Approval seeking and its dangers

Everybody wants to be accepted and approved of.

In fact, social rejection (or by inference, sense of rejection by God) can be just as jarring as physical pain.

There’s a haunting scene in the gospels in which people respond negatively to Jesus, and while he has a theological explanation for the event at hand, he still asks Peter, “Will you leave also? (John 6:68)” To wish for acceptance is human and indeed.

In fact, being accepted by the group, is a generally good desire. It could mean the difference between life and death. An Old Testament punishment is being “cut off” from civilization itself! (Exodus 30:33, etc)

Paul the apostle observed that receiving emotional support and acceptance is a positive good:

They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. (18) It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, (19) my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! (Galatians 4:17-19 ESV)

On the other hand, seeking approval of others can be a deadly poison that keeps you from truth, goodness, beauty, and true friendship with God and man. For instance, New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd, whose Theology of the New Testament is a most excellent book, sought approval so hard that a bad book review tanked his motivation and self-image for life.

John Piper observed that:

George Ladd was almost undone emotionally and professionally by a critical review of Jesus and the Kingdomby Norman Perrin of the University of Chicago. And when his New Testament Theology was a stunning success 10 years later, he walked through the halls shouting and waving a $9000 royalty check.

But, in A Place at the Table, John D’Elia observed that Perrin’s critique led Ladd to

“…descend into bitter depression and alcohol abuse from which he would never recover. (xx)”

I think one of the elements Christians struggle with is acceptance with the world, particularly because of an egregious misunderstanding of Jesus’ command to be “let your light enlighten.” But the struggle is essentially based on a poorly aimed desire to evangelize and therefore seem pleasing. But while acceptance and being accepted are aspects of virtue, they are not themselves virtuous or necessarily indicative of virtue. Seeking acceptance is just another form of seeking status, which ultimately begs the questions:

  1. Acceptance by whom?
  2. Acceptance on the basis of what?

Below I offer a rough sketch of a hierarchy of acceptance/social approval in the Bible. Social approval is a good and it ought to be desired, but it

Acting in order to achieve approval or group acceptance as an absolute leads to conformity, immorality, regret, and resentment. In marriage it can lead to misery. At work it can get you fire. The Bible challenges us to seek approval, but from specific people and groups and by particular standards:

  1. Seek to be acceptable to Christ, while recognizing that he already accepts you.
    “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Philippians 3:12 ESV)
  2. Seek approval from God by doing what is good, even in the face of mass social disapproval (Exodus 23:2).
    In one of my favorite comic books a character which the author, I think, meant to paint as a bad guy said, “Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.” Of course, there are limits to this, you might be wrong about your point of view. But the Bible reminds us of this, too (Proverbs 29:1).
  3. Seek the approval of your family by gaining wisdom in particular and virtue in general. “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.” (Proverbs 10:1 ESV)
  4. Seek the approval of the virtuous people in the kingdom of God by confessing your sin and seeking Christ and Christian virtue with them (Matthew 18:15-20).
  5. Seek the approval of the humanity in general by not being unreasonable by common standards as long as your behavior isn’t objectively evil or illogical (Romans 12:17).
  6. Seek the approval of the rich, not by sucking up, but by offering exceptional service at a fair rate (Proverbs 22:29).

Appendix

My copy of Ladd’s magnum opus:

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