Monday, January 11, 2010

Approval Addiction

I recently John Ortberg's book The Life You've Always Wanted for a book discussion group. One of his chapters is titled "A Life of Freedom: The Practice of Secrecy". In this chapter he talks about 'approval addiction', our need to seek approval from other people instead of focusing on serving God. As I read this chapter, I became painfully aware of how much I still care what other people think about me. Perhaps I thought this was something I had outgrown, but even though I don't spend as much time agonizing about other people's opinions as I did when I was a teenager, I am forced to admit that they still matter to me. Almost every day I engage in some sort of 'impression management'—the term John Ortberg uses for our attempts to manipulate other people's opinions of us through targeted words and actions.

I know that it's important for me to try to have good relationships with the people around me. I will need to be able to interact well with a wide variety of people in the course of my service to God. However, I don't need people to think of me as especially virtuous, smart, or talented in order for us to be able to work together or for them to be willing to accept help or kindness from me. If I simply live faithfully and lovingly without worrying about what others see or hear, I will be able to do the work God wants me to do in the lives of those around me. I certainly shouldn't lie about the kind of person I am or the things I believe, but I don't need to go out of my way to broadcast my deeds and virtues to others. That's what John Ortbergs idea of practicing secrecy is all about.

God wants us to do good things and to live righteously because we love Him and because we love the people around us, not because we want others to think we're awesome. If I choose not to tell others about how hard I'm working or the accomplishments I'm making, I give myself the power to leave behind my approval addiction and focus solely on the Kingdom of God. If I do something good both out of a desire to serve God and out of a desire for others to think well of me, I have split loyalties. I want my loyalty to be for God alone, so I need to stop trying to impress others. My good deeds need to be about love, not receiving compliments. That's why Jesus told his disciples not to give in secret and to fast without telling anyone. Then they would know why they were giving and fasting—for the love of God who could see everything they do.

I do want people to respect me enough to be able to interact comfortably with me when and if our paths intersect, and I want to have friends and acquaintances who like me. What I want most, however, is to serve God faithfully. I am not an overly boastful person, but I can still see traces of impression management in my life, and I want to eradicate them. If others think well of me, I want it to be because the love they see at the center of my life touches and encourages them. I don't want to waste my effort worrying about what others think about me or trying to change their opinions of me. Instead, I want to focus exclusively on loving God and my neighbors for the simple sake of pleasing God and doing good, whether I get applauded for it or not.

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