Every once in a while, I’ll hear someone say with regret, “I’m just too much of a people-pleaser.” What they mean is something like: I know I should have better boundaries; I know I need to say “no” sometimes. But I almost can’t help myself. I just can’t stand the thought of disappointing someone or having them dislike me. So I keep doing whatever it takes to make them happy.
Some believe that this is what Christians are supposed to be like.
Paul has taught the Corinthians that Christian freedom doesn’t mean ignoring how their behavior affects others. He’s summed up the ethics of the Christian life with the statement that everything should be done for God’s glory. On that basis, he concludes:
Don’t offend either Jews or Greeks, or God’s church. This is the same thing that I do. I please everyone in everything I do. I don’t look out for my own advantage, but I look out for many people so that they can be saved. Follow my example, just like I follow Christ’s. (1 Cor 10:32-11:1, CEB)
Don’t be offensive to anyone, within the church or without. Please everyone in everything. It’s easy to imagine how statements like these might be taken by Christians who already struggle with people-pleasing in the way described above.
Paul was obviously no people-pleaser in that sense. He took strong stands for the gospel and the glory of God, and people were bound to be offended or displeased. Why else was he beaten, jailed, and persecuted as he was? Why else were the Corinthians apparently miffed at him, prompting these words in the first place?
When he says, “I don’t look out for my own advantage,” he seems to be circling back to verse 24: “No one should look out for their own advantage, but they should look out for each other” (CEB). (Note: the word “advantage” does not actually appear in verse 24; translators take the word as implied because of parallels with verse 33.) The thought is similar to another well-known text of Paul’s:
Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus… (Phil 2:4-5, CEB)
Following Paul’s example means following the example of Jesus; in turn, that means being humble in a way that puts the benefit of others on a par with or even above our own.
Paul isn’t asking Christians to be doormats or wallflowers. Nor could he have anticipated how easily people today equate moral offense with “You hurt my feelings!” The point is that a me-first insistence on one’s own legitimate rights is neither what will win people nor transform the world for the gospel.
Taking care for how we offend or please those around us doesn’t mean having to do anything anyone else says. But it does mean doing everything to the glory of God.