Why haven’t we taken on board Paul’s approach of being men-pleasers for the sake of Gospel mission? Why do we so often contrast pleasing our neighbour with pleasing God, instead of contrasting it with pleasing ourselves? What does it say about us that in our evangelical tradition ‘man-pleaser’ sounds like a label of condemnation?
Hard questions. Here are some suggestions towards an answer.
1. Learning to please others instead of ourselves is hard work. It means putting to death our selfishness. It’s easier to use talk about pleasing God to duck our responsibility to please our neighbour. It’s easier to imagine we’re pleasing God when we aren’t really, than to imagine we’re pleasing our neighbour when we aren’t – neighbours are more likely to let us know! So staying focussed on pleasing God is less disruptive to our lifestyle. We can sound godly and never have to ask whether our hearts are loveless or selfish.
2. Our view of holiness involves keeping our distance from our neighbours: holiness = separation. So the idea that living for the glory of God might involve pleasing our (worldly) neighbours probably doesn’t make much sense to us. We are more inclined to think it glorifies God if we keep separate or even experience rejection from the world around us. If we speak a word of judgement and alienate our neighbours, we can definitely feel that we’re being faithful – at least then we’re not being ‘men-pleasers’!
3. In this way we tend to set holiness in conflict with mission. For Paul they pointed in the same direction, but with our separatist view, they often pull in opposite directions. So if we prioritise godliness, we de-centre mission. That sort of holiness is best achieved in a huddle.
4. At bottom, our deafness to Paul’s exhortation suggests a failure to grasp the dynamic, forward-moving, flexible, barrier-breaking nature of the gospel. For Paul, the gospel propelled him into mission. He found himself taking risks he would never have dreamed of, doing things he would have once been disgusted by, connecting with people he once wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole. Paul got mixed up with idol-food, he talked with and stayed with Gentile women, he did dumb ceremonies he didn’t need to do, in an obsolete temple. He transgressed all the laws of Jewish purity that he’d grown up with, for the sake of Gentiles, and he kept them all for the sake of Jews – all because the news about Jesus demanded it. “I do it all for the sake of the gospel…” (1 Cor 9:23).
For Paul, if there was a barrier between him and someone, he’d pretty much bust through it. Making positive connections with people, getting involved and commending his faith – these were core gospel priorities. So his gospel pushed him to radically not please himself, but please others.
What we call ‘the gospel’ doesn’t seem to have much of that effect on many of us. Perhaps suggests we haven’t quite got it yet? Paul’s gospel, I mean.
Maybe we need to keep listening to Paul until we’re convinced about pleasing our neighbour, until it feels important to us. Then we’ll know we’ve likely understood his gospel. And maybe then we’ll start doing the hard work on our own characters, to learn to stop pleasing ourselves so much and think of others. I’m going to give it a try.
And once ‘man-pleaser‘ no longer sounds so much like a label of condemnation, maybe then we’ll be on the way to learning how to do mission effectively.