“How about these?” A sales person smiles sweetly as she holds up a pair of wooden shoes.
I hate them.
“Sure,” I hear myself say.
“Whaaaat?!” an inner voice gasps incredulously. “Shhhhhhh,” my soul whispers back. I do not want to be found out.
I get home and toss them in a bin set aside for unwanted things waiting to be recycled or donated. (One might ask why I have a bin set aside for crap. That’s a whole other story for another day.)
What compels me to accept an unwelcome gesture when I do not agree with it?
I do not want to be seen as contrary and – yikes – difficult.
I do not want to be seen at all.
If I reveal myself – if I am honest – I don’t like wooden shoes. I don’t want wooden shoes. I don’t agree with wooden shoes. I am different than people who make and wear wooden shoes and different is excruciating because it has the potential to be disruptive.
What’s the big deal?
For people pleasers, conforming to expectations of other people is everything. Their approval matters deeply because we believe it justifies us, giving us permission to belong, to be a valid tribe member.
This is the bedrock of a human soul. More than food or shelter, we hunger for an identity – the knowledge of who we are and what we are for. We come awake through birth and immediately reach out with gusty wails and wrinkly fingers. Some of us find the comfort of a responding tribe member who soothes us and answers our very first question – am I alone?
Think about any cheesy science fiction movie you’ve seen. When the galactic hero reaches a new land, what is his first question? I don’t remember hearing any of those characters asking for food. Isn’t their primary desire to know who else is there, whether friend or foe?
To find we are alone is a failure to thrive. We eat, we sleep, but we do not live. It was the motivation to rejoin his tribe that drove Tom Hanks to climb aboard a rickety raft against inconceivable odds. His life alone was no life worth living.
This basic motivation compels each of us. When we find ourselves among a tribe that expresses true love, we are esteemed as highly valuable. Others find great meaning and take great delight in knowing us. The joy of belonging to it deeply affirms and strengthens us.
Conversely, other tribes express a false love. It is a crude imitation because honor is earned, not given. Tribe members manipulate one another to conform to a narrow set of expectations. In these tribes, we are what we do. There is no real joy and no authentic self expression.
It we don’t understand true love as youngsters, we never really feel we belong. We are perpetually in a state of earning our place. We fail to thrive because we cannot get past this preoccupation.
When did this begin for me?
I became a perfectionist to relieve my parents of their sadness or, you might say, to earn their happiness. It didn’t work. This isn’t to say they didn’t love me, but the pall of sorrow in our home was thick. The message of grace I heard at church couldn’t endure in the face of inconsistent joy at home. When I came of age, I rebelled and all hell broke loose. But rather than escape the people pleasing, I just preferred pleasing other people. Still a slave.
I conformed hard as I grew into an adult and married a gift called Nate. When kids came, the tangled motives nearly killed me. Inconsistent discipline. Unsustainable obligations. Grudging obedience. Limp joy. The nightmare became real when I saw that I was passing along the same garbage to them. Where I feared others’ disapproval, I was also quick to shame those who disappointed me. No way. No more.
I lived miserably for waaaaay too long. The joy of suffering is what it teaches us. This is what I’ve learned:
I had no idea what true love was. I had no language for it. I couldn’t describe it. I couldn’t express it. I couldn’t feel it.
The epiphany came when I challenged my husband to stop expecting so much of me. He stared dumbly at me; I was not speaking a language he recognized. I was interpreting his sincere expression of love through my blind lens of how love seemed to me.
During the course of our marriage, he would love me imperfectly but faithfully with lavish affection, words of encouragement and acts of sincere service. And I would feel a staggering burden to please him, to meet the expectations I felt queuing up like lunch tickets at a diner waiting to be served. In order to receive all this love he was expressing, I would have to work really hard. Remember, people pleasers are what they do. If I was to be worthy of this love, I would have to do a lot.
Patterns of behavior are learned. We mimic our tribe. It happens in nature, too. The young watch and learn from their elders. We can’t do what we don’t know. It has been the patient loving kindness of my husband that has taught me something new. I believe wholeheartedly that God equipped him for this very specific purpose.
That which hates the truth does not operate as something obviously detestable. It dresses itself as something desirable. Here is the ugly secret about people pleasing: it is utterly detestable for the way it is squarely concerned with what we do and ignores what God has done. People pleasing is a form of idol worship.
Heavy, I know. Read on at your own risk.
People pleasing, perfectionism and rigid rule following are evil because they seek to be right apart from God. Because we do not know what true love is, if we do not know who God really is, we fear rejection more than we fear him. We seek to justify ourselves through perfect, moral or popular behavior. We spend ourselves manipulating one another, our hope anchored in their pleasure, our pleasure as we expect of others and our glory when we achieve esteem for our accomplishments.
What does this evil look like? While I have never crouched in a dark corner and maniacally laughed while throwing fistfuls of money in the air and shoving handfuls of chocolate in my mouth, I drugged myself with the deceptively sweet serum of being publically recognized and revered. Subtle, secret, blind. Gross.
Worse yet, I approached God with the same attitude. I attempted to win his praise, and I expected that he should please me in a vast myriad of ways. I knew many things about God, but I did not know him because I did not hunger for him as much as I hungered for praise. Isn’t it just ironic that what we strive to do for others, by the same token, we expect from them?
We don’t always realize it, but we naturally live under a sin-law tension, square between the opposing forces of our evil desires and the eternal moral law. Driven by evil desires – evil because they hate the truth – we are enticed and dragged away by sin. We are aroused by the law of righteousness to rebel against it because the evil in us hates it. The more we indulge our evil desires, cravings and impulses, our sinfulness increases all the more and we earn death, condemned to destruction like a rotten, unstable building.
Doubt perpetuates this. If I doubt (or do not know) God’s love for me, I cannot desire him nor do the one thing necessary to be rescued from this sickening sin spin cycle. The only way to escape sin is to die to it by turning from it. The power required for this has a name.
Grace. Unnatural strength.
“Through Jesus everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law…But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we [live] in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin, and have come under the control of the Spirit, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” -Acts 13:39, Romans 7:6, Romans 6:20-22
I implore you, do not try to live according to the law. We do this when we seek to be justified on our own, apart from our Father.
“You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope [that is ours through Jesus Christ]. For in Jesus Christ following the law has no value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Galations 5:4-6
In short, “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Galations 5:1
Again, I urge you, when doubt rises and fear stiffens you, do not inject yourselves with the drug of approval. You are deeply loved as you are. Seek to know this true love and enter the deep, abiding joy that affirms and strengthens you. Find the freedom that exists on the other side of a bold “hell no” to all that tries to deceive you.