I’m a chronic people pleaser. And I always thought it’s what a good Christian should be . . . until recently.
Like me, you may find it difficult to say no (especially to church-related requests), rarely ask others for help in case it’s a “burden”, or insincerely agree with or compliment people just so they’ll like you. If so, welcome to the people-pleaser club.
As a Christian, I’ve always struggled to walk the line between loving people and pleasing people. On the surface, people-pleasing—being polite, agreeable and accepting—is the cookie-cutter stereotype that we consciously or subconsciously expect Christians to exemplify. And there’s nothing wrong with this per se. It’s nice to be nice. But, sometimes, maintaining the “nice” Christian facade means lying to others; breaking the 10 Commandments. And that really bothers me.
I’ll be honest with you. In talking to friends, strangers or even loved ones, I sometimes get bored, or concerned, or confused by their words. I’m sure you sometimes do too. But often, rather than telling them that I want to leave the conversation, or that I disagree or am concerned by what they’re saying, I just smile and nod, my brain now only about 10 per cent engaged in the dialogue—just enough to keep them talking, feeling validated and continuing to like me.
Other times, people ask me to do tasks that I don’t want to do, but rather than saying “absolutely not”, I smile—enthusiastically, even—before going home and criticising myself, or them, for not respecting my boundaries (that I never established in the first place).
By being too agreeable, I become dishonest with both myself and others. By always saying yes and failing to put limits in place, life accelerates to a frenetic pace and I neglect my emotional, physical and even spiritual health. The side-effects? Burnout, resentment, complaining, guilt, even gossip. I become an unpleasant person to be around. And this makes it even harder to be nice. My smile becomes faker, my laughter even emptier. And so, the negative cycle continues.
Is this a picture of the real, selfless love that Jesus calls us to? Is being “nice” really what it means to be a follower of Jesus?
For some reason, as Christians we’ve equated “being like Jesus” with being a nice person. But look at Jesus—He did things we probably wouldn’t call “nice”. He called the Pharisees “fools” (Matthew 23:17), “vipers” (Matthew 23:33), “hypocrites” (Luke 11:44). He overturned tables in the temple (Matthew 21:12,13), told the disciples to “shake off the dust from [their] feet” if people weren’t welcoming (Mark 6:11) and said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matthew 16:23). Jesus told the truth, even when it hurt the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-22, and often separated Himself from the crowd. He wasn’t a “yes man”, wasn’t always available and didn’t try to please people. In fact, many people hated Him. And yet, everything Jesus did was done in love—a genuine, life-changing, world-shaking love that is still talked about 2000 years on.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot that loving people and being nice are often opposites. People-pleasing isn’t really about pleasing people. Beneath its rosy facade, people-pleasing is a selfish attempt to make people like us. In contrast, genuine love is being able to tell someone the truth, even if it hurts, and even if they won’t like it, or like you, anymore.
Nevertheless, this has critical limitations. “Telling the truth in love” is not a licence to criticise the young girl whose skirt you deem too short, or the new convert who brings a Big Mac to the church picnic. It’s not an excuse to attack specific behaviours of the spiritually vulnerable. Jesus’ instruction to the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more” didn’t criticise her lip colour or lingerie, but didn’t agree with or compliment her behaviour, either. Rather, His loving words demonstrated genuine care about her future, while giving her autonomy and leaving room for the Holy Spirit to work in her heart and life.
So if you’re experiencing the side-effects of people pleasing—burnout, resentment or guilt—maybe it’s time to be more like Jesus. Maybe it’s time to be a little less nice.