The Idolatry of People-Pleasing

It’s no secret that LGBT people in the Church frequently deal with criticism. We’ve spoken to how it can be challenging for LGBT Christians to find a church home, ways that people draw lines to separate the “good” gays from the “bad” gays, how LGBT people are expected to conform perfectly to standards of morality, and how some churches can regard the mere presence of an identifiable LGBT person as a distinct threat. The question is not whether the criticism will come, but is instead how we will deal with that criticism that will inevitably arise. Sometimes, responding directly to others’ opinions and critiques is necessary and helpful. Meaningful conversation would not be possible without some level of disagreement; no one experiences intellectual growth as a result of interacting only with people who share one’s worldview in totality. But at other times we wonder if the urge to respond to real or perceived criticism introduces toxicity into our lives.

In our position as a celibate couple who blog regularly, we feel under the microscope quite often, and that’s to be expected because of our choice to share publicly about our personal experiences. We are coming to realize that there will always be people who claim our relationship is something that it’s not, tell us that we ought to wear our celibacy on our foreheads if we don’t want to be perceived as a threat, claim for any number of reasons that we should stop talking about celibacy altogether, and/or disapprove of our lives in one way or another without ever telling us directly. Learning how to cope with these various levels of scrutiny is a challenge. It’s no wonder that a lot of LGBT Christians, ourselves included, develop people-pleasing tendencies. Though the temptation to please others has an obvious source, we have to admit that focusing our efforts on appeasing others’ judgments is unhealthy.

There’s a fine line between defending oneself and engaging in people-pleasing. In today’s political climate, almost every LGBT person encounters situations where he or she needs to respond to another person’s comment or action. Many LGBT Christians can feel like our place in churches we call “home” is precarious. Saying the wrong thing in the wrong environment can lead to significant consequences. However, always sitting on the edge of one’s seat because one expects to be shown the door can cause an any person to shift from standing up for himself or herself towards dangerous forms of people-pleasing. It’s even possible for people-pleasing to become idolatrous.

Constant people-pleasing behaviors can lead to obsession over what others think. When a person has experienced significant judgment from others, he or she can develop a habit of trying to get inside of the critic’s head. When we assume what another is thinking, we can imagine the worst even in the best of situations. A snowball effect can begin wherein we observe that a member of our parish has glanced at us with an odd facial expression and, not even five minutes later, we are imagining that person must be one step away from complaining about us to our priest. All this happens entirely inside our own heads without any external conversation. In the absence of dialogue, panic arises from envisioning that everyone else is making assumptions about how we live our lives. But regardless of how common a reaction this is, people-pleasing tendencies are destructive because they can put a stopper on real conversation.

People-pleasing can get in the way of seeing where we actually fall short. Obsessing over what other people think can prevent us from searching our own hearts. Feeling the need to prove constantly that we are living faithful lives can block our abilities to appreciate how sin interferes with our relationship with God. Constantly worrying about whether a particular person from church thinks we are not living a proper sexual ethic takes up the headspace necessary to contemplate our tendencies toward pride, anger, and other passions that have nothing to do with sex. From time to time, we notice ourselves thinking more about what might be offending other people in our faith tradition than taking inventory of the real ways we are offending God. We could be a lot more patient, loving, joyous, thankful, and forgiving if we did not devote so much of our time to worrying about other people’s thoughts. The noise created when a person cares so much about what other people think can block God’s still, small voice almost entirely.

When we get caught up in people-pleasing, we do a disservice to others by catering to unreasonable expectations. Doing everything possible to appease another’s sensibilities can be harmful to that person’s spirituality. In instances where others really are making unfair judgments about us, changing totally innocent behavior just to please them effectively removes from them all responsibility for taking a look at their own spiritual lives. Oftentimes, the things that offend us are indicative of the sin lurking in our own hearts and minds. When we make aggressive attempts to people-please, we can enable the judgment within another’s heart and discourage him or her from examining that.

Additionally, we often end up drawing artificial lines and second-guessing behaviors that are totally innocuous. We fret over questions that arise in our own minds: “Will someone find it inappropriate for Lindsey to refill Sarah’s water glass when we’re eating together at church? Is sitting next to or across from each other at the table more likely to result in gossip about the intimacy of our relationship?” As we write this, we’re a bit ashamed of how absurd those questions sound. Maybe some people do analyze our every move in public. Maybe no one does. But whenever we listen to the internal voice that compels us to worry about that, we stop relating to the world as our authentic selves, and we start putting on various masks to everyone else around us. More often than not, attempting to please others leads us to behave rigidly and create arbitrary boundaries that we would never consider implementing during times when we’re tension-free and hanging out with the folks who know us best.

Focusing so much on how certain people see us prevents us from being able to connect meaningfully with others. If we’re worried constantly about what other people think, it’s virtually impossible to get to know those folks as people. When interacting with a person who we know holds some kind of unfair judgment against us, sometimes we have difficulty seeing beyond that judgment. We have trouble remembering that the person we are looking at is a human being who bears the image of God and cannot be reduced to his or her incorrect judgment on the issue in question. Seeing a person as nothing more than a puppet for a particular ideology is dehumanizing and unchristian, and we need to put a stop to that.

Caving to the temptation of people-pleasing distracts us from living into and discerning our vocation. When we do this, we shift away from living a vocation of hospitality, intimacy, vulnerability, and shared spiritual life that is turned outward to the world. Instead we adopt a vocation of, “Do what’s necessary to keep everyone happy with us and prevent them all from realizing that we’re actually human.” This latter “vocation” is no vocation at all. When we are trying to avoid doing anything that rubs another person the wrong way, we can find ourselves paralyzed and doing nothing at all. Vocations involve striving to manifest the Kingdom of God to the world. Doing nothing for fear of upsetting another is a poor witness. We might even go as far as saying it’s burying our talent in the ground. Not only that, it is entirely self-centered and self-serving to behave as though one’s purpose in life is nothing more than, “get through while ruffling the fewest feathers.”

We know we’re not the only LGBT Christians who struggle with the temptation towards people-pleasing. Sometimes it can seem that the only way to have one’s voice heard is strict adherence to all of the expected social and cultural norms of one’s faith community, even if there’s space for more varied discussion in one’s Christian tradition broadly. Perhaps one of the most widely destructive aspects of people-pleasing within the LGBT Christian conversation is privileging of certain terms and key phrases (e.g. “Side B” and “gay sex is a sin”) as the only possible indicators of a person’s theological orthodoxy. Naming the ways that we drift towards people-pleasing personally has been challenging, but we hope that discussing some of its effects on our lives will encourage everyone participating in conversation about LGBT people in the Church to consider ways in which this behavior stunts further development of dialogue. We’re grateful for all of your prayers for us and our vocation as we, with God’s help, work towards ridding our lives of this and other destructive tendencies.

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