In the dark, in the car, hands on the steering wheel, I sighed in frustration.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I said out loud, startling myself with the fierceness of my tone over the sound of the car’s heater.
On that frigid January night, I was brittle with fatigue and hollow with disappointment.
I had been pouring energy, preparation, and something I imagined would pass for love into a group of women who, it seemed to me, did not appreciate my efforts at all.
Years later, I’m embarrassed to admit to the self-pity and resentment that rode home with me on that long ago miserable, wintry night.
I had succumbed to the deadly trap of focusing on people, needing their approval and appreciation to feel that my ministry was valued and that I was worthy.I had succumbed to the deadly trap of focusing on people, needing their approval and appreciation to feel that my ministry was valued and worthy as a person.
Warning Against Seeking the Approval of Others
God warned the Israelites through the prophet Jeremiah that looking to our fellow humans as our first and most important support, the loudest voices in our hearts, brings us to a barren place in the desert:
Jeremiah 17:5-6 ESV says, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.’”
I was feeling like a parched dwarf juniper with roots sunk into dry sand!
Indeed, I had not planned to set my itinerary toward desert living.
However, there is a process by which a thing becomes, over time, transformed into another thing.
Ministry in Desert Places
I began my teaching ministry with strong motives.
I was committed to pouring my life into my students and delighting in the study that was required.
The response was all I could have hoped for.
Students shared that they were digging into their Bibles independently, our meetings were lively with discussion, and participants responded with appreciation for the insights they gained from our class time.
Looking back, it’s clear that I eventually became dependent upon those affirmations.
What began as a vital ministry in which I opened the Word and gave voice to the faith in me slid surreptitiously into a people-pleasing game.
Soon, I was wasting emotional energy on pointless pondering and insecure conclusions based on empty air:
“Why wasn’t anyone taking notes?”
“Not one person said they enjoyed my lesson tonight.”
“Doesn’t anyone appreciate all my hard work??”
Sadly, my heart had slowly turned away from God.
When frail humans begin to depend upon other frail humans for what only God can provide, the only possible outcome is disappointment.When frail humans begin to depend upon other frail humans for what only God can provide, the only possible outcome is disappointment.
The Source of Our Desire for Approval
Writer and theologian Henri Nowen put his finger on the lie I had begun to believe—“I am what other people say about me.”
Jeremiah’s warning to “the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength” came after good King Josiah’s reforms brought a course correction to God’s wayward people—or at least got their most scandalous behavior out of sight.
When Jeremiah detected a return to their patterns of sinfulness, he sounded the alarm!
Once again, Israel shifted their dependence from the Lord to false gods, alliances with other nations, and their own cleverness.
In doing so, they went from blessing to barrenness, from vitality and fruitfulness to parched desert living that eventually led to their destruction and exile.
Have you ever fallen prey to this pervasive lie?
Our Only Reliable Reference Point
One thing is abundantly clear: My heart is safe only when my identity centers on my status as God’s beloved daughter.
Any other reference point will lead to a life full of ups and downs, precarious confidence based on the good opinions of a fickle following, and competition with others who threaten my treasured position on the pedestal.
Dependence on human approval is like chasing after the wind.
Exactly how many people have to approve of me before I can feel secure?
I know from experience that if one hundred people say I’m fine, but one person finds a fault, I will remember and focus on that one!
It is my experience (and it is the biblical pattern) that regular doses of Truth are the only reliable antidote to the poisonous lies we tell ourselves every single day.Regular doses of Truth are the only reliable antidote to the poisonous lies we tell ourselves every single day.
God Satisfies Our Need for Approval
God alone can satisfy your deepest thirst and fill your deepest hunger.
John, the beloved disciple, wrote extensively about Jesus’s deep and abiding love that led him to lay down his life for us—a firm foundation for our heart’s assurance:
“By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything (I Jn 3:19-20 ESV).”
When we listen to others’ voices, we enter a desert of discouragement and condemnation.
The good news is: “God has shown us a better way!”
His voice called you into existence; His voice tells you who you really are.
Will you choose to live parched and barren, focused on people’s opinions? Or will you listen to God, who knows everything about you?
There is a spring of fresh water flowing nearer than your next breath. Will you turn and trust and drink?
Personal Application Questions:
• What is your reference point today for success or value in your ministry? Do you listen first for the approval of your colleagues or those to whom you minister?
• Have you sensed a dryness in your ministry, a dissatisfaction related to people’s lack of “appreciation” for all you do?
• Are you willing to risk serving others for God’s approval alone? Can you see how this mindset would lead to greater freedom and fruitfulness in ministry?
Michele Morin is a reader, writer, speaker, and gardener who does life with her family on a country hill in Maine. Active in educational ministries with her local church, Michele delights in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” Connect with her by following her blog at Living Our Days or via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.