Pretty much all of my life I have wanted other people's approval to a degree that hasn't always led to the best decisions. Wearing acid-washed jeans and curling my bangs sky high in high school come to mind as examples.
This desire hadn't lessened when I moved to Germany as a newlywed. I wanted my husband's family to like me, my neighbors to be glad I had moved next door, and the lady checking me out at the grocery store to think I was a great asset to the community. This might have been setting my sights a little high, but you can't fault me for trying.
I packed my suitcases full of all manner of trendy, American 90s clothing and enthusiastically landed in Düsseldorf where everyone wore black or dark brown. I remember wearing a particularly favorite outfit one fall day when I met my next door neighbor. Proudly sporting a bright, floral Laura Ashley romper (picture a button down one piece with slightly ballooning pants coming in tight above the ankle with a coordinating t-shirt underneath—there was even a matching hat, Lord, have mercy), I answered the doorbell with my husband Leo wearing a wide smile. Our neighbor, Frau Hoffmann, launched into an explanation of something in German, and since I didn't understand a word of it, I figured the best response was to give her the biggest smile I could muster so she would know I was friendly. It turned out that she was explaining to us that her husband had just suffered a massive stroke. My reaction was perhaps not the most appropriate one.
Determined that she would like me, I decided to make her some homemade cookies and bring them over. I knew that her husband had fought in WWII and wasn't really excited that “the Allies” had moved in just when he was ready to enjoy retirement. Not to be deterred by this, I headed over.
I knocked on the door, and heard her call out, “Ein Minute, bitte!” Since I spoke all of NO words in German at this point, I just waited, feeling a little self-conscious, because maybe she had just told me to come back later. But no…I could hear her on the stairs…and then the door opened. There stood her seventy-year-old self, in all her glory, buck naked, holding a little bathmat in front of her. May I stress the word little. It didn't cover much. She insisted that I come in (I could figure out what she wanted by her gestures and truly did not want her to get more expressive with her hands—she was barely holding that little bathmat in place), so I followed her naked, saggy rear end up the stairs to the second floor. She excused herself a moment, put on a robe, and came back to receive the cookies. Since she didn't speak English and I didn't speak German, the whole thing was unbelievably awkward to say the least.
And I learned a lesson. While it isn't good to spend your whole life trying to get people to approve of you, a little bit of concern probably serves one very well. I cared too much what people thought of me, but she didn't care quite enough (in my ever so humble opinion).
The place to be is in between those two extremes. If we desire to be a people pleaser more than anything, then any failure in that regard will be crushing, and criticism will derail us. But if we say we don't care what anyone thinks, we'll inadvertently put a wall around our hearts. We won't be vulnerable. And as a result, we'll miss out on true connection with people that only comes from a place of authentic openness. We need to stay in the middle ground where we aren't being a people pleaser but also aren't so hard as nails or loopy that we just don't care what anyone thinks.
We find some very good guidance about this from St. Paul in Galatians 1:10. I know this verse very well because when I was at a Bible study in college, a random person came up to me and handed me these words. Once you read them you can imagine how fab that made me feel. I'm sure my face went red and I felt totally self-conscious (as in, what did I just do that made this quiet observer see that I needed this reminder). It also opened my eyes to an area of my life that definitely needed a bit of correcting. So here is what was written on that piece of paper:
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. (Galatians 1:10)
This verse tells us that we have to choose. Either we run after pleasing people, seeking their approval and letting their expectations dictate our behavior, or we run after pleasing God. Simultaneously pleasing all the people in our lives is utterly impossible. We will invariably disappoint someone, no matter how hard we try. By contrast, God promises that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:30). He knows our limitations and our weaknesses, and He will never ask us to do something that He doesn't equip us for. He gives grace when we are weary. He gives strength when we feel like giving up.
Freedom is found in living your life for an audience of one. Live it to please God. If at the end of the day you figure He is happy with you, that's all that matters. Because ultimately, what we'll want more than anything will be to hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:23)
I'm praying that the choices we make—from what we wear to who we are—are all pleasing to the One whose opinion truly matters.
And I'm praying that when making those choices disappoints people we care about (and I promise you, at some point, it will), we'll have the maturity to LET IT GO.
With you in that struggle,
This post originally appeared on our blog on February 15, 2015.