There have been a lot of boring, predictable Oscar acceptance speeches, but Sally Field’s in 1985 wasn’t one of them. In a frenzy of joy and wonder she burst out saying, “I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!” Her Oscar was a tangible representation of the approval she had craved.
I can relate. Not to the Oscar part, but to the craving approval part.
Approval isn’t a bad thing. To be affirmed for who we are and what we’re doing is a natural desire of the human heart, and not a sinful one. The Father affirmed his Son at his baptism with powerful words of approval: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). There’s a day coming for all his children when he will publicly do the same.
It’s not approval, then, but the craving of approval that turns dark. It’s the pursuit of praise that comes from men instead of the kind that comes from God. For many, the struggle is real. We’re slaves to what others think of us. That’s why my mouth does that thing when I go to say “No” where it says “Yes” instead. I’m terrified to disappoint this person whose approval I crave. Jesus is my Savior. Yes and amen. But too often I live as if approval were my Lord.
What’s a chronic people pleaser to do? Here are six ways I’m still learning to fight the idol of approval.
1. You can’t know what others think, but you can know what Jesus thinks.
The cruelty of approval is that you can’t ever really know what others think of you. One look at the cross, though, and you can be sure what Jesus thinks of you. He literally loves you to death.
When talking about approval, my dad likes to say, “What you think of me is none of my business.” But making what Jesus thinks of you “your business” is key.
2. The pursuit of coolness and the practice of kindness are mutually exclusive.
Being a people pleaser means that even when I’m doing something nice for you, it’s really about me. Which is shorthand for saying, “I want you to like me and think I'm cool.”
The way out of this trap is dying to what you think of me so I can begin to be kind to you in the ways Jesus has been kind to me. Because Christians have died with Christ to being cool, we’re free in him to begin being kind. The pursuit of coolnees feeds our approval idol, but the practice of kindness starves it.
3. Being yourself is better than being a cover band of someone else.
A few years ago I braved a dive bar to see a Led Zeppelin cover band called Zoso. They were amazing and the next best thing to Led Zeppelin. But they also made me sad since they’d adopted the persona of someone else, down to the long curly hair and tight leather pants (which should be illegal unless you’ve been on the cover of Rolling Stone). The world has missed out on the unique music only they could have made, even if it wasn’t appreciated beyond their cat lady aunts and favorite high school teachers.
No one wants you to be a cover band of someone else. They want you to be yourself, in all of your shame and glory.
4. Before you can ever be yourself, you have to actually like yourself.
Sadly most of us could agree with Dave Matthews (right now people with Jeeps are nodding extra hard): “I wish I had been anyone other than me.” A guy in my high school actually chose that for his senior quote because he hated himself so much.
The way out of hating yourself isn’t being someone else. It’s beginning to be who God made (and redeemed) you to be. It’s like that scene in Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal Lector escapes from prison by cutting off the guard’s face and wearing it on top of his own. As gross as it is, it’s exactly what we do when we try to be somebody else.
The only way out of the prison of people pleasing is to take off the skin of others and get comfortable in your own. Of course this doesn’t mean getting comfortable in our sin. God is at work to renew us into the likeness of Jesus. But do you realize that God made, chose, redeemed, adopted, called, and sent you?
5. Live from your identity, not for it.
Maybe it’s better to make the distinction between identity and image. Identity is something given, fundamental to the way you see yourself. Image, on the other hand, is something you create, fundamentally about the way you want others to see you. The sin of our age is to live for our image instead of from our identity. Which is why Vaughan Roberts wisely warns us that “wholehearted commitment to Christ will not be good for our image.”
But we have something better than an image. We have an identity in Christ that nothing and no one can touch. It includes words like “son,” “daughter,” “servant,” and “heir.” In the words of Aslan:
You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve. . . . And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.
You don’t have to be someone when you already are someone.
6. Resign yourself to the awkwardness of life.
This is my new favorite line (mainly because my spiritual gift is making things awkward). It’s from the Before movie trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). From beginning to end, life is awkward. Life isn’t as it should be, and neither are we. Let’s not pretend life isn’t hard, or that any of us has it all together. Let’s admit to ourselves (and one another) that we’re broken and can’t fix ourselves. Resigning yourself to the awkwardness of life means being vulnerable about all your weakness and weirdness. Awkwardness is an invitation to vulnerability. And vulnerability is where friendship is born. It’s also where God becomes big. And not until he becomes big will people become just the right size: big enough to matter, small enough to not be enslaved to what they think.
Unfortunately, our struggle with approval won’t just go away. The fight for the gospel of grace to reign in our hearts and minds is a daily one. The fear of winning (or losing) the approval we crave is something to be repented of daily, too. That’s why I’m strongly considering getting Jesus’s words in Luke 6:26 tattooed on my forearm: “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you.” Then again, having a forearm tattoo might be its own approval struggle.
The rest we need from our constant striving to be liked will never be found in ourselves, in the clichés of “trying harder” or “doing better,” or in the shame of “just stop being this way already.” Instead it’s found at the right hand of God, where we already have all of the approval we could ever need. As someone once said, God doesn’t just love us. He likes us. He really likes us.