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Approval Addiction

Back to all sermons The Life of Paul

Date: November 26, 2006

Speaker: Eric Stillman

Series: The Life of Paul

Scripture: Acts 14:1–14:22

As an observer of culture, I’ve noticed that one of the more popular pastimes in our culture seems to be celebrity bashing. It seems that the media and much of the general public love to see famous people fall, be humiliated, or experience disgrace. From the ever-present tabloid magazines in the supermarket to late night talk shows, celebrity bashing always gets an audience. And it happens in all walks of life – in pop culture, there’s Britney Spears & K-Fed and the demise of Tom Cruise. In sports there is the glee that happens when certain teams and individuals fail, like Peyton Manning and the Colts or Mariano Rivera and the Yankees. And of course, it even happens in the church, as evidenced by the reaction to the fall of Ted Haggard and the number of criticisms leveled at successful megachurch pastors like Rick Warren. When someone gets too popular in America, you can almost bet that the backlash is just around the corner, and that people will become more and more eager to see them fall. And sadly, it’s often the very same people who cheered that celebrity on the way to the top who are now sick of them and want to see them fall.

People can be very fickle. One day they love someone, and the next day they are watching and waiting to see them disgraced and humiliated. The sad thing is that this isn’t just true of celebrities – I’m sure many of you can testify to a friend who loved you one week and couldn’t stand you the next, or a parent who showed you occasional love mixed with abuse or rejection. Personally, I learned this as early as sixth grade, where one kid who had been one of my best friends growing up was suddenly slamming my locker and knocking books out of my hand, and another kid I thought was my friend was ridiculing me in front of my peers for no apparent reason. Unfortunately, I’ve also learned about the fickleness of people in church as well. Let me share an insider secret with you – a common warning passed around among ministers is that your biggest supporters when you first come to a church are often the ones who will turn on you the fastest when you do something that they don’t like. And, sadly, I have found this can be true. People can be fickle – one day they love you, and the next they want to see you disgraced and humiliated.

When you live in a world of fickle people, who might love you one day and want to see you disgraced the next, it can give you quite a complex. I’ve found that when people criticize you, it can easily give you feelings of rejection and make you feel like you are worthless. And even when people compliment you or do nice things for you, it can make you cynical, because you wonder what their agenda is and know that they could turn on you by the end of the week. Have you ever felt that way? Sure you may praise me today, but as the Shirelles sang, “will you still love me tomorrow?” It isn’t easy to feel good about yourself, to navigate relationships, or to follow God in a world full of fickle people.

We’ve been looking at the story of Paul in the book of Acts, and today we are in Acts chapter 14. Paul was a Jewish Pharisee committed to persecuting followers of Jesus until his life was completely transformed when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Since then, he has done a complete 180, and by Acts 14 has already set out on his first missionary journey with a man named Barnabas. In this part of his story, Paul runs into some fickle people in a town called Lystra, and in the process reveals a lot to us about how we need to deal with people in this world.

Acts 1:14-22 - At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. 2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders. 4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5 There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. 6 But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7 where they continued to preach the good news. 8 In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10 and called out, "Stand up on your feet!" At that, the man jumped up and began to walk. 11 When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15 "Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy." 18 Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them. 19 Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20 But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe. 21 They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said

Quick summary – Paul and Barnabas are missionaries, going out to let people know about the salvation that is offered through Jesus and the way of life that is possible with God. In the process, God is enabling them to do some miraculous signs and wonders that are confirming the power behind their message. In Lystra, Paul heals a crippled man, and the people of Lystra, seeing this, believe that Paul and Barnabas are gods who have come down among them. They try to sacrifice to them, but Paul tears his clothes and begs them not to treat them as gods, because they are only men. Then, in the span of one verse, we find that Jews from Antioch and Iconium come and turn the crowd against Paul, and the same crowd that was treating them like gods stone him and drag him out of the city, thinking he is dead. Paul recovers, and remarkably goes back into the city to continue ministering before leaving to continue on his missionary journey.

This story speaks to me because I see the temptation faced by Paul and Barnabas as a huge temptation in my life, and as one that continually threatens to derail the amazing things God could do in my life. This temptation is the praise of man, the desire for approval and even worship from other people. The danger is that living a life in order to be praised by people is not good for our self-worth and more importantly prevents us from living a life that will honor God. You may have seen that on the front page of this morning’s paper was a great article about Wintonbury Baptist Church, the church I used to work at, and their missions to Mississippi to help the victims of hurricane Katrina. I have to be honest that when I see that, a big part of me says, “I want to be on the front page,” because in my mind I’ve somehow come to believe that if you are in the paper, especially the front page, then you are an important and valuable person, and I know I want to be seen as an important person by others. The danger is that, if I’m not careful, I will start making decisions with the goal of being in the paper in mind, thinking “what can I do to get myself and the church on the front page?” If people see you as worthy of praise, and you begin to believe the hype, so to speak, you will quickly be in danger of losing any effectiveness for God. And this scares me. As much as I would love to be able to lay hands on a crippled man and heal him, I don’t dare ask God for that gift, because I know that I would have trouble responding the way Paul did. I fear that I would be more likely to think highly of myself, as if somehow I possessed the power to heal within me.

