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Trade Paperback
256 pages
Jan 2007
P & R Publishing

Pleasing People: How Not to Be an "Approval Junkie"

by Lou Priolo

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The notion of “codependency” has been given lots of attention in recent years. Countless books, articles, seminar workshops, college courses, radio programs, and even sermons have arisen to help people get a handle on this new pop-psychology buzzword. But the term has become so prevalent that it is now difficult to find two people who define it in exactly the same way. As Christians, however, we must take care to define and diagnose man’s problems “not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words” (1 Cor. 2:13 NIV).

So what does God’s Word call this not-so-new phenomenon? Actually, several biblical words describe it. In the most general terms, the concept of codependency seems to best fall under the biblical category of “idolatry”—looking to someone (or something) else to do for me those things that only God can do. In terms of a type of person who is characterized by this particular kind of behavior, “people-pleaser” is the more specific diagnosis. The motive of such an individual is identified in John 12:43: he “loved the approval of men rather than [or at least more than] the approval of God.”

All of this will be developed more fully in subsequent chapters, but before we go any further, let me try to help you evaluate how much of a people-pleaser you may be. The People-Pleasing Inventory is designed to help individuals get a general sense of their tendencies to fall into the sin of people-pleasing. Respond to each of the following twenty statements, using the rating scale below.



  • Never (or Hardly Ever) 5
  • Seldom 4
  • Sometimes 3
  • Frequently 2
  • Always (or Almost Always) 1

1. I listen with anxious attentiveness when others discuss that which pleases or displeases them. ______

2. I strive to be politically correct more than biblically correct. ______

3. I like to go “fishing” for compliments. ______

4. I gossip about others to people whom I believe will be pleased with me for giving them such luscious tidbits of information. ______

5. My desire for a good reputation is predominantly based on how such a reputation will benefit me rather than how that reputation will serve as a means to a greater end, such as the glory of God, the good of others, or some other unselfish objective. ______

6. I value the approval of certain individuals from whom I expect to receive certain honors more than the approval of those from whom I do not expect to receive such honors. ______

7. I worry about what people think of me. ______

8. I am willing to sin rather than face the rejection of certain individuals. ______

9. I struggle with being a respecter of persons and showing favoritism. ______

10. I believe that being rejected is one of the worst things that a person could possibly experience. ______

11. I avoid conflicts rather than trying to resolve them. ______

12. I take unnecessary precautions to protect my good name. ______

13. I become angry when I am contradicted by others, especially when being publicly contradicted. ______

14. When meeting new people, I spend more time thinking about how to impress them than how to minister to them. ______

15. My fear of being rejected paralyzes me to the extent that it keeps me from getting close to others. ______

16. I forget that being rejected by others is part of the “suffering for righteousness’ sake” that is my reasonable service to God and part of my calling as a Christian. ______

17. I long to be noticed more than I long to be godly. ______

18. I give in to peer pressure rather than standing up for what I know is right. ______

19. I do not witness to others as I should because I fear being criticized or rejected. ______

20. I overreact to criticism by dwelling on it too long or unnecessarily allowing it to depress me. ______



Here is a simple, albeit nonscientific,1 way to determine the level of your struggle with approval. If you’ve not yet done so, please take a moment right now to tally your inventory score. If you scored between 96 and 100, you do not have a problem with people-pleasing. (You may have a problem with being insensitive, callous, or even hard hearted, but you’re definitely not a people-pleaser.) If your total points fall between 90 and 95, you’re probably free from the love of approval. If your total was between 80 and 89, you are probably a bit too concerned with the approval of others. If you scored between 70 and 79, you may, in fact, be a bona fide people-pleaser. If your score was 69 or below, you may very well be an approval addict. (You are probably somewhat enslaved to the approval of man.) The lower your score, the more helpful you should find the contents of this book.

How’d you do? Perhaps you scored better than you thought you would. Perhaps your score was worse than you had hoped. Because the problem of approval is rooted in pride, and pride is endemic to every human heart, each of us will, in varying degrees, struggle with the temptation to be people-pleasers. So don’t be too discouraged with your score, and don’t be too proud of yourself if you obtained a high score on this preliminary evaluation. The real test of your approval addiction will come as we take a closer look at characteristics of a people-pleaser below. But before we do that, I’d like to digress momentarily to make an important point about idolatry.


