Sandra has struggled all her life with people pleasing. She said she could not remember a time when she was free from thinking about what others thought about her.
The way she dresses, the car she drives, the technology she carries, and the house she owns are all controlled to some degree by what others think of her.
A peek into her life
- She is fanatical about working out because of her keen awareness of what a “nice looking body” should look like.
- On a few occasions she has caught herself stretching the truth. She says she spins her stories because the real story doesn’t seem as interesting.
- She is fearful of bringing a bag lunch to the office because everyone else goes out to a local restaurant to eat. Rather than feel like the odd man out, she would rather go into debt.
- She has a low-grade anger problem toward her boyfriend because he pressured her to have sex with him. She believed he would leave her if she didn’t have sex. She needs to be loved by someone. Having a boyfriend is one of her ways of feeling significant.
Her biblical counselor quickly discerned that her problem was fear of man (Proverbs 29:25). The counselor told her she needed to be more concerned with pleasing God rather than others.
From there, the counselor laid out a plan of prayer, Bible study, and service oriented activities in order for her to practice a lifestyle of pleasing God.
The mistake the counselor made was not carefully unpacking what pleasing God meant to an idolator like Sandra. Sandra is an idolator who has been living a performance-driven, people pleasing lifestyle.
When she was told that she needed to be more willing to please God than man, it was not a difficult thing for her to do. People pleasing was what she knew best. Unfortunately, she was not told exactly what pleases God so she did what she has always done–she ratcheted up her obedience.
Who can please God?
And a voice came from heaven, You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased. – Mark 1:11 (ESV)
Christ pleases God. Anything the Son does pleases the Father. Jesus came to do the will of the Father and He completed that task perfectly. The Father received the finished work of the Son and now a way has been made for us to please the Father by accepting the Son’s work.
Without faith it is impossible to please him. – Hebrews 11:6 (ESV)
A Christian, who is living by faith in the works of the Son, is pleasing God. Pleasing God is not about what we do, but about believing in the only One who could authentically please the Father. Even on our best day, with our best works, we would not be acceptable to God.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. – Isaiah 64:6 (ESV)
Sandra is a Christian. However, she is not seeking to please God by trusting (faith) in Him. She is still performing, but this time she is performing for the Father, hoping to get a good grade.
Rather than accepting what is pleasing to God–the works of the Son, she tries to please Him by her obedience. For example, she says she feels more spiritual by going to church. She believes her activity for God gives her more of God. She feels more spiritual when she is doing.
She also says that if she misses her prayer time, Bible reading, or a church meeting she feels less spiritual. She will read her 4.25 chapters each day, even while brushing her teeth so she can check it off her list.
Sandra is convinced that if she has her morning prayer time and things go well for her during the day, then she will partially contribute God’s favor on her based on her prayer-time-obedience.
As you might imagine, if she does not have her prayer time and things do not go well for her during the day, she feels as though her lack of prayer (disobedience) caused her day to go bad. Sometimes her friends affirm her theology of legalism when they observe her bad day and say, “You must not be prayed-up today.”
As you can see, when her biblical counselor gave her a list of things to do in order to please God, Sandra initially was excited about the list. Any people pleasing, self-reliant, performance-driven person would be.
However, as time went by, she could not juggle her list of spiritual disciplines with the rest of her life. Eventually discouragement and depression set in–she could not keep up with life. From her perspective, God was not pleased with her–basing this on her poor performance.
According to Sandra’s functional theology she could control God’s pleasure by what she did rather than what the Son did. Her understanding of Christ’s work was limited. She believed the Gospel was for her salvation, while her obedience was the primary thing needed for her sanctification.
What about obedience?
Obedience is obviously of huge importance to any Christian. However, the key is to make sure that your obedience is not an effort to please God, but a response to your faith in God. This is the context when Paul told the Corinthians that:
We make it our aim to please him. – 2 Corinthians 5:9 (ESV)
Paul was trying to get the Corinthians to understand that pleasing God was a walk by faith rather than by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). The context for the passage was Paul’s appeal to get them to trust Christ rather than the things that they could see. (See 2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
If the Corinthians were trusting Christ in the way that Paul was outlining, then they would be pleasing God too. Pleasing God is about faith. Obedience is another matter. Obedience is the biblical response from a person who is trusting Christ.
Don’t you think it pleases God when you trust (faith) Him? And because you trust Him, you obey Him. The logic would flow like this:
- I trust God.
- God is pleased that I trust Him.
- Because I trust Him, I obey Him.
Sandra needs to start over again. She needs to understand what pleasing God means. It means to trust Him, which she is not doing. If she trusted Him she would not be trying to please Him. Contrariwise, she is trusting her works and if her works are satisfactory, according to her estimation, then God is pleased with her.
God has a good opinion of Sandra if she is trusting His Son for salvation. This truth must be inculcated into her brain. Because she is a Christian she is in Christ and she cannot be any more in Christ.
Being more obedient does not make her more in Christ. When she was regenerated God was pleased with her and His pleasure in her does not ebb and flow.
She must guard her heart from the subtle deception that what she does through obedience can merit a better standing before God. For Sandra this is amazingly huge. She is an insecure, people pleasing, co-dependent, performance-driven person.
