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A Clarifying Question for People-Pleasers: Who Are You Willing To Disappoint?

There are two kinds of people. Those who struggle to take no and those struggle to say no.

This post is for the second kind, for those who have a hard time saying no, the self-described “people-pleasers.”

Because, believe it or not, I’m a recovering praise-seeking, people-pleaser too.  And these days when I come to a crossroads and don’t know if I should say yes or no, I remember the Molly the dog story.

It started with a call from my friend Kelly on a sunny June morning. 

The moral of the Molly the dog story.

Hey Ab. Would you possibly be willing to watch Molly for us next weekend? We’re going up north and I know Molly had fun with you last time.

That was true. Molly had had fun. We weren’t an indoor pet family, but our big fenced-in yard and wrap-around deck made it easy to host Molly for long weekends. 

But next weekend was different. We were hosting the birthday bash for our clan’s June birthdays. These June parties were outdoor deck parties and aunts and uncles and a teetering great-grandma and toddling little cousins were coming. 

Here’s the rub: Molly was a big lively lab with a tail wag that could bowl a toddler over. With four toddlers in the invite list and two elders who disliked dogs, we’d need to crate Molly for most of Saturday. Molly didn’t much like to be crated. We’d sampled her pitiful, crated yowls last time.

But the party was only one day. And maybe we could keep the kids inside, away from Molly. 

Kelly, I want to help, but we’re having this birthday party. Can I get back to you? 

You have to disappoint someone.

I was torn. I didn’t want to disappoint my friend. But I also didn’t want to deal with Molly the dog while hosting the party. Jim didn’t mind, either way. So I tossed it around all day and I was undecided- and anguishing- that evening when my parents stopped by. 

I wasted no time. Could I ask your advice? 

It’s what Dad said, after the Molly story unfolded, that’s stuck.

Abigail, Dad said, You can’t love everyone. You’re human. You have to disappoint someone. When you say yes to one thing, it means you say no to other things and that’s okay.  As long as you’re motivated by love- throwing a peaceful party on your deck without distraction by a dog- you’re doing well. 

Being human, we can’t love everyone. Only God can do that. We can only give and love and stretch so far. And really, isn’t that freeing?

It means that we don’t have to feel guilty when we say no. In a sense, saying no is a form of humility. It means we’re accepting our limits. It’s acknowledging our finite-ness and creature-ness.

When Mom and Dad left, I called Kelly, Please ask us again. We like Molly. But for this weekend we’d better say no. 

How do you know when to say no?

Pleasing people can be a good thing. Giving joy to others is a great gift. Loving and serving and caring for others are God-ordained. But, as Tim Keller says, when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing, it’s become an idol.

And too many of us, and I include myself, have made an idol out of man’s approval and praise. 

So, how do we know when to say yes to people? Why do we spend our time doing what we do? Are you confident that you’re saying yes and no to the right things, to the right people? 

If we’re honest, we’d probably admit that many of our decisions are based on what we think others will think of us if we do or don’t do something.

For better or worse, how other people perceive us- or how we think they’ll perceive us– has a huge influence on whether we say yes or no.

The Critical Question: Who are you willing to disappoint?

In his insightful article, “You Have to Disappoint Someone: How to Say No to Good Things,” John Bloom writes,

Coming to terms with ways we seek people’s approval or fear their disapproval will force us to face humbling truths about ourselves and may require repentance and uncomfortable change.

Bloom describes a conference he attended where Christian leaders were asked how they remained focused on their core calling while inundated with demands. In response, one of the speakers posed another question: “Who are you willing to disappoint?”

That sounds a lot like my dad’s advice: You have to disappoint someone.  I disappointed Kelly. (And, for the record, we’re still friends a decade later.)

Bloom continues,

That might seem like an unloving way to decide what we should or shouldn’t do. But it really isn’t. It’s actually a clarifying question. It isn’t asking us who are the people we will choose not to love. It’s asking us what we are really pursuing in our time commitments. Whose approval are we seeking? God’s? Other people’s? Of those, which one more?

We should ask the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and try our thoughts (Psalm 139:23). We should ask ourselves the hard question: who are we willing to disappoint? Or who are we unwilling to disappoint? Are we unwilling to disappoint God? Or are we unwilling to disappoint others? Are we unwilling to disappoint our own selfish preferences? 

Who are you willing to disappoint?

Mary knew who to disappoint.

Let’s close with a fresh look at Mary and Martha through this new lens (Luke 10:38–42).

Martha, you recall, was “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40) and “anxious and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41).

Bloom writes,

I imagine nearly everyone in her home that day thought she was doing a good thing. Martha herself thought this, which is why she requested Jesus’s support in exhorting Mary to get busy helping. She didn’t seem to be aware of her own motivations. But Jesus was. He saw the deeper motivations in both Martha and Mary.

Martha’s time commitment was being motivated by anxiety, not love. Given the context, it’s reasonable to assume her anxiety stemmed from what all her houseguests would think of her if she stopped waiting on them and did what Mary was doing.

On the surface, Mary’s actions might seem selfish and inconsiderate. Since Mary lived with Martha, she must have known how much Martha wanted her help. Yet, there she was, sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to him speak.

Guess what? Mary knew who to disappoint. She was more willing to disappoint Martha than *to disappoint Jesus.

And remember what Jesus said about Mary?

…Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

Luke 10:42

 

*More on disappointing God and grieving the Holy Spirit in the next JoyPro Post, “Grieve is a Love Word.”

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Fearful People Do Stupid Things

The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.  

Proverbs 29:25


I don’t know what the bumper sticker meant. Maybe it was a reference to timid drivers. The ones who go 5 miles under on the freeway.  Those who hesitate then inch out at busy 4-way stops.  