As there are two sides to a coin, so there are usually two sides to idolatry. The first side involves neglecting God. The other involves replacing Him with a cheap substitute. The “heads” side of the coin says, “Inordinate Desire for Something.” The “tails” side says, “Inordinate Fear of Losing Something.” People who love money fear losing their wealth. Those who love to be in control fear being unable to control the circumstances and people that surround them. The person who loves pleasure is often afraid of missing out on opportunities to gratify his fleshly desires.

As with any other form of idolatry, the sin of people-pleasing also has two sides. For the people-pleaser, love of man’s approval is accompanied by the flip side of the coin: fear of losing someone’s approval (or respect, or favorable opinion), or fear of being rejected, or sometimes even fear of conflict. Keep this in mind as you evaluate your own struggle with people-pleasing.


What does an approval addiction look like? This spiritual malady can manifest itself in many symptoms. The list that follows is far from exhaustive. Yet the presence of even one characteristic should be all that is necessary to convict a sincere Christian of the presence of a toxic level of pride in his heart.

1. He fears the displeasure of man more than the displeasure of God. Not only does the people-pleaser love the wrong thing (the approval of man rather than the approval of God), he fears the wrong thing as well— he fears the disapproval of man more than the disapproval of God.

Fear is a powerful emotion. It has power for good as well as for evil. The right kind of fear (the fear of God, for example, or the fear of sin and its consequences) keeps us from danger. The wrong kind of fear leads us into danger. “The fear of man brings a snare” (Prov. 29:25). Let’s take a look into a key passage of Scripture:

    Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God. (John 12:42–43)

These rulers did not sin because they wanted to enjoy a bit of recognition. Rather, it was their loving man’s approval rather than (or perhaps “more than,” as the Greek might be rendered) God’s approval that drew John’s criticism. It’s bad enough to inordinately long for the approval of others. It’s much worse when such longings transcend one’s longing for God. These rulers feared the wrong things. They were afraid of being excommunicated from the synagogue, which meant that they stood to lose quite a bit more than a good seat in church. As Timothy Dwight pointed out in his sermon titled “On the Love of Distinction,” they feared man rather than God:

    The dread of this punishment prevented these rulers from acknowledging their belief in the Redeemer. Excommunication among the Jews was followed by the loss of all the ecclesiastical privileges which a Jew could claim as his birthright. At the same time, it assured to the unfortunate subject the hatred and contempt of his nation: and this seems to have been the evil principally dreaded by these rulers: so dreaded, that neither the wisdom and excellence of the Redeemer, nor the stupendous miracle, of which they had just been witnesses,[2] could induce them to encounter it: “For,” says the evangelist, “they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”3

The love of man’s approval is inextricably bound to the fear of man’s disapproval. When a people-pleaser interacts with others, his thoughts immediately and instinctively run in the direction of selfishness, anxiety, and fear.

  • “I’m not prepared to meet this person.”
  • “What does he think of me?”
  • "I’ll probably make a fool of myself.”
  • “I can’t reveal too much of myself or he will know what I’m really like and reject me.”
  • “I can’t bear the thought of being hurt again.”
  • “I have to get away from this person as quickly as possible.”
  • “I have to be careful not to say anything that might get me into a conflict.”

A people-pleaser is not a peacemaker, but rather a peace-lover. A peacemaker is willing to endure the discomfort of a conflict in the hope of bringing about a peaceful resolution. (Peace not only is the absence of conflict, but is often the result of it.) A peace-lover is so afraid of conflict that he will avoid it at almost all costs. He is so concerned about “keeping the peace” with his fellow man that he is often willing to forfeit the peace of God that comes from standing up and suffering for the truth. He is essentially a coward at heart.

2. He desires the praise of man above the praise of God. Unless he was backed into a corner with the evidence, the approval junkie might never admit that he loves anything more than the Lord. “Of course I love God more than anything else!4 Look at all the good things I do for Him! Look at all the time I’ve invested in serving him. My whole life is built around my faith. Surely I don’t love the approval of man above the approval of God!”

I wonder whether that’s what the scribes and Pharisees thought. They could certainly have made such claims. But although they were outwardly religious, they were among the clearest examples of people- pleasers in the Bible. They wanted approval so much that they spent a great deal of their time and effort doing those things that would bring them glory from men.

    But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. (Matt. 23:5–7)

Even those things that are religious in nature (such as prayer, fasting, and giving) can be done with a hypocritical motive to gain man’s approval.

    Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.

