Galatians: Gospel-rooted Living
People-Pleaser or Servant of Christ?
January 30, 2011
Dr. Todd Wilson, Senior Pastor
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
People-pleaser, or servant of Christ? Which are you? People-pleasers have an inordinate desire to please other people; servants of Christ have an all-consuming passion to please God. People-pleasers are motivated by the fear of man; servants of Christ are inspired by the fear of God. People-pleasers pretend to serve God when they really intend to serve themselves; servants of Christ actually intend to serve God by meeting the needs of other people. People-pleasers are anxious for approval from others and distraught when they don’t get it; servants of Christ simply love others and leave approval or disapproval to the judgment of God.
So, which are you? A people-pleaser or servant of Christ? This is the question God’s word confronts us with today. This is the question the Apostle Paul confronts the Galatians with here in the opening chapter of the letter. “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (1:10).
But why this question? Because Paul knows that the crisis in Galatia is not simply a theological crisis, but a moral one. The Galatians aren’t simply confused; they’re being people-pleasers rather than servants of Christ. This explains, at least in part, why they’re forsaking Paul’s gospel. But Paul also knows that the Judaizers are people-pleasing as well. Sure, they’ve made a good biblical case for the Galatians to get circumcised; but only so that they can, as Paul says, “make a good showing in the flesh,” and avoid displeasing those with power over them (cf. 6:12-13).
Is it any wonder, then, that Paul should inject the theme of people-pleasing into the letter at this point? He must confront people-pleasing head-on because he knows it’s a big part of the crisis in Galatia. And what he wants to say to the Galatians—and what I believe God wants to say to each of you—is simply this: People-pleasers don’t make good servants of Christ.
People-Pleasers Cave under Pressure from Influential People
You see, people-pleasers don’t make good servants of Christ because people-pleasers cave under pressure from influential people. It is the influential people in our lives, not the insignificant, who tempt us to people-please. No one plays the people-pleaser with someone who’s unimportant to them. The Homecoming Queen at OPRF doesn’t play the people-pleaser with any freshman boy. But insecure sophomores sure might try to curry favor with upperclassmen. So, too, you’re not likely to people-please with the person who delivers your mail or bags your groceries. But you might be tempted to people-please around your teacher or your coach or your boss or spouse or your pastor.
Paul certainly understood the pressure of influential people; how they tempt you to compromise your gospel-rooted principles. In fact, in Galatians 2 he describes a time when it would have been very easy for him to fudge on his convictions in order to win the approval of those who were influential. He had made a trip to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the early church. While there, some exerted tremendous pressure upon him to have his colleague Titus circumcised.
Now, in situations like this people-pleasers give in; they cave under the pressure; they’d rather compromise their biblical convictions than have the influential people in their lives look on them with disapproval. Perhaps you’ve found yourself in a similar situation recently; maybe even this week, at work or at school, talking with a friend between classes or interacting with your supervisor over a project.
People-pleasers yield to pressure; but not so, servants of Christ, like Paul. They stand their ground. To those wielding great pressure to compromise, Paul says, “to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (2:5). No doubt, this was a costly move for Paul; surely he earned the disapproval of those who were thought influential in Jerusalem. But he knew his compromise at this point would have been even more costly for the Galatians because it would have meant a compromise of the truth of the gospel, which would have meant serving himself and not them with his actions.
People-Pleasers Ignore Harmful Hypocrisy
But that’s not all. People-pleasers don’t make good servants of Christ because people-pleasers ignore harmful hypocrisy. Within the Christian community few things are as corrosive as hypocrisy. When a Christian has a habit of saying one thing and doing another, or denying with his life what he affirms with his lips, he can do all sorts of damage to that community. And it is the responsibility of the servants of Christ within that community to lovingly confront that person in his or her hypocrisy, lest that person’s hypocrisy spread like gangrene and harm others.
But people-pleasers don’t do confrontation, even loving confrontation of harmful hypocrisy. Instead, they prefer to ignore it, brush it under the carpet, hope it will just go away. This is because people-pleasers know, as we all do, that by confronting someone you run the risk of them being displeased with you, rather than pleased. People-pleasers are acutely aware of this danger, and therefore steer clear of ever confronting anyone over anything, even when they know it’s to their own detriment or the detriment of others.
I imagine the Apostle Paul was at least tempted to ignore the harmful hypocrisy he saw developing in his home church in Antioch. As we learn from Galatians 2:11-14, when the Apostle Peter visited, he and the other Jews freely ate with Gentiles; that is, until a few important individuals from Jerusalem came to town touting a different set of convictions. At which point, Peter pulled back. “For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (2:12). Yet notice how Peter’s one act of hypocrisy spreads like gangrene and infects the whole church: “And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy” (2:13). Every last one of them, led astray by Peter’s one act of hypocrisy. That’s harmful hypocrisy; the kind that undermines a whole church.
