Striving for Praise
Dale Carnegie, in his famous book, claimed the most precious sound to a person is their name. While this is perhaps true to an extent, what people really long for is validation and approbation: “Good job!” Such praise and affirmation make us feel that our work or our lives have purpose and value; that we aren’t just a glob of atoms clashing about in the empty void of a dark universe. In fact, these foundational desires are hardwired into us. We even see examples throughout scripture. The Father commended Jesus saying, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). Jesus tells the parable of talents in which two servants are affirmed in their work, “Well done, good and faithful servants” (Matt 25:21). We hear similar claims in the OT for faithful servants of God, such as Noah, Abraham, and Moses (Gen 6:9, 22:12, Num 12:7). Similarly, it is natural for children to love the praise and approval of their parents. At the core, it’s not a bad desire. The Bible clearly commends such a pursuit, that is, in the proper context and not as an end in itself. Ultimately, of course, God is the only one truly worthy of honor, glory, and praise. But, as a good Father, he delights in his children and commends their imitation of himself (Prov 3:12, Eph 5:1-2).
As is the case so often, sin and the enemy take what is good and turn it into something wicked. Or as it’s been said, when a good-thing becomes a god-thing it becomes a bad-thing. This is true of approval and praise. For some, this innocent childhood desire becomes a source of perpetual affliction, never able to win their parents’ approval, driving all their thoughts and decisions. For others, the nascent desire morphs into seeking approval and praise from a myriad of sources—anyone who would provide a quick-fix to the addiction.
People always get the leader they want
An intriguing quote picked up and attributed to many throughout the years was first coined by a Frenchman named Joseph de Maistre in the early 19th century. The quote goes something like, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” While a simplistic generalization, there is something true within it. We often look to leaders, presidents, CEOs, and dictators as the source of ill or good within a nation or organization. And surely, there is truth to this. Proverbs states, “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan” (29:2). Likewise, Ezekiel provides a rebuke to wicked shepherds who abuse, “Oh shepherds of Israel, who have fed themselves. Should you not feed the sheep? … The weak you have not strengthened, … the injured you have not healed, … and with force and harshness you have ruled them … my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts” (Ezek 34:2-8).
Yet, for the sake of wicked shepherds, we often forget the complementary wickedness of people. The opposite side of the coin for bad leaders is the people who permit or even desire wicked, aberrant leadership. In many ways this parallels the economist’s concept of supply and demand. Where there’s a demand, the market will find a supply. As demand drives many evils in our modern world—illicit drugs or porn—if there were no demand for wicked leaders, there would be no supply.
As a point of clarification, this is not a license for pastors or leaders to complain about their congregations or the difficult situations they often have to navigate or mitigate through prayer and counsel. Difficulty is not the problem or an obstacle to ministry, it is the ministry! That is the job of a shepherd. Also, this is not an excuse for bad leadership and ideas. Rather, the danger being addressed, here, is when both shepherd and flock are mutually complicit in straying from the holy pasture of sound doctrine and Christ-like behavior.
Follow the leader?
In 2 Timothy, we hear a sharp warning to leaders. Paul claims, “The time is coming when people will not accept sound teaching but will have itching ears, accumulating for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim 4:3). In context, of course, Paul is passing on his final words of wisdom learned through decades of passionately pursuing the mission of God without division or corruption. Here, he charges Timothy to preach the word!
While there are many reasons aberrations might accumulate in or divert our teaching, Paul astutely targets not simply wicked leaders but also the people who seek them out and prop them up! Now, he does not delve into the options or possibilities of how this issue may arise. But, we can surmise that one of two situations are to blame. Either, the people will choose someone who pleases their sensibilities; or, they will shape someone into being that person. In other words, they will applaud, coax, or pressure the young or malleable leader into the direction that their passions and wicked hearts desire. Listen to the warning from Jesus, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you for their fathers did likewise to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). Or think about the crucifixion of Christ. It was the people who chanted crucify, crucify, crucify! (Luke 23:21), to which the leaders, including the Roman governor, gave into the absurd and illegitimate desire. Or, remember what happened to Herod when the people chanted, “The voice of God, not of man!” (Acts 12:22-23). These examples show us the power and danger of a crowd. For many in our modern context, though, it may not be a congregation applying pressure and praise. It could be a club or tribe rooted in any number of identities or issues that chants to us “throw in your lot with us” (Prov 1:14). We may be tempted to toe the line and talk the talk in order to stay with the in-crowd; our tweets, sermons, conference talks, and blogs laced with opiates for the masses. As Paul warned, though, this must not be true of God’s shepherd. We seek the approval of only one, the One.