    So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

    When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. (Matt. 6:1–5)

The people-pleaser is a hypocrite. He is a Pharisee at heart. His service to man and to God is contaminated by impure desires. His religion is more external than it is internal. What he does is done outwardly, with his motive being a strong desire to draw attention to himself. His first thought is not “How will God be glorified by what I am about to do?” but rather “How will others perceive me when I do what I am about to do?” For him the question is not “What will God gain if I do this?” His question is, “What will I gain?” He is not concerned primarily with “How can I edify others with my words?” He is concerned instead with “Will the words I choose cast me in a favorable light?” Phrases such as “approved to God” (2 Tim. 2:15), “well-pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18), “acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1), and even “glorifying God” (Luke 17:15) rarely cross his mind because he’s not accustomed to thinking in these terms. His selfish focus forces him to think almost exclusively of himself. He is concerned (if not consumed) with the establishment and maintenance of his own reputation. His heart so craves being held in high esteem by others (and to hear their praises) that little room is left to entertain thoughts of what he might do to acquire God’s praise. In reality, pleasing God doesn’t matter much to him because he is so intent on pleasing man. The truth is, he simply puts a much higher value on pleasing man than on pleasing God. He values the approval of man before and above the approval of God, for he loves “the approval of men rather than the approval of God” (John 12:43).

3. He studies what it takes to please man as much as (if not more than) what it takes to please God. The people-pleaser is so intent on gaining approval that he spends much of his time studying the interests, aversions, words, inflections, and body language of people. He is often inordinately sensitive to the countenances of those he is trying to please. When passing people on the street or in the hall, he studies their faces, looking for clues that might reveal their level of approval— usually reading more into facial expressions than one can possibly know without some sort of verbal verification.

Of course, studying people for the purpose of discovering their genuine needs so that you can minister to them is a manifestation of biblical love. But the motives of the people-pleaser are usually not so noble. When he does attempt to “meet the needs” of others, he often does so not because he is trying to love (to give without expecting anything in return), but in order to enhance his own reputation or find favor in the eyes of those he is “loving.” In time, this self-oriented sensitivity to the needs of others often backfires on the people-pleaser as others see through his insincerity (hypocrisy) and are repulsed by it (cf. Prov. 23:6–8).

4. His speech is designed to entice and flatter others into thinking well of him. The speech of the people-pleaser betrays him. He may or may not do it consciously, but his words are designed to cover his flaws and foibles and to cajole others into seeing him in the best possible light. He is motivated by fear rather than by love. The Bible makes a very clear connection between flattery and people-pleasing.

    But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness . . . (1Thess. 2:4–5)

A person who knows he is faithful and has therefore been approved by God can speak freely and boldly to others. He does not use flattering speech because he really doesn’t care much about pleasing man. It is the person who seeks to please man who doesn’t care much about pleasing God and so resorts to flattery or pretext. The Greek word for pretext means “pretense,” especially in the disguising or cloaking of one’s real motives. The people-pleaser is a hypocrite who, for fear of being found out or for the purpose of making others think better of him than he really is, disguises himself.

The makeup he uses to camouflage his true appearance consists largely of communication. Here are some characteristics of the communication style of an approval addict.

The people-pleaser . . .

  • Rarely confronts sin in the life of another believer.
  • Rarely challenges or even questions the opinions of others.
  • Prematurely terminates conflicts (usually by yielding, withdrawing, changing the subject).
  • Rarely reveals to others the truth about who he really is inside (especially his struggles with sin).
  • Steers conversations away from those topics that might cause others to realize what he is really like inside.
  • Shades the truth (lies) in order “not to offend others.”
  • Finds clever ways to subtly introduce his accomplishments into conversations.
  • Fishes for compliments.
  • Listens attentively when others talk of things that displease him (so as not to say or do anything that might result in rejection).
  • Frequently puts himself down in the hope that others will disagree with his purposely exaggerated negative self-assessment.
  • Finds it difficult to say “no” to those who make requests of him, even when he knows that saying “yes” will not be the best choice.

5. He is a respecter of persons. Because the people-pleaser esteems the power and influence of men more than the authority and rule of Christ (cf. Prov. 29:26), he respects certain persons above others. His penchant to show favoritism is the result of seeking the glory of men above the glory of God.

    My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus  Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comesinto your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say,  "You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? (James 2:1–4)

It’s not just the wealthy who are respected by people-pleasers—it is also those who are held in high esteem by others. People who have a reputation for almost any temporal achievement are prone to be treated with more respect than the average Joe or Jane by approval-seekers. Why? Because being approved by an “important person” is going to make them “feel important.”5 In the final analysis, this is more valuable to them than being approved by God.