Every last one of them led astray, except the converted Pharisee from the city of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul. He didn’t ignore or overlook anyone’s hypocrisy, not even Peter’s. Instead, he called him on it. Paul confronted Peter’s harmful hypocrisy both personally and publically, because of the public nature and consequences of Peter’s treachery. “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (2:14).
But oh how tempting it would have been for Paul to paper-over his differences with Peter! How convenient for him to have called this but a little indiscretion and let it slide. How nice it would have been for Paul not to stick his neck on the line or run the risk of alienating himself from the entire church. Yet how much of a people-pleaser would he have been, and not a servant of Christ, if he would have ignored Peter’s harmful hypocrisy.
Friends, we need to realize that the failure to confront harmful hypocrisy within the body of Christ is one of the reasons why churches remain spiritually anemic and weak. Churches can be breeding grounds for people-pleasers; we might call it by a different name, like ‘passive-aggressive.’ But, at root, it is people-pleasing that leads to all kinds of dysfunctions, double-standards, failures of leadership, and even hypocrisy itself. Yet, instead of loving confrontation of harmful hypocrisy, we ignore it; then go gossip about it with a spouse or a friend.
Some of you have never lovingly confronted harmful hypocrisy. And the reason is not because you didn’t see it; it was right there in front of you. It was because you didn’t want to harm yourself, your own reputation or approval rating in the eyes of others. Though you saw the sin, you didn’t say anything. You let harmful hypocrisy slide, and others were harmed by it or had to clean up after you. That’s cowardly, not Christ-like; that’s playing the people-pleaser, not being a servant of Christ.
People-Pleasers Hide from the Shame of The Cross
There is a third reason why people-pleasers don’t make good servants of Christ. It’s because people-pleasers hide from the shame of the cross. No one likes to be embarrassed, least of all people-pleasers. It’s death to a people-pleaser to be publically exposed or humiliated. But to be a servant of Christ you must, of course, be willing to take up your cross and follow Jesus. Yet the cross, friends, is not just a method of execution; it is a tool of humiliation as well.
In the ancient world, death on a cross was a most shameful of deaths. Crucifixion was both painful and gruesome; but it was also public and therefore embarrassing and humiliating. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus called it “the most wretched of deaths” (J.W. 8.203). Even the pagan orator Cicero knew it as “so horrible a deed” (Verr. 2.5.66). For you were beaten, stripped naked, then nailed by your hands and feet to a piece of wood, which was then made to stand up right in plain daylight, so that every passerby could mock and jeer as you helplessly and hopelessly choke to death.
This is the way Jesus of Nazareth died. He was publically executed, and in the most embarrassing and humiliating fashion imaginable. The founder and perfecter of our faith indeed endured the cross, yes; but only by “despising the shame” of the cross (Heb. 12:2). For shameful it was; and shameful it is; and shameful it continues to be in the lives of those who take it up.
No one understood the shame of bearing the cross better than the Apostle Paul. No one suffered more for serving Christ or was more shamefully treated than him. As Christ’s servant, Paul insisted upon a circumcision-free gospel for Gentiles. And this infuriated some of his Jewish kinsmen, who took out their frustration on Paul. So, he suffered—lots. No doubt, this explains his closing challenge to the Galatians: “From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (6:17).
There were, however, others who tried to sever the relationship between the cross of Christ and being a servant of Christ. In fact, they were the ones stirring up trouble in the churches in Galatia. So, in the closing portion of the letter, Paul levels with the Galatians about them; and he reveals their real motivation in promoting circumcision. “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” (6:12). Their agenda is a people-pleaser’s agenda: to keep up appearances and avoid anything difficult or humiliating. And they’ve come to realize that the only way they’re going to be able to do that is by forcing these Gentiles to get circumcised. So they’re advocating for the Galatians to lose their foreskin so that they can save their own skin and not be persecuted by their fellow Jews.
Of course, Paul understands how this works. He knows he too could make his life a whole lot easier if he would only fudge a little on the cross of Christ. He knows his persecution would quickly vanish if he would just quietly remove the offense of the cross (cf. 5:11). But as a servant of Christ, he won’t do it. Indeed, he can’t do it. In fact, just the opposite; he will not run from the shame of the cross, but boast in it: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (6:14).
No wonder Paul says with such pathos and emotion earlier in the letter, “I have been crucified with Christ” (2:20). Not in some mystical or glibly sentimental sense, but in a most painfully real and costly sense. For he has had to learn the hard way that a servant of Christ cannot avoid the humiliation, cannot run from the shame of the cross.
