Is it wrong to seek the approval of people?
It can be.
Proverbs contains a lot of warnings about false approval in the form of flattery.
The Israelites got into trouble for wanting a king like other nations and wanting the gods of other nations.
Jesus warned against acting like hypocrites who practice their righteousness to be seen and praised by others.
Approval doesn’t always mean we are right. We can be misled by approval for the wrong things or from the wrong kinds of people. The desire for approval can lead us down the wrong path.
One of C. S. Lewis’s essays in The Weight of Glory is called “The Inner Ring.” “Our longing to enter them, our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel when we get in” (p. 149) can lead us into temptation. If you’ve read That Hideous Strength, the third in Lewsis’s space trilogy, this was exactly what drew Mark Studdock further into an evil organization which he didn’t recognize as such because he was so blinded by his ambition to be included.
So, yes, there is danger in seeking approval of others instead of God.
Paul instructed us to serve “with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free (Ephesians 6:5-8. Colossians 3:22-24 is similar.)
But there is a kind of approval which is not sinful, I think.
Elisabeth Elliot wrote in “The Trail to Shandia” in her book Love Has a Price Tag of a trip she took back to the jungle where she used to live twenty-three years before. She described he various kinds of terrain her party covered—submerged logs, gravel, mud the thickness of peanut butter up to one’s knees. In some of the firmer soil, she frequently saw the small footprint of a young child who had come that way not long before. Knowing that this little child had traveled the same trail and made it encouraged Elisabeth that she could make it, too.
She talked with some of the people there who remembered her from her earlier time there. One spoke of trying to write a letter to her, but then deciding it was no good and throwing it away. Elisabeth wrote:
Sometimes readers of things that I write tell me long afterward that they have thought of writing me a letter, or have written one and discarded it, thinking, “She doesn’t need my approval.” Well, they’re mistaken–for wouldn’t it be a lovely thing to know that a footprint you have left on the trail has, just by being there, heartened somebody else?
Earlier, she had written:
Analysis can make you feel guilty for being human. To be human, of course, means to be sinful, and for our sinfulness we must certainly “feel” the guilt which is rightly ours–but not everything human is sinful. There is a man on the radio every afternoon from California whose consummate arrogance in making an instant analysis of every caller’s difficulties is simply breathtaking. A woman called in to talk about her problems with her husband who happens to be an actor. “Oh,” said the counselor, “of course the only reason anybody goes into acting is because they need approval.” Bang. Husband’s problem identified. Next question. I turned off the radio and asked myself, with rising guilt feelings, “Do I need approval?” Answer: yes. Does anybody not need approval? Is there anybody who is content to live his life without so much as a nod from anybody else? Wouldn’t he be, of all men, the most devilishly self-centered? Wouldn’t his supreme solitude be the most hellish? It’s human to want to know that you please somebody.
People I’ve known who often speak of needing to please only God, not people, sometimes had rough edges about them, as if pleasing God meant defying other people or interacting with them roughly. Pleasing God and pleasing people aren’t always mutually exclusive.
Paul said, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” He tried to please others in the sense of not causing unnecessary offense. The gospel in itself causes offense to those who don’t want to hear it, but we don’t need to be offensive in our words and behavior.
Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 about married people seeking to please each other. Asking a husband if he likes our new dress or the way we fixed the pork chops isn’t wrong, nor is a husband’s telling his wife of something at work that went well.
Ultimately we want to hear God’s “well done” (Matthew 25:21)—not for salvation. That’s a free gift. (Ephesians 2:8-9). But when we give an account of what we’ve done, as His children, with what He gave us, we want Him to be pleased.
C. S. Lewis once again brings clarity between the right and wrong kinds of approval in Mere Christianity:
Pleasure in being praised is not Pride. 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 all pleased and ought to be. 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. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, “I have pleased him; all is well,” to thinking, “What a fine person I must be to have done it.”
Wanting approval in the sense of knowing we’ve pleased someone, knowing our life or efforts were helpful or appreciated, knowing we’re on the right track, is one thing. Wanting approval for the sake of inflating pride, drawing undue attention to self, or stroking ego is another.
Our most basic need for approval has been met in Christ, through His perfection and grace and not our own. He “made us accepted in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:6-7, NKJV).
When the approval of people means displeasing God, we need to forgo the approval of people. Paul said he sought to please God by preaching the true gospel even though preaching a false one would have saved him from persecution and earned him approval of man. We need to keep being faithful to God whether anyone approves or not—even whether someone actually disapproves.
But sometimes He sends someone with an encouraging word to let us know we’re on the right track or we’ve done something well. It’s okay to appreciate such feedback and even thank God for it. But we need to guard our hearts so we don’t think, as Lewis said, “What a fine person I must be.” We serve “as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (I Peter 4:11).
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