A respecter of persons finds some temporal characteristic in his subject with which he is enthralled. He is enamored of it because he values it too much. Whether that trait is the by-product of sin or of righteousness is of little concern to him because he loves it more than he loves the Lord. Consequently, he courts the favor of those who possess it because they can give him that for which he is longing. He prefers to be with those who can give him what he wants. His kindness to them is based not on their need or God’s glory, but rather on gaining advantage.

The people-pleaser also has a difficult time being objective in judgment because his desire for approval is often stronger than his desire for justice. He wrongly makes “distinctions” because he evaluates others on the basis of what is important to him (according to the things he values most) rather than on the basis of what’s important to God (according to the things God values most).

    You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor. (Lev. 19:15 NKJV)

It is not only the rich who can be wrongly preferred. Some show favoritism to the poor not because they truly care about poverty but because they want to gain approval from others for being charitable (cf. Matt. 6:1–4). The person who is preferred may not himself possess that characteristic coveted by the respecter of persons. He may simply be a convenient pawn who provides an opportunity to gain some selfish benefit from a third party.

6. He is oversensitive to correction, reproof, and other allusions of dissatisfaction or disapproval on the part of others. The peoplepleaser overreacts to any hint of disapproval. He feels a pinprick as keenly as a knife in the back. He is overly sensitive because he is too concerned about his own glory (and popularity). He sees any constructive criticism or suggestion for improvement as a threat to his reputation rather than as an opportunity to grow or as an indication of the reprover’s love for him.

Being oversensitive is usually nothing less than pride. And as we have noted, pride is at the heart of people-pleasing. Richard Baxter, the prolific Puritan author, nicely connected the biblical dots for us on this point over three hundred years ago:

    Pride causes men to hate reproof. The proud are presumptuous in finding fault with others, but do not love the person who reproves them. Though it is a duty which God himself commands (Lev. 19:17) as an expression of love and is contrary to hatred, yet it will make a proud man to be your enemy. “A scorner loveth not one that reproveth him, neither will he go unto the wise” (Prov. 25:12). “He that reproveth a scorner, getteth himself shame; and he that rebuketh a wicked man, getteth himself a blot. Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee: rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee” (Prov. 9:7–8). It embitters their hearts, and they consider themselves to be injured, and they will bear a grudge against you for it as though you were their enemy.6

This oversensitivity may take the form of anger, bitterness, or hatred. It may show up in the form of withdrawing, sulking, or pouting. But remember, the approval-seeking person does not want to face rejection, so these vindictive forms of oversensitivity (at least the outward evidences of them) may be short-lived. They are counterproductive and contrary to his goal of being highly esteemed. It is possible, therefore, that in the long run, the people-pleaser will show his oversensitivity by trying too hard to cover or correct (for wrong motives) that which has caused him to be corrected, reproved, or otherwise disapproved.

7. He outwardly renders eye service to man rather than inwardly rendering sincere (from the heart) ministry to the Lord. The word for eye service (ophthalmodoulia) appears twice in the Greek New Testament (Eph. 6:6; Col. 3:22). Both times it is in reference to slaves. The implicit idea of this compound term is a service that is provided only while under scrutiny, or only for the sake of appearance. Since it is contrasted in both passages with a heartfelt sincerity, it involves a kind of service that is both hypocritical and reluctant.

    Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men. (Eph. 6:5–7)

Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. (Col. 3:22 NKJV)

Regardless of the service or ministry rendered, the people-pleaser struggles to do it with the right motive. Pleasing and glorifying God by serving others takes a backseat to serving others to promote and glorify self.

When the eye-serving employee speaks to his boss, he is more concerned with impressing him than he is with telling the truth. When the people-pleasing lawyer tries his case, he is more concerned with convincing his client that he is earning his fee than convincing the jury that justice must be done. When the approval-seeking housewife overcommits herself to activities outside the home to the neglect of her husband or children, she is more concerned about her reputation among her friends than she is about the Lord’s reputation. When the approval-loving pastor is more consumed with how his congregants will see him than he is with how they will be edified through his message, he is more concerned with pleasing man than with pleasing God.

The person who gives eye service evaluates his success or failure not on the basis of whether God was pleased with his service, but rather on how well he performed. For example, although that lawyer may have thrown away the case through his grossly deleterious preparation, as long as the client is convinced that he “put up a good fight” in the courtroom, objected often enough to the opposition, was condescending and sarcastic enough on cross-examination, and effectively reduced a few witnesses to tears, he considers himself to have succeeded. And that pastor who was too consumed with his performance, even though he knows his message convicted and challenged God’s people, will find himself battling depression over the fact that no one complimented him on his delivery and that he caught two people snoozing during his sermon.

