In my head, I am a lion.
I tolerate no foolishness. I am direct and assertive while still being kind. I don’t brook nonsense. My boundaries are clear. I don’t spend time worrying about what other people think of me or about whether or not I’m making them happy.
In real life I’m more of a lamb, unless I’m in the classroom (where a leonine attitude is most definitely required). While I often talk a big game or perceive myself as direct when necessary, I try to avoid conflict or stepping on toes when I can. I am not great at being assertive in any environment beyond the academic. I don’t like upsetting people or causing problems. And if I have to argue or debate something with someone I love, no matter how important it is or how calm I seem, well…my stomach is usually churning.
I’m not the only one who has this problem. This is because I’m a born people-pleaser. If any of the above rings a bell, then maybe you’re the same way. I suspect that a lot of Christians struggle with people-pleasing in general, since we often delude ourselves that many characteristics of people-pleasing are godly ones. The truth is, though, sometimes a preoccupation with people-pleasing can actually inhibit our spiritual growth.
If you struggle with people-pleasing as I have, here are some Biblical truths to help you move beyond it:
1. Conflict is not inherently anti-Christian. People-pleasing buys into the idea that any disagreement with others is bad and ungodly – therefore, disagreement should be avoided at all costs. But that isn’t so. We see evidence of conflict throughout the Bible. Paul and Barnabas disagreed (Acts 15:39). Paul and Peter disagreed (Galatians 2:11-16). And members of the Corinthian church kept debating over whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols.
In all of these cases, the disagreement itself is not the problem. It did not wreck the church. Disagreement and conflict is not always fundamentally wrong. In fact, Christian conflict is non-threatening by nature: believers should, according to the Scriptures, be able to disagree in love and respect without causing lasting damage to each other or to the church. Conflict only becomes problematic when it creates discord among believers or causes believers to fall away from the faith.
If you shy away from disagreeing with someone or causing conflict just because you “don’t want to get into a whole thing” or because confrontation unnerves you or because you’re afraid it’s not Christian, take heart! The Bible shows it’s inevitable that we will disagree, and that we can do so and be okay.
2. Being direct in speech and manner is a godly blessing. For me, people-pleasing results in passive-aggressive speech and sometimes not saying a lot of what I want to say. Rather than say something outright in the fear it will make someone uncomfortable or, heaven forbid, “start something,” I often hint at it in a roundabout way and hope people will figure it out on their own.
But it’s unfair to expect someone to figure out how you feel or what you think if you refuse to say so aloud, even if you know them very well or think they should know. The Bible commands us frequently to be honest, and not to engage in doublespeak or duplicitous language or behavior. That isn’t to say you should be hurtful or cruel with your words, of course, but it is possible to be honest even about difficult matters without being either of those things. Jesus certainly was. Be direct. Be clear. In all things, let your yes your yes and your no be no; don’t deliberately obfuscate or hide your meaning.
3. Boundaries (and the assertiveness to draw them) are sometimes necessary. People-pleasers often equate “being a good Christian” with “never saying no.” But there is nothing in the Bible that supports this. The apostles were wonderful at delegating tasks to those best suited for them; God mandated a day of rest for His children. You don’t have to do everything! In fact, you shouldn’t. Many people-pleasing Christians treat “no” like it’s a profanity; it isn’t. It’s a word that you need to learn and use in order to draw boundaries. Over-extended Christians struggle to manage everything they’ve committed to and, ironically, their private time and individual walk with God is often the first thing to go.
4. It is not your job to make other people happy. It is your job to serve and love people in the name of Christ. And this often will indeed make them happy! Existing in relationships as God intended often allows for a lot of happiness, indeed. That’s good and as it should be.
But people-pleasers fall victim to the fallacy that we are responsible for everyone’s happiness; that, if someone is unhappy around us, it’s our problem to fix. This is an important distinction I’ve only just now realized in the last several years. Certainly these two things often overlap: when we serve people and we love them, we often do make them happy. But not always. That’s okay, and we need to learn it’s okay.
Some people are unhappy for reasons that have nothing to do with us. Some people are unhappy for reasons we can’t fix. Some people are unhappy for reasons we shouldn’t fix. The goal is simply to serve others and love others; if they become happy through that process, then that’s fine! But if they don’t, then that’s okay, too. If we’re treating other people as God has asked us to treat them, that’s the most we can hope for.
5. Pleasing God is what’s important.
The one blessing that people-pleasers have is that…well, we’re eager to please. Really eager. And that is a benefit to our relationship with God! Rather than spend all your time worrying about people around you and trying to avoid conflicts and keeping everyone happy, channel that energy to the One who desires you to make Him happy and to please Him as much as you can.
We people-pleasers can sometimes fall victim to fretting over worldy matters: what will this person think? What should I do to avoid a problem with this other person? How can I keep all the balls in the air so that no one gets angry?
The joy of our faith is that it wipes away all of our questions to replace them with just one:
Will this please God and is this part of His great purpose for me?
People-pleasers, let that question be your go-to and your deciding motivator. If the answer is “yes,” then full steam ahead! If the answer is “no” or “I don’t know” or “God would probably be fine with either choice” or “maybe,” then take some time to evaluate. See whether the urges for your behavior are borne of a desire to grow closer to the Lord, or simply to keep other people happy and to prevent conflict.
Every believer is different, and the variety of our skills is a gift. Considering others, putting others first, working to mend conflicts, encouraging: all of these things are wonderful. But people-pleasing can trip us up; it can tangle us up in the web of others’ expectations while preventing us from getting about the work of God.
Be wary of it when you can!