Is it Biblical to please people? In most Christian circles, “people-pleasing” is frowned upon as essentially idolatry–valuing praise from people more than praise from God, and fearing man instead of fearing God. And certainly that is true: when my concern about what someone thinks of me (good or bad) keeps me from obeying Christ, or when my worth and confidence is built on what others say about me rather than on what God says, then that is ungodly people-pleasing.
But Romans 15:1-3 says:
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”
Verse 2 clearly tells us that we are to please our neighbor for his good, in order to build him up. What makes this different from idolatrous people-pleasing is that this is for the good of the other person, and not for our own good. Verse 1 makes it clear that our obligation is “not to please ourselves,” and verse 3 points us to Christ as the example of one who “did not please Himself.” Therefore ungodly people-pleasing is idolatrous not because other people are pleased but because our goal is essentially to please ourselves. (In that sense, the term “people-pleasing” is really a misnomer, because it is more about pleasing self than it is about pleasing others.)
In the verses immediately prior to this passage, Paul is instructing stronger believers not to despise those who are weaker, and likewise those believers who are weaker in certain areas are not to cast judgment on those who are stronger. So these first few verses of chapter 15 act as a summary statement of the arguments that Paul has just made. The summary admonition is that those who are stronger in their faith have an obligation to bear with the failings of those weaker than them. Therefore Godly people-pleasing is just that: bearing with those who are weaker, for their sake.
Our obligation is NOT to please ourselves by condemning someone else’s weakness (and thereby elevating our own supposed strength). Our obligation is NOT to please ourselves by demanding immediate change in another person and then shunning them when that change doesn’t come as fast as we think it should. Our obligation is NOT to please ourselves by assuming that our way is best and that we can learn nothing from that other person.
Rather, our obligation is to bear with them, even in their failings. Notice that the word “failings” is plural–it means multiple failures, many weaknesses, much that needs to change. That is what we are obligated to bear with. And that is how we are to please people in a Godly way–by bearing with failure and weakness and imperfections, rather than condemning and despising. And Christ is our perfect example in that: He was stronger and more mature and more complete than any other person who has ever walked this earth, yet He bore with the weaknesses and failures of those around Him, even to the point of taking their reproach upon Himself. Even now, Christ bears with us in our constant failings and weakness and immaturity, though He has every right to please Himself by wiping us off the face of the earth.
I’ve been chewing on this passage this week and it has been an especially challenging truth for me because I have a daughter in my home whose mind is very weak and who cannot think and reason and learn “typically”, and I am struggling to bear with her. I am not treating her with the same forbearance and grace that Christ gives to me every day. And yet that is my obligation, not for my sake, but for hers. Jesus, I need You…