Who’s in charge here anyways?
A parallel from the OT ought to reverberate similar warnings in our hearts, particularly those of us who operate within ministry leadership roles. We all know the basic story of Samuel the prophet. He was born to a barren mother who cried out to God and vowed her son to the service of YHWH, if he would be so merciful. God did answer. So, Hannah makes good on her side of the bargain. Samuel grows up in the house of the Lord and experiences powerful and intimate experiences with him. Despite many unfaithful leaders throughout Israel’s history, we don’t hear of any particular failures on his part, except that his sons are not righteous. In fact, it says, “They did not walk in his ways but turned to unjust gain. They received bribes and twisted justice” (1 Sam 8:3). The people of Israel knew this and apparently wanted to avert such perversions. At least it may have seemed. Yet, their request was a bit odd. It says the people wanted a king “like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:5). Samuel was offended but God reassured him that the people were actually rejecting him (1 Sam 8:7)! He was already the king of Israel.
Long story short, God gave Israel the kind of king they wanted. He was tall and regal, strong in battle. Yet, it seems he began to believe all the hype and saw himself as pretty special. So much so that when a mere boy threatened his fame and power, it drove him mad! Nevertheless, early in the reign of Saul, we get a glimpse into the mirroring of his leadership with the people. After disobeying God, he confessed, “I transgressed the command of YHWH … because I feared the people and their voice” (1 Sam 15:24). Even though Saul knew what God desired, he was swayed to wander from the Creator’s authority by the mouth and self-serving desire of creatures. The truth is, the people loved this kind of king. He abdicated his role as God’s under-shepherd in order to maintain their frivolous support.
On a side note, it’s always amazing to see God’s immensely wise ways in action. He knew this would all happen. He predicted way back in Genesis that kings would come from Abraham and Judah (Gen 17:5-6, 49:10). He even established a provision in his law for how Israel’s kings should behave (Deut 17:14-20). The repeating mantra of Judges was “the people did what was right in their eyes because there was no king” (Judges 17:6). In his immense grace, God set in motion a plan hundreds of years earlier to bring about his perfect plan through the unfaithfulness and rejection of his people. As the story progresses in Samuel, we see God make a covenant with David to establish an eternal throne and kingdom through one of his sons (2 Sam 7). We now know of course that this is in fact Jesus (Acts 2:25-36). In a great reversal, a type of what-you-meant-for-evil-God-meant-for-good situation, the Lord used his own rejection as King to bring about the eternal kingship of Christ, the perfect and just God-man, a good shepherd who would follow only the desire and word of his heavenly Father (John 5:19, 30, 6:38, 8:28, 12:49, 14:10). Hallelujah!
Getting back to our story of Israel, as the centuries rolled on from Saul to David to Solomon all the way through Josiah, we see over and over a congruence between the wickedness of the kings and the people. In fact, several times we read that a king wanted to reform the nation to authentic YHWH worship but over and again the people reject it. The story of Manasseh is a fascinating one. His story begins terribly. He turned Israel toward Baal and Asherah, building altars and even sacrificing his sons (2 Chron 33:2-6). Because of this, he was disciplined through imprisonment by Assyria. Yet, amazingly, he repented and was restored as king in Judah! Sadly, though, in spite of his attempts to return Israel back to proper YHWH worship, the text tells us the people ignored his reforms and went on worshiping as they pleased (2 Chron 33:16-17). The account in Kings is far less optimistic, however, condemning all the “remnant of my heritage” because “they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came out of Egypt” (2 Kings 20:14-15). Overall, the picture throughout the OT is that both the leaders and the people were hell bent on doing as they pleased. In many ways, the leaders were often simply a reflection of the people.
You are approved, preach the word!
