against covetousness. Envy feeds people-pleasing when we covet the approval or popularity of someone else. This is most evident in teenagers idolizing rock stars and athletes, but adults are guilty of this, too. People-pleasing based on envy is more prevalent than we realize, and most of us can find traces of it somewhere in our lives.
People-pleasing prevents us from being all God has called us to be. It silences us when we should speak and threatens us when we do speak. An insidious form of people-pleasing in the church today is forecast in 2 Timothy 4:3: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” Preachers whose desire is to draw crowds and sell books cultivate the sin of people-pleasing and call it “ministry.” Drawing crowds is not a sin, but when the motivation is to please people and not God, there is a problem. If the apostles had been people-pleasers, they would never have been martyred for their faith.
We cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). We cannot be fully devoted to the gospel of Christ and also fully devoted to the approval of people. They will not merge. That may be one reason Jesus made discipleship such a narrow road. He said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Part of denying ourselves is crucifying our need to please people and have them like us (1 Thessalonians 2:3–5; Galatians 1:10).
We say with Peter, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29). It is not our job to make people happy. Rather, we are to live as the best people we can be, serve the Lord in every way He calls us, die daily to our own selfish desires, and receive our reward from Him (1 Corinthians 4:5). When that is our life goal, we will stop being people-pleasers.