Thumbs Down to People Pleasing: Strategies to Break Free from Approval Addiction

Scriptures: Galatians 1:10 ; Galatians 2:20
by Jacob Abshire on January 17, 2024

Around 2009, the founder of Facebook promised to introduce a new button to express empathy symbolized by a “thumbs-down” icon. Despite its intention, however, the button was eventually removed. We remember the button today as the “dislike” button. It lacked the traction he desired because it represented “disapproval,” not exactly the mark users desire for their selfies.

Two audiences are reviewing moments of our lives: God and everyone else. When building a blameless reputation (2 Tim. 3:2), we must appropriately identify these audiences and how they react. Sometimes—no, oftentimes—God and everyone else are hitting different buttons. A reputation that God “likes” will often be one the world “dislikes.” We should focus on living a life that does not seek public approval when it doesn’t align with God’s desires.

Navigating the Pitfalls of Human Approval

It’s a tale as old as time, echoing the Biblical era into our selfie-laden world. King Saul, for example, spared the Amalekite king and livestock for the purpose of garnening favor and boosting his status despite the instruction of the Lord (1 Sam. 15:3). The prophet Samuel sharply rebuked him (1 Sam. 15:22-23) because obedience to God is more important. 

In contrast, Jesus taught from the Sermon Mount against performing good works for public recognition, emphasizing that spiritual integrity is compromised when overshadowed by a desire for public acclaim (Matt. 6:1). The caution is this: do not replace spiritual convictions with fleeting social validation.

Undoubtedly, the battle between our intrinsic desire for acceptance and our commitment to God’s approval is a slippery slope. We would do well to remember the proverb: “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” (Prov. 29:25). When we prioritize human approval, we risk navigating into a spiritual storm that often results in a shipwreck. So, we should examine the intentions of our choices to see whether they are anchored in applause or God’s will.

Knowing the Perils of Earthly Affirmation

There is a sad commentary on Peter found in Galatians 2:11-14. Known for his boldness, Peter fell into the trap of people-pleasing when he withdrew from eating with Gentiles, fearing criticism from certain Jewish people. Paul confronted him, recognizing that his actions, influenced by the desire to maintain his reputation among the Jews, were in direct contradiction to the truth of the Gospel, 

Peter’s actions are telling. They show us how powerful the influence of the fear of human opinion is, even with the most steadfast and courageous of believers. It also shows us the pitfalls of pleasing man. When our actions are driven by a fear of disapproval or a desire for human validation, we risk veering off the path God has set for us. It can lead to compromising our values, silencing our witness, and ultimately, disobeying God.

In contrast, we are challenged by the words of Paul in his letter to the Galatian believers when faced with a similar situation: 

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

Pursuing human approval can be alluring, offering immediate gratification and social acceptance. However, this pursuit is often at odds with the call to follow Christ, who Himself was “despised and rejected by men” (Is. 53:3). As followers of Christ, we are called to a different standard, one that values obedience to God over the fleeting and often fickle approval of people.

Embracing the Life of Divine Approval

Our goal to build a blameless reputation is not about donning a facade of piety but embodying a life grounded in authenticity and unwavering faith. As Teflon repels any external substances, the reputation of a godly person repels any external accusations. He is not perfect but steadfastly pursuing Christlikeness.

Daniel, while in Babylonian captivity, showcased this kind of reputation. It was so evident that his adversaries believed the only way to ensnare him was through his devotion to God (Dan. 6:5). His blamelessness wasn’t about perfection but about an unshakable commitment to God’s principles, regardless of societal normals and personal risk.

The apostle Paul shared the same kind of conviction. He urged believers to conduct themselves in a “manner of life” that was “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27). He recognized that blameless living did not score points with God but overflowed from a transformed heart as a result of the power of God’s word. Living in accordance with Scripture naturally cultivates a reputation of integrity and moral fortitude.

At the same time, being “above reproach” doesn’t make you immune to criticism. Even Jesus, who lived a perfect life, faced unjust treatment, which ultimately led to the cross. His life exemplified the standard of being “above reproach,” constantly in sync with the Lord and unblemished in integrity. The challenge lies in balancing our commitment to God’s standards with the temptation to become a people-pleaser. Our actions should spring from a heart ignited by the Gospel, showcasing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), which are genuine markers of a life deeply rooted in Christ.

Finding the Confidence in Godly Validation

Paul’s anchor to his identity and confidence in Christ is the antidote to the snare of people-pleasing. He recognized his life being so intertwined with Christ that the approval of the Lord became his paramount desire. 

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20

In this union with Christ, our need for human approval diminishes as we realize the infinite worth of being loved and accepted by God Himself. This Christ-centered confidence is not a call to disregard the opinions of others entirely. The Bible teaches us to live in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16) and to consider the interests of others (Phil. 2:4). However, it is to be colored and grounded in the love of and humility of Christ, not in a fear of man or a desire to be esteemed by others.

In embracing our identity in Christ, we find a paradoxical joy: the blessing of being “misunderstood” for Christ’s sake. The Lord put it this way, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt. 5:11). Don’t miss this truth—it is a blessing to receive a “dislike” from the world when you also receive a firm “like” from God. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:12).

Living with Christ-centered confidence means making choices that align with God’s will, even when they go against the grain of societal norms or expectations. It means finding peace in misunderstanding, knowing that our true value and worth are found in Christ, not in the fluctuating opinions of people.

Striving for Freedom from Approval Addition

Breaking free from the need for human approval requires intentional steps grounded in spiritual disciplines and a renewed mindset. Here are practical, biblically-based strategies to cultivate a Christ-centered perspective:

Immerse in Scripture. Regularly engaging with God’s Word is foundational. As the psalmist wrote, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11). Scripture shapes our understanding of God’s character and His expectations, realigning our priorities to match His.

Cultivate a robust prayer life. Prayer is a powerful tool in surrendering our desire for approval. Philippians 4:6-7 encourages us to present our anxieties to God through prayer, promising peace that surpasses all understanding. In prayer, we find the strength to resist the temptation of people-pleasing and gain clarity on God’s will.

Seek Godly counsel. A proverb says, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Provv. 15:22). Surrounding ourselves with wise, godly individuals can provide accountability and guidance. Their insights can help us discern when we are veering toward people-pleasing behaviors.

Practice self-examination. Regularly evaluate motives behind actions. Paul advises, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” and “test yourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5). Honest self-assessment helps identify areas where the desire for approval is overshadowing our commitment to the Lord, “or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor. 13:5).

Reflect on the life of Jesus. Consider how Jesus dealt with criticism and rejection. He was often misunderstood and maligned, yet He remained steadfast in His mission. Reflecting on His example provides a blueprint for handling disapproval and staying true to God’s will.

Reframe perspective on criticism. Not all criticism is negative. Constructive criticism can be a tool for growth. Proverbs 27:17 reminds us that “iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” There is value in receiving feedback about our spiritual maturation.

Celebrate small victories. Recognize and appreciate moments when you choose God’s approval over human approval. Acknowledging these victories reinforces the decision to prioritize God’s will and strengthens your confidence in Christ.

Redefine success. Define success not by how many people approve or praise you but by your faithfulness to God’s commands and calling. Set your eyes on the ultimate commendation from Jesus, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21).

By integrating these steps into our daily lives, we gradually shift our focus from seeking human approval to desiring God’s affirmation. This transformation doesn’t happen overnight but through persistent effort and reliance on God’s grace. Are you ready to seek the “like” from God, the only audience whose approval holds eternal significance and brings true fulfillment?

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