8. He selfishly uses the wisdom, abilities, and gifts that have been given to him for God’s glory and the benefit of others for his own glory and personal benefit. It’s not just opportunities to minister that the people-pleaser squanders on his own selfish ends. He tries to use virtually every divine endowment given to him for the benefit of others and for the glory of God to make himself look good. Whatever he has been given, he views as a means of bringing honor to himself, rather than as an instrument to honor God.

    For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1 Cor. 4:7)

It’s bad enough for a person to think he is responsible for the blessings and achievements in life. It is far worse to use those blessings to promote one’s own glory and reputation rather than the glory and reputation of the One who is truly responsible for them. Yet this is what the people-pleaser does continually. “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . .” (James 1:17). What are the good things given by God and abused by the approval junkie? The list is almost endless. Here are just a few.

  • Personal Wealth
  • Family Heritage
  • Physical Beauty
  • Position in the Community
  • Spiritual Gifts
  • Position at Work
  • Wisdom
  • Bible Knowledge
  • Honor of One’s Vocation d
  • Managerial Skill
  • Artistic Ability
  • Good Reputation
  • Athletic Ability
  • Spiritual Accomplishments
  • Verbal Ability
  • Location of One’s Home
  • Musical Ability
  • Appearance of One’s Home
  • Intellectual Ability
  • Accomplishments of Children
  • Financial Status
  • Worldly Possessions

To use any of these gifts to promote self is to use them for purposes other than those for which they were given. Not that it is wrong to take pleasure in these things⎯or even to enjoy a certain sense of satisfaction as they are used for God’s purposes. But to expend them on one’s lusts is to pervert the ends to which they were given and to rob the Giver of the glory that is due him.

9. He invests more of his personal resources in establishing his own honor than he does in establishing God’s honor. The person who loves approval invests more of his time, effort, thought, or money in establishing and maintaining his own reputation (well above that which is necessary to establish and maintain “a good name”) than he does in furthering the reputation of Christ. His daily preoccupation with his own honor drains his resources, preventing him from fully using them for eternal purposes. His treasure is laid up on earth (“where moth and rust [can] destroy, and where thieves break in and steal”) rather than in heaven (“where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal”).7 His treasure is invested where his heart is— in this life, not the next one, and in temporal glory, not in eternal glory. He seeks and will receive his reward on earth rather than in heaven.

Richard Baxter describes what lies behind the giving of such an individual:

    A proud man will give more to his own honor than to God. His estate is more under the control of his pride than of God. He gives more in the view or with the knowledge of others, than he could persuade himself to give in secret. He is more generous in gifts that tend to maintain the good name of his liberality, than he is to truly indigent persons. It is not the good that is done, but the honor which he expects to receive by doing it, which is his principal motive.8

This principle applies not just to the giving of material gifts but also to the giving of time, service, encouragement, and any other investment that the people-pleaser might seem to make in the lives of others.

10. He is discontented with the condition and proportion that God has appointed for him. By “condition” I mean one’s state of being⎯ from the state of a person’s health to his IQ, his social standing, or anything else that might cause others to esteem him more highly. In other words, a man’s condition is the situation or circumstances (and the honor associated with them) into which the Lord has chosen to place him. By “proportion” I mean the relative magnitude, quantity, or degree of those conditions (or circumstances) that God has chosen for him.

The people-pleaser is discontented with his status in life. He longs to have more authority, greater honor, more influence, and more wealth. Rather than being thankful for what has been given to him and for God’s wise distribution of blessings to all men for his purposes, the approval-seeking idolater covets the honor-producing blessings that God has given to others, as though all of God’s purposes revolved around bestowing honor on himself. Perhaps the saddest thing about such a person is that he will never be satisfied, no matter how much approval he is able to generate. What Solomon says to us about material wealth—“He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income” (Eccl. 5:10)—applies to any heart idol. Temporal things do not satisfy; they only tempt us to further discontentment.

This list of ten criteria is not exhaustive. There are perhaps dozens of other identifying features of one who is in bondage to approval. But I hope this little inventory will give you a better understanding of the extent to which you may be bound.

You may be wondering if it’s really possible to be set free from such addictive behavior. It is! Come with me through the chapters that follow, and you will discover more about this ruthless master of pride and how to break its yoke by clothing yourself with the humility of Jesus Christ.