People-Pleasing: To Sin or Not to Sin

Amy Leigh Bamberg's picture

I’m such a people-pleaser,” she muttered, swatting another tear from her cheek like it was some pesky insect. Throughout our conversation she’d quoted from the plethora of materials that rail against “the sin of people-pleasing.” With a tone of indignation thinly-veiling her self-loathing, she now cited Paul: “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal 1.10).

I listened as this precious woman questioned her loyalty to Christ, convinced that a true follower would never desire something so base as pleasing people. I empathized, then unplugged my grenade...Tick…Tick…Tick…and hurled my question into the air:

“People pleasing. It’s a sin?”

Tick…Tick…BOOM!

Consider the child who carefully makes his bed, wanting to please his parents. Or the student who completes her homework so neatly, seeking to please her teacher. Or the believer who serves with a local outreach to feed the hungry and comfort the homeless, wanting to please her Maker. Is the desire to please others sinful? And, what of the subsequent pleasure they experience in being praised by the person they pleased? Is that sinful?

Evangelicals are so quick to draw their sidearms and fire away at any attitude or action even sniffing of sin. But, let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the psycho-emotional aspect of people-pleasing. Many of us have experienced trauma, and all of us have experienced dysfunction, in our early relationships. Perhaps love was conditional. When the other person became unhappy they left the room; they may have left altogether. When we made the smallest mistake, they would criticize, even punish. And anxiety became a constant emotion–our thoughts constantly disquieted, our souls constantly uneasy. Fear of rejection and/or failure tormented and the only way we could cope was to do everything right, finish every task, and make everybody happy. We were trained to persistently put others’ needs before our own; it was the only way to receive the attention, affection, or admiration that every human needs.{1}  So, when a people-pleaser angles for praise, admiration, or applause, she is typically revealing the condition of her inner world. But, again, is the desire to please–and to receive praise from the one we pleased–sinful?  

In our purest acts of love, we serve the beloved by sharing more of what we have and who we are with them. Whether serving God or humanity, we desire is to increase another’s enjoyment, comfort, or pleasure (Heb 13.16). It’s just as the renowned CS Lewis said, “The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says, ‘Well done,’ are pleased and ought to be.” Not only do I bring pleasure to the other, but also to myself. Lewis continued: “For here the pleasure lies not in what you are, but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please.”{2}

But my flesh can hijack that innocent desire to please. I can, as C.S. Lewis says, “pass from thinking, ‘I have pleased him; all is well,’ to thinking, ‘What a fine person I must be to have done it.’” The more I delight in myself and the less I delight in bringing another pleasure, the more likely I am sinning.{3}

Whether or not my attempt to please is sin must be determined within, because it is based on my motives. For example, invite me to your home for dinner. Afterward I will stand at the kitchen sink and wash every dish. I want to. I want to please you, to offer you the comfort of resting or enjoying other guests. And, I want to experience the pleasure of bringing you pleasure, like the proverb states: “Whoever refreshes others will be refreshed” (Pr 11.25). But, I can just as easily be splashing around that sink and seething: “Those lazy bums. Look at all of ‘em gabbing while I’m doing all the work.” At that point, motivated by a snobbish, self-approving pride, I’m sinning.

Let’s take one step further. What if I’m standing at that sink, scrubbing, because I’m petrified? A thought terrorizes me: if I don’t finish every dish and make you happy, then you’ll reject or criticize me. I’ve been trained to think this way since childhood. Certainly, this “fear of man” can be a trap set by the Adversary, but it’s not sin per se (Pr 29.25). It’s more indicative of my ongoing need to better understand or apply the Gospel, to mature in Christ.

There is so much more to say, but for now let's stop firing accusations against ourselves and others for committing “the sin of people-pleasing.” Let’s engage the heart. Ask questions. Listen. Speak the Truth in love. Demonstrate gratitude when another serves you. Offer each other the space and grace to grow in Christ.

Reflection

Do I struggle with a fear of rejection/failure? Is it prompting me to persistently ignore my own needs or silence my own voice?

Does someone I know struggle with people-pleasing? How can I minister to them?

Notes

1. Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D. Are You a People Pleaser?: How the inability to say ‘no’ can lead to health consequences. October 26, 2012. www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shrink/201210/are-you-people-pleaser (August 27, 2019).

2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p 125-126.

3. Ibid.

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