Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Colossians 3:23-24)
Peter and the other apostles replied, "We must obey God rather than human beings."
I’ve spent much of my life attempting to make people happy. I LOVE BEING LOVED. I also don’t like conflict. I’m not alone in this desire, I know, because I’ve encountered hundreds of other people-pleasers along the way. We can make ourselves sick playing to everyone’s whim.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19, Paul writes, "Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible." And at first glance, this statement makes Paul sound like a chronic people pleaser. But the reality is actually quite the opposite. Paul is making this statement to explain why he has rejected financial support from wealthy patrons in Corinth. Corinthian society was founded on patronage. Wealthy members of society would “sponsor” their clients, who could then spend their days making art, giving rhetorical speeches, and getting involved in social society. Though they would not have high status, they would use their voice to publicly affirm how great their patrons were, which would translate into their patrons rising in social and political influence. Paul has chosen to reject patronage from some of the wealthy Corinthian church members, and they aren’t thrilled with him because of it. One scholar even mentioned that rejection of patronage would be akin to rejection of friendship. But Paul knew that if he accepted their financial support, he would be forced to honor them and serve them disproportionately. God had called him to care for all of the young church, not just it’s wealthy members, and so he rejects it. After all, how could he ever bring words of challenge to his patrons, if he knew that doing so might kill his funding? When Paul says he “belongs to no one,” he is stating clearly that his life will be lived according to Jesus alone, and not beholden to any individual’s expectations.
People pleasing comes in many shapes and forms. Sometimes the pressure is from outside, and sometimes it's from within. For some of us it is the chronic need to impress others or look good in front of them. For others, it is the desire to live up to another’s expectations. For some of us it is about feeling important. In every case, at some point, most of us will face the temptation of people-pleasing. But eventually, in the quiet places, we must all ask ourselves this question: Who is directing my life? Is it the people around me? Or is it Jesus?
The great irony, as we see in Paul’s situation, is that moving away from a people-pleasing mindset actually gives us the freedom to love without restraint. Paul was able to love and serve the poorest members of his church equally, because he refused to be beholden to anyone, even if that made his own livelihood more difficult. He was also able to speak things that needed to be spoken, because he didn’t feel the pressure to elevate one person over another.
When we realize that Jesus is the real one we are serving, then we can serve all people in freedom.
Jesus, free me from the need to impress and please, so that I can serve you fully.