I think this story brings up questions about how we handle the approval of people, whether or not we are addicted to people’s approval and how that need for approval affects the way we see ourselves, the way we interact with others, and our effectiveness for God. On the one hand, if you are doing good, teaching effectively or serving with love and good intentions, you will gain the approval of many people. How are you going to handle that? And if you are following God, you will often face criticism as well. How will being criticized affect you? If you need to be seen as a good mother, or a competent worker, or as someone with a good family or successful career, how will the praises and criticisms of people affect the way you live and think about yourself and serve God? The desire for people’s approval is a serious temptation that not only affects how we feel about ourselves and how we interact with others but also our effectiveness for God.

As I reflect on this story, I am afraid because I do not think I would have handled this the way that Paul and Barnabas did. I fear that I am an approval addict, that people’s praises boost my ego while their criticisms make me feel worse about myself. I fear that this has an effect not only on my self-esteem and how I interact with people, but more importantly on my availability and effectiveness for God. If you struggle with approval addiction at all today, then you need to listen to God’s Word so that you might experience his freedom and healing today. My prayer and God’s dream for you is that you might live in freedom, free from the need for others’ approvals, so that you might become all that God has created you to be.

What does it mean to live for the praise of man? Sometimes, because we know that people are fickle, and the same person who loves you one day might want to see you disgraced the next day, we do all we can to make people love us or like us or think well of us, because it is too devastating to us when people reject us. In a previous sermon I preached here on prayer and hypocrisy, I shared how Jesus referred to the religious leaders of his day as hypocrites, a Greek word that referred to actors on a stage. He used it to illustrate how so many religious leaders are like actors playing a part on stage before the world instead of communicating honestly to God. In Matthew 6, Jesus warns the people not to be like those hypocrites: Matthew 6:1-2 - "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.

To live our lives for the praise of man is to do everything, even good deeds, in the hopes that others will think well of us – it’s essentially playing a part on a stage instead of being who God has created us to be. Jesus says in Matthew 6 that when we live our lives in order to receive the praise of man, that’s all the praise we will get, because we are not actually living for the praise of God. The hard truth of Matthew 6 is that all our religious acts and good deeds could be completely worthless if they are done not for God but in order to be honored by men.

In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas do not live for the praise of man or for their acceptance. If there was one thing Paul was free from, it was the need for other people’s approval. Listen to what Paul said about the way he lived: Galatians 1:10 - Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Paul lived his life not to win the approval of men, but to please Christ. As he put it, if he were trying to please men, he would not be a servant of Christ. And in living this way, he is only following the example of Jesus, who said in John 5:41&44 - 41 "I do not accept praise from men, 44 How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?

Jesus refused to receive even the praises of men, because he knew that it would cause him to live for their approval and not for the approval and praise of God. He knew that, as Proverbs 29:25 says, 25 Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe.

This is a difficult topic, because it is a temptation that is not solved by a simple sermon, or even by agreeing with what I am sharing in your head. It takes awhile for the love and approval of God to so overwhelm your heart that you no longer need the praises of man nor are affected and hurt by the criticisms of people, because you know who you are, who man is, and who God thinks you are. But I think you can begin to experience some freedom in this area today.

I was looking at a Christian psychology and counseling text that had a section on approval addiction, which is the modern counterpart of living for the praise of man. Those who need the approval of others in order to feel good about themselves often experience the following – see if you recognize yourself in this list:

  • Anger at being rejected
  • Easily manipulated – they’ll do anything to please people and have a hard time saying no
  • Codependency – prone to rescuing others in order to gain their praise
  • Avoid conflict out of fear of being rejected
  • Control situations in order to not allow rejection
  • Depression over their negative feelings of self-worth

The author argued that approval addicts mistakenly believe the lie that Self-worth = Performance + others’ opinions, that their value lies in how well they perform and what other people think about them. If they fail, or if others criticize them, then they are not valuable. Sometimes this comes from family of origin, from parents who never showed love or approval, never said “I love you” or “I’m proud of you.” Sometimes it comes from being rejected by a lover or a spouse. Sometimes it comes from failing at a job, from being fired. Wherever it comes from, it can cause a feeling of worthlessness because of an absence of approval from others – a feeling that nobody loves you, nobody thinks you’re worth hiring or being friends with.