I doubt it was directed at those who keep their life savings under the mattress, only to see it burn. Maybe, as my husband thought, it was a veiled political message. Don’t fall for the lying, fear mongering welfare reform will “throw-granny-over-a-cliff,” ads.

But the minute I pulled out behind the pick-up, my mind flew to two.

Two Bible-time kings prove the point. They happen to be Israel’s first and last. 

1. King Zedekiah (Jeremiah 38:14-39:7)

Judah’s last king sees the writing on the wall. So he sends for Jeremiah the prophet, fresh out of the cistern. Tell me what’s coming, he begs. Assured the king won’t kill the messenger, Jeremiah delivers:

Thus says the LORD, the God of hosts: If you will surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared, and the city will not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live. 

But if you do not surrender then the city will be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire and you shall not escape from their hands.  

King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, lest I be handed over to them and they deal cruelly with me.” (Jeremiah 38:17-19)

At least he was honest.  Zedekiah admitted fear of his countrymen. No paralyzing fear of the barbarous Babylonians. Fear of the mocking cruelty of his fellow Jews; that they’d laugh at him. Give him the old, Told you so. He’d opposed their surrender before. They’d mock him to scorn if he surrendered now.

Matthew Henry asks, If he should be taunted a little by the Jews, could he not make light of it? What harm would it do him? Those have very weak and fretful spirits indeed that cannot bear to be laughed at for that which is both their duty and interest. 

What would you have done?  What do you do when you realize you’re wrong?  

Do you swallow your pride, and eat your words? Fear the God who hates haughty hearts and lying tongues? Or do you double down, afraid you’ll be mocked? Surrender to the marauding Babylonians? Or hightail it outta Dodge?

Wrong fear reigned and he did a stupid thing. Zedekiah fled. Fear of his fellow man trumped the fear that Jeremiah’s sure word of the Lord should have invoked. Matthew Henry again: He thought it would be looked upon as a piece of cowardice to surrender; whereas it would be really an instance of true courage cheerfully to bear a less evil, the mocking of the Jews, for the avoiding of a greater, the ruin of his family and kingdom. 

Alas, when when Zedekiah and his soldiers saw the officials of the kings of Bablyon, with very scary sounding names like Nergal-sar-ezer, Samgar-nebu, and Sar-sekim the Rab-sans, they fled, going out of the city at night by way of the king’s garden…

And, as Jeremiah foretold, it didn’t go well for this fearful man, doing this stupid thing.

But the army of the Chaldeans pursued them and overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho. And when they brought him up to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon…and he passed sentence on him.  The king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and he slaughtered all the nobles of Judah. He put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains to take him to Babylon. (Jeremiah 39:6-7)

The parallel account of Judah’s fall in Chronicles is sadder still. The Chronicler paints a tragic, sweeping picture of Israel’s demise. It’s so sad because the stupidity of trusting man and ignoring God is so stark. Note the contrast: Who has compassion? Who has no compassion? 

The LORD, the God of their fathers sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy. (Jeremiah 36:15-16)

God, a loving father warning consequences, threatening punishment. Over and over he warned Israel, Zedekiah. Finally, time was up and there was no remedy for his people. Their misplaced fear was their demise.

Therefore he brought against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed the young men with the sword…and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged. (Jeremiah 36:17)

Don’t be stupid! he warns. Don’t fear man; fear your loving Lord.  Did you see the stupidity of ignoring a God who has compassion on his people and trusting- cowtowing- to a king with no compassion?  

The contrast between Zedekiah and David is glaring. Late in his reign, David counted his kingdom. It was a grave mistake and he knew it. Confronted by the prophet Gad with a choice of three punishments his choice was clear:

David said to Gad, “I am in deep distress.  Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands.” (1 Chronicles 21:13)


2. King Saul (1 Samuel 15)

Israel’s first king also had a bad case of misplaced fear. Rather than fear and obey the One who had raised and anointed him to be head of Israel, he feared the people. 

Samuel gave Saul explicit directions.  When you strike Amalek, Samuel had instructed, do not spare them. Devote all they have to destruction.  But Saul and the people spared Agag, their king, and the best of the sheep and cattle-all that was good.  But all that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction. (1 Samuel 15:9)

This selective sparing prompted Samuel’s, to obey is better than to sacrifice, rebuke. Sober and grim it ends.

Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you from being king.

Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” (1 Samuel 15:23b-24)

John Piper deals with Saul’s misplaced fear in his sermon, The Pleasure of God in Obedience.

Why did Saul obey the people instead of God? Because he feared the people instead of God. He feared the human consequences of obedience more than he feared the divine consequences of sin. He feared the displeasure of the people more than the displeasure of God. And that is a great insult to God. Samuel had said twice to Saul and the people in 12:14 and 24, “Fear the Lord, and serve him faithfully with all your heart.” But now the leader himself has feared man and turned away from following God (1 Samuel 15:11).

Oh, for this holy, God-exalting fear!

Not the slavish fear of God that mistrusts him, recoils at his majesty. Perfect love casts that fear out. Not apprehensive fear that the shoe is about to drop; that sickness or sorrow will inevitably overwhelm. Fear not for I am with you. Definitely not fear that His love will fail and run out.

And yes, fearless people do stupid things, too. Just google “stupid stunts.”

But it’s all about WHO you fear. As Jesus sent his sheep out among the world’s wolves, he warned them to be wise. Not to misplace their fear.

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. 
Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 
Matthew 10:28

Fear him, because he loves his own. They will never perish, His sheep, and no one can snatch them out of His hand.