The Slavery of Human Approval

September 30, 2016  |  Craig St. John

By John Crawford

The idol of human approval is like running on a treadmill and trying to get to a different geographic location. It will never happen. It is exhausting and futile.

In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus addresses the rhythms of righteous living: giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting. Specifically, Jesus warns against practicing these rhythms like the hypocrites (scribes and Pharisees) who were motivated by the recognition, praise, and approval of others. Their problem was self-absorption. They were inwardly selfish, even though their behavior seemed selfless through outward actions. The hypocrites didn’t understand that they were only concerned with how their external actions were perceived by others, but God is always concerned with the inward motivation for such actions.


You may be asking, “Is caring what other people think about me wrong?” No, it isn’t, but idolatry is. Simply caring what others think is not idolatry, but it is important for us to understand when the approval of others becomes an idol. Simply defined, an idol is anything that we worship instead of God, or anything that satisfies us more than God. It is a heart issue. Human approval is an idol when the acceptance or opinions of others become the ultimate thing that dominates and dictates our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. A helpful heart diagnostic is to examine your answers by these statements from Tim Keller’s book Counterfeit God

  • I only have worth if I am loved or respected by ______________.
  • I only have worth if ______________ accepts me and is happy with me.
  • I only have worth if this group or social network lets me in.


Since God is a loving Father (1 John 3:1), he desires to protect us from the futile and exhausting efforts of earning human approval. Trying to earn someone’s approval is problematic because it is completely subjective, and every person has a different standard to live up to or requirements for their acceptance. Even if you earn someone’s approval, it is only temporary, and then you have to continue working to maintain their approval. This is slavery, and we willingly subject ourselves to it. There is no rest and no freedom, but there is anxiety, bitterness, and exhaustion. But, this was not God’s purpose for us in our redemption. Galatians 5:1 (NIV) says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” The context of this verse is surrounding the issue of circumcision being a burden placed on the Galatians. Similarly, when we subject ourselves to the idolatry of human approval, we are not living out of the freedom we have in Christ, but are subjecting ourselves to slavery. It should be sobering that Jesus says that this futile life will be our reward for righteous actions if we are motivated by the approval of others.


The beauty of the Kingdom of God is that it’s an upside down kingdom where we don’t have to work to earn our approval. Instead, we work from the love and approval of our heavenly Father and King of the Kingdom. Our motivation for righteous living (giving, prayer, fasting) comes from our identity in Christ. When we live out of this approval, we no longer need to be insecure or anxious, and we can experience the blessed life that Jesus describes throughout the Sermon on the Mount. More importantly, our reward is the love of the Father. Our reward is that we get to be with God.