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Three Dangers of Seeking Pastoral Praise

We preachers love praise—the love of adulation runs deep in our hearts. Man-pleasing is a complicated sin because it is a heart-level struggle. While the sinful pursuit of praise is not limited to pastors, our vocation provides extra temptation in this area of pride. Rather than keep this struggle in the dark, let’s throw some light on our motivation for ministry and address the too-often acceptable sin of the love of adulation.

“Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people.”

Colossians 3:23

We preachers love praise—the love of adulation runs deep in our hearts. The Apostle Paul addresses man-pleasing in Colossians 3 precisely because it is a common struggle for everyone. While the sinful pursuit of praise is not limited to pastors, our vocation provides extra temptation in this area of pride. For those who preach, the temptation of pleasing man is a byproduct of addressing a crowd, regardless of size. Pastoring involves leading, and anytime we are leading a group of people, the desire to please those people can turn into a monster that we must feed. Practically, love of adulation can manifest in an obsession with social media followers, website hits, church attendance numbers, or words of praise from particular people. Rather than keep this struggle in the dark, let’s throw some light on our motivation for ministry and address the too-often acceptable sin of the love of adulation, beginning with a bit of help from an 18th-century English authority.

Man-pleasing is a complicated sin because it is a heart-level struggle. Writing on early church history, pastor John Newton (known best for authoring “Amazing Grace”) described how in Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira “sought the praises of men and made their profession a cloak for covetousness and hypocrisy.” Newton’s turn of phrase reveals a perceptive analysis of the deceit of man-pleasing, and it points out several obscure but essential truths about the love of adulation.

1. The love of praise by others is a sin that often serves a darker purpose

When Newton connects the praise-seeking of Ananias and Sapphira with their covetousness and idolatry, he shows a two-step process in their hearts. They sought praise, but that was ultimately a servant of their covetousness. When we struggle with loving praise, we should ask, “What do I want this praise from others to secure for me?” Pastors are not immune to greed, love of power, or love of popularity. Using social media as an example, we might desire likes or followers as statistical validation that our work is not in vain or is valuable. In Colossians 3:22, Paul calls all workers, including ministers, to work at “fearing the Lord” rather than people (in the form of social media likes). 

2. The love of adulation is an identity issue

In You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith has noted how we link our pursuits to our sense of identity: “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow.” When we desire people’s praise, we find our identity in them rather than as a servant of the Lord. In Colossians 3:24, Paul concludes his discussion of our motivation for work with a simple but revolutionary identity observation: “You serve the Lord Christ.” He models this attitude in 2 Corinthians 4:4 when he refers to himself and Timothy as “…your servants for Jesus’s sake.” 

As ministers, we are not primarily servants of the families in our churches, the elders or deacons, the denomination, etc. We serve the Lord Christ, and when we chase praise from people, we confuse our identity. Sometimes as pastors, we doubt our calling when certain people (or enough people) do not praise us, but this crisis of calling may result from misplaced identity. Of course, if our god is peer approval, then lack of praise would show we are failing. The apostle Paul pushes us to anchor our identity in Christ and minister for his approval.

3. The love of adulation displaces contentment in the Lord

Newton helps us hear in a sermon on Matthew 11:30. While not speaking specifically of ministers, his observation certainly applies: “Those who sincerely take up the yoke of Christ, and cleave to him in love alone, have ample compensation in the present life for all that their profession can cost them.” Serving Christ may cost us much, specifically in the area of popularity. Even so, we must realize that our provision in Christ is so much better than human adulation. Jesus makes this point in Matthew 6 when he instructs his followers not to give, pray, or fast for the sake of the public. In each example, Jesus negatively assesses the hypocritical behavior of the religious leaders of the day, and three times he concludes, “Truly I tell you, they have their reward” (Matthew 6:2, 15, 16). If all they wanted was praise from people, they’ve got it, and they’re missing out. 

If we struggle with the love of adulation, how should we seek to deal with it?

  1. First, refresh yourself in the goodness of the gospel. Follow the Apostle Paul’s argument in Colossians 3, which is grounded in the recognition that God has called us from the kingdom of darkness into Jesus’s kingdom by God’s grace. We minister by his grace, at his pleasure, through his gifting. It’s all grace. 
  2. Next, articulate your purpose in ministry. Why are you pastoring? Reflecting on that question may reveal the need to repent of ministering for ulterior motives. Resolve to remember that you minister for Christ first and foremost. 
  3. Finally, focus on future reward versus immediate gratification. This is not the love of reward as an idol but as a function of the loving service of Jesus. In Colossians 3:24, the Apostle Paul calls us to do as work as unto the Lord, “knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord.” Jesus will judge our work and reward us. We should not consider him a miser, begrudgingly giving out favors. On the contrary, our ultimate employer will pay us well.

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