Do you ever read a verse in the Bible and associate it with a particular time in your life? I read certain verses, and I immediately picture myself among a circle of teenagers memorizing Scripture for Sunday school under the encouragement of godly teachers. Or I remember a crisis with my children and how God used a Bible passage to illuminate truth and provide comfort in a specific and personal way. God used a friend and Galatians 1:10 to unpack a spiritual principle for me in my teen years that has been so helpful.

We were walking uphill as my friend recited, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10). My friend struggled with an eating disorder, and one of her high school sports coaches recognized its impacts on her health. He happened to be a Christian, and in a compassionate way, he sought not only to care for her physical health, but he also brought this verse to speak to her heart. It was in this season of struggle that God placed her on a path of both physical and spiritual healing.

My friend’s coach helped diagnose the root issue of her battle as a heart tendency that is common to many of us. My friend cared about the “approval of man.” She cared so much about what others thought about her—or she perceived them as thinking—, that it impacted how she treated her own body.

God used this friend’s story to help me see what the ESV Study Bible note says about this verse: “Paul poses two absolutely incompatible goals: pleasing man, or pleasing God. There is no possibility of combining the two.”[1] The very act of conversion opposes “pleasing man.” When we become servants of Christ, it’s impossible to please man any longer. If our goal is to please man, we would never become Christians in the first place.

Jesus said something similar, “You cannot serve God and money.”[2] It’s impossible to serve two masters. “Either [you] will hate the one and love the other, or [you] will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24). It’s never “serve God plus something else.”

Perhaps this is the first time you’ve considered this, and you’re not sure whether or not man-pleasing is a struggle for you. Then ask yourself the same question that Paul asks, “Or am I trying to please man?” Maybe some of these questions will help you:

  • Do you get upset because you feel like your spouse doesn’t appreciate you?
  • Are you concerned what other people will think if your child misbehaves in public?
  • Are you worried about your performance and what it reflects about you?
  • How do you handle negative criticism?

Our answers to these questions may reveal whether or not we’re man-pleasers. Paul’s words about work in Colossians are especially helpful in diagnosing this issue. He tells slaves—think labor force, in our day—not to work by “…way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col 3:22b-24).

Christians live to serve Jesus. With sincere hearts, they fear the Lord. Regardless of their occupation, if they work to him, he will reward them.

The phrase “fear the Lord” reminds me of something my husband Scott used to tell our sons when they were younger. Before bed, he would say, “Fear God, not man.” We do well to speak these words to our own hearts: “Fear God, not man.”

Proverbs tell us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov 9:10). If we begin with God’s holiness, majesty, and power, then other things—and people—in our lives take their proper place. If we truly fear the Lord, the thoughts and opinions of others won’t matter nearly as much as what God thinks of us and our actions. If we live to please God, we no longer primarily live to please other people.

So my question is, why do we still try to please both God and man? What’s functioning inside of us when this happens? Hopefully drawing attention to it will help us recognize this temptation when it comes and better equip us to resist it.

The story of Israel throughout the Old Testament tells of a people who were called, chosen, and redeemed by God. Nevertheless, they repeatedly wandered from him and exchanged worship of the true God for the worship of idols.

Our hearts are also prone to wander and quick to worship idols, including the idol of approval. When we care more about pleasing others than we do about pleasing God, we’re actually worshiping a false god; in the context of the book of Galatians, a false gospel is at work.

The enemy of our souls knows our tendency to worship what is false, and more than once, Paul tells us to be aware of our enemy’s tactics:

  • “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith…” (1 Pet 5:8-9a).
  • Again, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph 6:11).

When we recognize and acknowledge that living for the approval of others is actually a form of sin, we’re better equipped to resist it with biblical truth. The truth about living to please others is that we’ll always fall short. We’ll eventually fail. We’ll never be good enough. Living this way is unsatisfying and leaves us always questioning ourselves and concerned about what others think. It’s elusive, a chasing after the wind.

On the other hand, if we as believers embrace the fact that we’ll never fundamentally be able to please others, it frees us to live completely for Jesus. As Paul says later in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

There’s good news when we’re tempted to live for man’s approval. Here, too, the gospel meets our everyday lives. Yes, all sin is serious, but God’s grace is always greater. In a different letter, Paul reminds us that:

“No temptation has seized [us] that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:13-14).

God is faithful to provide a way of escape. We flee the idol of man-pleasing by turning our eyes and gazing on Christ. Our beautiful Savior gave his life on the cross to rescue and redeem us from all of our sins. He is patient with us, and his kindness leads us to repentance.[3] When we confess our people-pleasing tendencies to him, he is faithful to forgive and cleanse us.[4]

We need to stop pretending that we can live for the approval of both God and man. If we think we can please both, we’re deceived. It’s Christ and Christ alone.

[1] ESV Study Bible, p. 2246

[2] Matt. 6:24

[3] Rom 2:4

[4] 1 Jn 1:9