Warning: If you are not daily affected by Christ’s finished work on the cross you can subtly slip into an obedience lifestyle thinking that what you do pleases God as though there is some kind of merit you can achieve through your obedience.
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Obedience is born out of faith in Christ
As Paul was teaching us in Corinthians, obedience is what a person who is trusting in Christ does. Obedience is not something you work at as though you need a list. Obedience comes from the ontological realities of the heart. It is the logical and expected life of a person who is born again.
James teaches us this in chapter two of his book. If you are a Christian the fruit will grow. Faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Works is an assumption and expected response for the believer.
Some may argue that this is quietism or passive obedience. If that is the argument, then the point has entirely been missed. That would be like saying because I am a human I will passively grow. That is silly.
You will not passively grow. You must make real obedient choices to eat if you want to grow. You must decide what to eat with discernment and wisdom if you want to grow healthy. The reason you make those real choices is because you are a human rather than a chair or stump or some other inanimate object.
The reason you choose obedience is because you are a Christian. Obedience is what Christians do, but to frame it as pleasing God is not in line with the Gospel. Paul had strong words for that when he wrote to the churches of Galatia (Galatians 1:6-9).
I like the term Gospel-motivated works as a way to define obedience. I would want to direct Sandra regarding her motive for obedience rather than merely trying to get her to be obedient.
Her counselor did not do this. She was attempting to get Sandra to switch the object of her obedience from man to God–rather than pleasing man, she needed to please God. She should have sought to help her to switch her motive for obedience.
Jesus would say, If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15). Of course you would. That is an assumption. The operative phrase is if you love me. The reason we love Christ is because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). It would breakdown like this:
- Christ loved us
- Therefore we love Him
- Out of that love we obey
If you have been affected by Christ’s obedience on your behalf, then you will love Him, and because you love Him you will keep His commandments.
Sandra was relieved and encouraged to know that she did not have to please God to gain His good opinion. She began to understand that her standing before God was as secure today as it was when He first acted upon her.
However, because her life had always been wrapped up in people pleasing, she was unclear as to what Gospel-motivated obedience looked like. This kind of thinking was a complete paradigm shift for her. Her legalism lulled her into rote behavior.
Sandra was trying to break the mold, but still perplexed as to how to practically obey God just for the joy of it. This is where her new counselor began to teach her about Gospel-motivated obedience.
That was done by looking at how the Bible writers connected practical obedience to the Gospel. Here is a short list:
Gospel Motivated Mercy - Then his master summoned him and said to him, You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? - Matthew 18:32-33 (ESV)
There is an assumption from the Master that this guy should have remembered what happened to him in the courtroom. If he had remembered the Gospel, he would have gone out and modeled (obedience) that same kind of Gospel-mercy to the man who owed far less than what he owed. The Master was asking him a rhetorical question that could be paraphrased this way:
Because I had mercy on you through the Gospel, you should have done the same to your friend. You should have been obedient. That is what I would expect from any of my children and that kind of obedience born out of faith would please me.
Gospel-Motivated Forgiveness - Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:31-32 (ESV)
Here Paul is teaching us that our motive for obedience is tied to the Gospel. We should not be bitter or angry or slandering because of the model we see through Christ who forgave us (the Gospel). A person who understands the Gospel rightly will forgive–a proper act of obedience.
Gospel-Motivated Love - Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… – Ephesians 5:25 (ESV)
A husband who understands the Gospel will love his wife sacrificially. He will learn her, love her, and then properly lead her. His sacrifice (obedience to God) for her would be unending and his affection for her would be unceasing. In short, he would be like our dying Savior.
Gospel-Motivated Humility - Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy. – 1 Timothy 1:15-16 (ESV)
Paul considered himself to be the chief of sinners. He was #1 in his book. He who is forgiven much is thankful much. The most thankful Christians are those who never forget that God did not get a good deal when He got them. Humility is an act of obedience, born out of a right understanding of the Gospel.
Gospel-Motivated Suffering - For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. – 1 Peter 2:21 (ESV)
Peter connected personal suffering as a thing that brings pleasure to God, particularly when our suffering is not because of our sin. It is the Christian’s privilege and opportunity to share (obedience) in the sufferings of Christ. The more we understand the Gospel, particularly the suffering aspect of the Gospel, the more we will be motivated to glorify God while we suffer.
Connecting the Gospel to obedience
For the first time in Sandra’s life she was beginning to make Gospel-connections to her practical life. She was understanding that the Gospel was not just for salvation (Justification), but the Gospel was the power she needed to live for Christ (Sanctification).
Today, she reads her Bible with a new pair of glasses as she recently said. Sometimes she gets frustrated when she thinks of all the years of cross-less Bible reading and cross-less living, but she quickly recovers by reorienting her heart back to the finished work of Christ. Sandra is free in Christ!
For more reading on making Gospel connections to everyday life
- Connecting the Gospel to perfectionism
- Connecting the Gospel to music
- Connecting the Gospel to personal suffering
- Connecting the Gospel to physical suffering
- Connecting the Gospel to babysitting
- Connecting the Gospel to loneliness
- Connecting the Gospel to the silence of God
- Connecting the Gospel to evil and unfairness
-  Ontological means “state of being,” or who I really am. Because I am a Christian, I obey. ↩