We all like and long for approval. We desire affirmation. We want to be liked. We want the thumbs up of approval and the back slap of affirmation. We want to hear “good job” after a presentation, an “I’m impressed” after a house project, and a “you’re a great parent” from our parents when they observe our skills with our children.
I think frequently about the little boy who asked his dad, “Can we play darts? I’ll throw. And you say, ‘Great shot!'” That’s so like most of our own inner “I wannas.”
There is (generally) nothing wrong with receiving affirmation. Certainly we should be the kind of people who encourage and build up others with our words.
But the yearning for approval and affirmation can be dangerous, as Jesus demonstrated when he spoke of the spiritual blindness and unbelief of the crowds that were attracted to Him after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, on the week of His crucifixion (Jn. 12:34-43). The masses had been blinded in unbelief, as had the people in the day of Isaiah also had been (Jn. 12:40-41; see also Is. 6:9-10).
After recounting the unbelief of so many, John offers another observation and then an explanation:
“Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him…” (Jn. 12:42a)
Despite the rejection of the crowd, people were believing. And not just “people,” but rulers — leaders. In fact, the term “rulers” was often used of the Sanhedrin, the highest ruling court in Israel at the time. So numerous members — “many” according to John — of that court were believing in Jesus. We even know of two of them who believed by name: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. There were evidently even more than those two, however.
Yet we don’t know anything more about them. Why? John explains:
“…but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.” (Jn. 12:42b-43)
We don’t know anything more about them because their belief was cowardly. Like the seed of the gospel that was cast among thorns and choked out by the pressure of the world (Mt. 13:7, 21), these who gave appearance of belief were far more concerned about gaining worldly approval and affirmation than godly approval.
John says it even more boldly than the translation above indicates: “for they loved the glory of men more than even the glory of God.” They rather had glory from men than glory from God. They delighted more in what they believed men could give than they delighted in what God would give. They wanted to delight in and reveal the “exalted status” of men and weren’t interested in delighting in or revealing to others the glories of God. They didn’t want to lose social (and religious and political) standing; so they rejected the Creator for the “joys” of the created (not unlike Paul’s condemnation of the ungodly in Rom. 1:20-21).
That’s a bad trade.
Though they believed that Jesus was the Messiah, these educated, “wise,” well-respected men refused to confess Jesus as the Messiah because they wanted the glory and adulation of mankind rather than the glory that comes from God.
It gets even worse. Assuming that these rulers were indeed part of the Sanhedrin, though many of them believed, according to v. 42, at the trial of Jesus on the night of his betrayal (just 2-3 days later!), they unanimously convicted him and sent Him over to be crucified (Mk. 14:55, 64; Lk. 22:70-71). Believing, they did not believe. They rejected him for the sake of standing before men and the approval and affirmation of men.
This is the bad end of the desire for approval and affirmation: it will culminate in unbelief. Perhaps not every desire for approval will end this extremely; but it will never ultimately give what it promises. And the yearning for men’s applause will always ultimately lead us away from Christ. This is invariably the way our desire for approval and affirmation goes so wrong.
So be the kind of person who gives affirmation and encouragement in wise ways to those who need those kind words (e.g., Eph. 4:29-32). Be the kind of person who receives affirmation and compliments with grace and an appropriate recognition of God’s work in and through your life. And always be wary of chasing and soliciting the adulation of others — the passionate pursuit of that acclimation inherently will draw your heart away from the desire of pleasing God and delighting in Him and His glory.
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