The Lure of Approval

April 05, 2018

And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?… Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. 1 Samuel 15:13-14, 24

Am I the only leader who struggles from time to time with disappointing people? No. I didn’t think so. My guess is, it is a relatively universal struggle. We tell ourselves that, in order to be a Godly influence in people’s lives, in order to be able to say the hard things to people, we need their approval. And we tell ourselves that, as shepherds, that is what love looks like. There are some seeds of truth in that thinking. But the rest of that truth is, for leaders of God’s people, approval ratings (i.e., how much everyone likes you) are insidiously addictive and massively overrated. That was the lesson for Saul (Israel’s first king) and it is likewise the lesson for all of us as Christian leaders today.

As I read 1 Samuel, God clearly did not want a human king for His people, Israel. But when they insisted on one, God relented and gave them one. And Saul was His choice…and was the people’s choice as well. He had the look. He had the demographics. He had the attitude. In short, he was (to use today’s parlance)…presidential. But he was also unbelievably insecure, on so many levels.

So, when he and his rag-tag group of soldiers walked up to the school-yard bullies (the Philistines) and punched them in the face, all for the sake of approval ratings, his addiction began. It was this addiction which caused him to offer an abhorrent, ill-conceived “sacrifice to God” in 1 Samuel 13. And it was this same addiction that led him to a mere partial obedience (which translates as disobedience) to God in 1 Samuel 15. God’s instructions were clear: carry out God’s final and complete judgment against the Amalekites by destroying all of them and all their material possessions. In other words, this was to be a “scorched earth” kind of judgment. But Saul had approval ratings on his heart, so he destroyed MOST of everything and kept a portion of it. After all, the image of bringing back the enemy king in handcuffs and all the spoils of war makes for terrific approval ratings. But with a clear directive from God to the contrary, it was a wrong move. It would cost him his throne.

We are living today in a culture that speaks of approval ratings with such value, it is impossible to get away from them. We count our “likes” and “follows” on social media as if they were vital signs of life itself. We measure influence in terms of followship, which isn’t entirely wrong. But it isn’t entirely right either. There is so much more to leadership than being liked or followed.

Leaders among God’s people often have hard truths they must speak. And, by “often”, I mean most days. It is the norm. And our willingness to speak those hard truths with uncommon love for those to whom we speak them is part of what defines leadership. And make no mistake about this, every one of you reading this post is in fact a leader. In some circle of friends or family, or perhaps in large circles of churches or organizations, we are all leaders whose responsibilities include loving someone enough to say and do the hard things in his/her life.

Even as I write this, there is a part of me that wants to enable your addiction to approval ratings by saying something like: “in the end, that person will love and appreciate you all the more for speaking truth to them.” But that’s not necessarily true. That person may or may not ever appreciate it. But he/she will be better for having heard it from you. And that person will have seen a leader walking in lock-step with God, who is all truth all the time. And that matters a great deal more than that person’s approval of you.

Bottom line here: we can seek first the approval of men or we can seek first the fellowship of God, but we cannot do both. Lead well, my friends.

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