Less than a week before I was to finish my doctoral thesis and return to the United States, I had dinner with our neighbors in Cambridge, UK. They had invited another friend of theirs, who happened to be a freelance writer: very sophisticated, wealthy, posh, cosmopolitan, bright, quintessentially British. Naturally, he was curious as to what I intended to do after graduation. With a PhD from Cambridge University, he of course assumed I was headed into a Harvard professorship. It only made sense to him.
I told him, instead, that I was taking up a pastorate in the Midwest, in a place called Wheaton, Illinois. By the look on his face, I realized I had to explain to him that the Midwest was that big stretch of land between New York and Los Angeles, that place with all the red states and where buffalo still roam freely; and that a pastorate was working in this thing called a church. But as I was saying all of this, I could see a cheeky grin take shape on his face. It was as if he had all of a sudden discovered what sort of creature he was talking to; and his posture toward me instantly changed. He then peered over the top of his glasses, tilting his head slightly downward toward me, and then said, “The pastorate? Hmmn.” Then he paused, chuckled, and in a most condescending way said to me with a smirk, “That’s a bit anticlimactic from Cambridge, don’t you think?”
Now, for a people-pleaser like me, that was pretty painful thing for him to say. I felt remarkably small at that moment. My pride and vanity were instantly ground up like the salt and pepper there on the dinner table before me. At the same time, I could feel the urge to people-please rise-up within me; I wanted to hide from the subtle shame of the moment, the embarrassment of what it meant for me personally to follow Jesus. In fact, just then I felt like I’d gone outside the camp to bear a little of the reproach Jesus himself bore (cf. Heb. 13:13).
Do you know what the root of the problem with people-pleasers is? The root of the problem is that people-pleasers are idolaters. People-pleasers make idols of other people and thus crave their approval as though it were the bread of life. But, in idolizing other people and their approval, they ultimately idolize themselves. They make idols of themselves and thus require the approval of others as though it were an offering being given to a god. People-pleasing is a kind of self-worship. It is the antithesis of being a servant of Christ Jesus. Which is why Paul actually puts people-pleasing in direct opposition to serving Christ: “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (1:10).
Fighting the People-Pleaser within You
There is a people-pleaser in all of us; one that needs a continual crucifixion if we are going to become the servants of Christ that God would want us to be. But how do you fight and indeed kill the people-pleaser in your own heart? The same way you fight against any remaining sin in your life: by fighting the fight of faith; by trusting in all that God is for you in Christ.
So, if you’re going to gain victory in your battle against people-pleasing, you must embrace the fact, first of all, that Jesus Christ has taken every judgment against you and nailed it to his cross. And there they remain, forever! Every judgment that ever stood against you—or that ever could stand against you! Every single judgment; every harsh or humiliating word uttered by friend or foe is there, nailed to the tree. Indeed, on the cross Jesus even dealt with God’s own judgment of you: his righteous condemnation of you; the just sentence that stands against you because of your sin. He made it and nailed it on the cross. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
But if you’re going to fight the temptation to people-please, you must also come to really believe that God’s judgment is the only one that counts. In fact, in light of God’s judgment of you, every other judgment ought to be small, even to the point of non-existent. “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court,” Paul tells the Corinthians. “In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:3-4).
So don’t entrust yourself to the judgment of others, but to the judgment of God. Listen, people are fickle. And so are their judgments of you. If you’re always working hard to curry favor from other people and do what they think you should do, you will eventually work yourself into a state of exhaustion and despair. Remember, God’s judgment is far kinder than man’s; and God’s judgment is also far simpler than man’s. Not a thousand different and competing expectations of you; God only wants one thing from you: “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Faith in his son Jesus Christ, and love for God and for others borne of the Holy Spirit. For, at the end of the day, this is the only thing that counts before God; this is the only thing that will avail at God’s judgment (Gal. 5:5).
People-pleasers don’t make good servants of Christ because people-pleasers cave under pressure from influential people, ignore harmful hypocrisy, and run from the shame of the cross. But more than that: people-pleasers live anxious lives, always worrying about whether they’ll find approval or disapproval from others; and in so doing they will miss the approval that can come only from God himself.
Bishop Thomas Wolsey once remarked, “If I had served God as faithfully as man, I had been better rewarded, and not forsaken in my distress.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that statement. Being a servant of Christ is far sweeter than being a slave to man’s opinion; and the reward of being a servant of Christ is far, far superior than any reward you can obtain from any man. For only by serving Christ Jesus will you hear on that Final Day the approval that your heart and mine so dearly long to hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
© January 30, 2011 by Dr. Todd A. Wilson