The OT example and the stark warning from Paul ought to chill us to the bone. Although ministry leaders are certainly in danger from a host of sins, perhaps the most subtle and powerful danger can come through applause or fear from people. In many ways, praise can even be a sort of “respectable sin,” to take from Jerry Bridges. Applause and praise work on us in ways meant for good but can easily turn toward evil. Approbation either leads us to believe the hype, thinking we are something special, or it leads us to follow an endless bread crumb trail of approval straight into the darkened chambers of Sheol, always seeking but never satisfied (Prov 27:20). Like the sirens in Odysseus’ travels, the song of praise threatens to bewitch our senses, piping a song our hearts can hardly resist. So, we crash our ships into the jagged rocks of worldly, tribal approval.
In this way, even the genuine, gospel-driven ministry leader can fall prey to corruption. Perhaps it will begin when a congregant innocently commends our sermon, a particular point, or the way we expressed it. While this can be helpful or encouraging, it all to easily may give way to an appetite for more, even to point where all truth and substance is abandoned. Furthermore, just as Paul taught that the enemy often appears as a messenger of light (2 Cor 11:14) this can be true of our rise to prominence and power. In other words, if the devil can’t bark for your fall, he’ll sing for your ascent.
Whether we preach, teach, or lead in any capacity, we all desperately need to be reminded: we must speak what people need not what they want. People need to hear the infinite God not us. They need his inerrant word not our hot take or clever quip. What people don’t need is more affirmation to live half-hearted, quasi-secular, ideology-driven lives in a pagan-laden form of Christianity. “Peace, peace!” cried the false prophets, “when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14). Sadly, this empty, applause-driven preaching will end with Jesus saying to many, “Depart from me, you workers of evil, for I never knew you” (Matt 7:23). People need real hope, real encouragement, real warning, real truth. In other words, they need the whole counsel of God uncut and unmingled. As the disciples responded, “With you are the words of life, where else could we turn?” (John 6:68). Jesus as our great exemplar did not seek praise or cower in fear from the people. He walked in clarity of purpose to do only what his Father desired.
So, what’s the answer, then? Well, there are perhaps a few antidotes, though easier said than done. First, we must rest in our full, sufficient, eternal approval through God’s perfect son. Our mission on this earth is really just the addendum to the work accomplished by Christ 2000 years ago. Therefore, we live and serve out of the overflow of God’s gracious gift of salvation and our union with his Son. In Christ, we are fully approved.
Second, we must seek only the praise of our great and gracious God. He is the only voice we must follow. As mentioned earlier, we are hardwired to seek approval and praise. But, we must do so as children of our heavenly father, seeking his and his alone.
Third, we must boast in Christ. Paul, drawing on Jeremiah, understood this truth deeply (1 Cor 1:31; Gal 6:14; Jer 9:24). The more intimately we understand the person and work of Jesus for us and the fallen world we’re called to reach, the less our eyes will be transfixed on ourselves. Boasting in Christ will not come about naturally or be rooted in a genuine heart automatically. But, the more we remind ourselves that our labor is a gift and not an opportunity for the flesh, the less likely we will fall prey. The more we boast in the glory and goodness of Christ, the more ridiculous our own praise will seem. We will be led by a holy and infinite desire rather than temporary praise and fear (see Matt 10:27-28). We will find freedom to be the leader (pastor, teacher, writer, parent, CEO, etc.) people need, not the leader they want.
Finally, on a more practical note, we must be aware of our tendencies and strongholds which the enemy will seek to use against us, to cripple us. For some, fear of the people will shatter our resolve. For others, their praise may intoxicate us. Whether we are people-pleaser types, performer types, or success-driven types, we must constantly cry out to the only true God, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any grievous way in me and lead me in the everlasting way” (Ps 139:23-24).
The way of Jesus is not one of fame and fortune in the eyes of most. But, if you are faithful and no one sings your praise, or even knows your name, count yourself among the blessed. God has spared you from this testing and the trial of such pressure. Yet, you are known and beloved by your eternal father, which is all that matters. “Rejoice for your reward in heaven is great” (Matt 5:12).
We all want our walk of faith to be driven by “want to.” But as adults, we know that a life of faith is really driven by “ought to.” That is what sustains us, and helps to disciple others who are growing in the faith.