So what did Paul know that allowed him to not be affected by how the people of Lystra thought of him? Paul knew something that caused him not to let the praise of man keep him from giving God the glory, nor to let their stoning him keep him from returning to their city to preach again. Personally, I know that if people thought I was a god, I might shrug it off but it would still be quite a boost to my self-esteem, while if people hated me and wanted to stone me and drag me out of the city, I might feel pretty awful about myself and never return there again. So what did Paul know that can help us overcome our approval addiction.

I think he knew three things: Who he was, who the people were, and who God thought that he was.
Who He Was:

We’ve dealt with Paul’s understanding of who he was in the first few sermons of this series – he was a sinner saved by grace. He knew that he did not deserve to be an apostle, but that he had been called by God’s grace (an undeserved gift from an unobligated giver) . Perhaps this is best summed up by Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1:15 - Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the worst.

He also wrote in Romans 12:3 that “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”

He knew who he was – a sinner saved by grace. One thing that has helped me to combat my need for approval is the saying “don’t believe the hype.” Whenever I find myself thinking more highly than I ought to, forgetting that the gifts I have been given are just that – gifts from God, nothing I deserved – I say to myself “don’t believe the hype.” I think we would do well to remember the words of John the Baptist in reference to Jesus: John 3:30 - He must become greater; I must become less. We are simply sinners who have saved by the grace of God, and therefore Jesus deserves the honor, not us.

The first thing we need to know deep in our hearts and heads in order to combat approval addiction and not be swayed by the praises or criticisms of people is who we are: We are sinners saved by grace. We are not gods, nor should we ever be confused with gods. We are simply people who have been made in God’s image but who have fallen short in so many ways, and have been loved and rescued by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And all gifts and talents that we have are a gift from God above, especially spiritual gifts. Paul knew that healing would not be possible if God were not doing it through him, so he didn’t dare take credit for it. We are sinners saved by grace. Paul knew this, that he was the worst of sinners, and it helped him not think of himself more highly than he ought to.
Who they are:

The second thing Paul knew, and that we need to know in order to combat approval addiction, is who they are. We need to know the truth about people. People can be fickle: they will love you one minute and want you to be to be disgraced the next minute. The ones who are your biggest supporters can turn on you in a second and want you out. Think of the people on Palm Sunday, cheering Jesus, while Jesus knew that in a few days they would be calling for his crucifixion. Paul knew better than to accept the praise of the people at Lystra, because he knew what they were capable of doing to him.
What God thinks of you:

The third and most important thing Paul knew and that you need to know in order to overcome approval addiction is what God thinks of you. Because the truth is that, no matter what self-help people tell you, you can’t give yourself worth. You can’t talk yourself into feeling worthwhile just by standing in front of a mirror and saying “you are a queen” or “you are a valuable person” or, as Stuart Smalley of Saturday Night Live made famous, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me” 10 times a day. You need a voice from outside of yourself to say that you are worthy of love. And that’s why we so often look for parents, friends, and lovers to tell us that we are valuable and worthy of love. That’s why compliments mean so much to us, and why criticisms hurt so much. That’s why we love to be in love and are devastated by breakups. We need a voice outside of us telling us we are worthy of love.

Let me ask you a question: The most valuable baseball card in history is a Honus Wagner , a copy of which sold this century for $1.2 million. Why is the Honus Wagner baseball card worth so much? It’s not because of how rare it is, or how old it is, or how good Honus Wagner is. It’s worth so much ultimately because someone is willing to pay that much for it. If no one wanted to buy it, it wouldn’t be worth anything. We know we are valuable because the God of the universe bought us with his son, sending his most valuable “possession” to die in our place, so that we might have eternal life. That’s how we know we are valuable. And Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, when faced with the choice of dying for you on the cross or taking the easy way out, chose to die for you. That is how you know you are valuable, because a God who is not fickle says that you are loved and proved it by sending his son Jesus to die for you. Your value and self-worth come from God who proved his love through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on your behalf.

As Romans 5:6-8 says, You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

We are sinners saved by grace. We are not worthy to be called gods, but by God’s grace we have given God’s best to prove to us how valuable we are to Him. It is only when we understand the love that is over us that we can say with the Psalmists: Psalm 56:10-11 In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise-- 11 in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?

Psalm 118:6-7 6 The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? 7 The LORD is with me; he is my helper. I will look in triumph on my enemies.

Paul was able to overcome the need for the approval of man because he knew who he was - a sinner saved by grace – he knew who they were – fickle people – and he knew who God said that he was – valuable enough to die for. The truth is that we need to know we are valuable, that we are worthy of love and honor, and we have to find it somewhere. But if we look for it in people, who are fickle, it will cause us to fear their criticism, and harm not only our self-worth and how we interact with people but most importantly our effectiveness for God. We will avoid conflict, we will be manipulated by others into doing things that are outside of God’s will for us, and we’ll miss out on taking steps of faith. If we understand the acceptance we have in Jesus, we can be free of the need for the approval of others. As a community of faith, we need to help others experience the acceptance that comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that we will not live in fear but in freedom and with courage.